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What James Harden’s trade desire means for Joel Embiid, 76ers’ title hopes

Harden wants out, but Philadelphia still believes it can contend for a championship.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers
James Harden and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers look on against the Toronto Raptors at the Wells Fargo Center on March 31, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defeated the Raptors 117-110.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

One of the biggest dominoes ahead of 2023 free agency in the NBA began to tip over Thursday. Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden, who was acquired by president of basketball operations Daryl Morey in an effort to pair Joel Embiid with a high-level offensive threat on the perimeter, opted into his player option for the 2023-24 season. However, this action was done so Harden could find a trade out of Philadelphia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Harden is believed to have played his last game for the Sixers.

The Clippers, Knicks and Rockets are likely to be engaging with the 76ers in trade discussions, but Philadelphia is in a unique position where it believes it can contend for a championship next season even without Harden. Embiid just won the regular season MVP award and eventually, he’s going to stay healthy for a full postseason. Harden was a great partner for Embiid but he did disappear in playoff games this season, in particular Game 7 against the Celtics. As much as Morey loves Harden, even he has to concede the guard’s playoff track record is not great.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the 76ers are +1300 to win the 2023-24 championship. That number has not moved from the initial line when the odds were first released, so clearly Embiid holds much more weight than Harden when it comes to Philadelphia’s title hopes.

This does complicate a Harden trade for several reasons. Usually, a team is willing to part with some young players and draft picks for a star. The 76ers don’t necessarily want that, unless the young players are ready to play in high-stakes playoff games. That limits the market for Harden and the 76ers, which makes getting fair value for the guard. There’s also Harden’s own desires. He likely doesn’t want to end up in a rebuilding situation, even though Houston might be an exception. Is there a contender out there who can improve with Harden on the roster while also sending back competent pieces to Philadelphia?

The 76ers also have Tobias Harris’ expiring contract to navigate. They likely won’t be able to package Harden and Harris in a deal. Embiid and Tyrese Maxey could be the cornerstones of the franchise for the next five years, and the cap sheet looks much cleaner after this year for Morey to go to work. The 76ers might opt for a quick patch this season and hope for some breaks, but ultimately Harden will have to be dealt before he actually does hit free agency next summer.

Embiid will turn 30 during the season, which means he’s going to slowly start dropping off in subsequent seasons even if his health holds up. Maxey’s improvement should balance that out to some degree, but Philly is going to need better pieces around Embiid as he ages. That’s the third part of a Harden deal that will need to be explored. Is there a package which helps the Sixers now but also gives them some assets to add talent down the road?

We’ll eventually see how this plays out. The one benefit for Philadelphia is time. Harden could start off the season with the team and get hot, which might calm the waters a bit on his trade demand. Alternatively, he could become a malcontent like he was in Houston before the Rockets finally conceded and dealt him. It’s about to be an interesting summer in Philadelphia.