Harden or Not, Sixers Lack Offseason Direction


Shortly before the playoffs began, the message was clear for the Sixers: no more excuses.

Philly’s playoff shortcomings remain well-documented with MVP Joel Embiid at the helm. For the sixth-straight time, the Sixers finished above-.500 and clinched a spot in the postseason. But, also for the sixth-straight time, the Sixers missed out on the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Sixers entered this season with Embiid’s breakout potential looming, James Harden fully healthy and a vastly improved supporting cast. But even with Embiid’s MVP campaign and Harden on the team, the Sixers’ postseason blunders never vanished. Up 3-2 against Boston, Philly failed to close out in Game 6 at home, then dealt with a lackluster 112-88 loss in Game 7. In total, that totals to the following numbers between 2018 and last season: six-straight playoff appearances, 32-29 in the postseason overall and zero Conference Finals nods.

Now comes the tricky part: what’s next? At this point, is there even a “what’s next?”

Harden exercised his $35.6 million player option for next season on the agreement that the relationship between he and the organization is damaged. Understandably, there’s a lot to unpack from both parties.

At the same time, Harden’s sudden demand out from Philly is just scratching the surface of the team’s many problems. Can the Sixers bring in another second star to complement Embiid? Does Philly stand pat, setting their eyes on a more-productive offseason next year? Is Embiid even on this team in the next two years?

It is said that one should never “hit the panic button.”

But, at a certain point, there comes a time. With coach Doc Rivers gone, Harden soon to follow and no clear avenue of improvement for next season, Philly faces a consequential next few steps here.

What’s the deal with Harden?

Simply put, the disconnect between Team Harden and Team Sixers Management stems over the former’s next contract.

If you recall, Philly underwent a productive offseason to add notable bench pieces like P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and De’Anthony Melton. The goal proved to try and surround the Embiid-Harden pairing with as much shooting and defensive versatility as possible. On paper, it clearly worked based on Embiid’s MVP year and the construction of last season’s team.

Adding those players during last summer’s offseason could be done because of Harden’s decision to take a roughly $14 million pay cut. The idea from Harden’s perspective: help the team in the immediate, then be rewarded with a longer-term contract this summer.

Unfortunately for Harden, that plan looks to be mute. From the Sixers’ side, locking an aging guard in to a multi-year deal at near max money. Harden, entering his age-34 season next year, wanted a guaranteed deal. Philly, on the other hand, was willing to let things play out.

Harden’s leverage plummeted due to the lack of a market, whether via trade (like what happened with Phoenix and Bradley Beal) or free agency (no cap space teams were seriously interested by July 1, including Houston).

Philly originally faced the dreaded trap of either committing long-term to an aging star in Harden or lose him for nothing. Both options are now clearly off the table. The Sixers can now trade Harden for a return of some kind in hopes of retooling the team around Embiid.


Sixers staying pat?

Take a look at Philly’s offseason recap so far. What’s the deal? As of Monday, the Sixers’ offseason came and went with no signs of any improvement for next season.

Rotation-level guard Patrick Beverley, entering his age-35 season, remains Philly’s notable only offseason so far. Not a good look for the Embiid tenure moving forward, especially after losing other rotational pieces like Georges Niang and Jalen McDaniels to other teams this summer.

The counter: maybe Philly could make a bigger play down the road, even if it isn’t this season.

On paper, that looks to be true. Philly isn’t looking to give an early contract extension to Tyrese Maxey. It looks like the Sixers are hoping to have true financial flexibility next summer, especially with Tobias Harris‘ deal expiring also.

Philly could enter the 2024 offseason with as much as $77 million in cap space. Of course, you’d imagine the team would want Maxey and Harris back on deals. Regardless, the Sixers could hope to land a big fish next summer.

But, what’s the point of wasting another year of Embiid’s prime? Championship windows come and go. As a team with a superstar, it’s essential to keep that window open as long as possible.

Embiid will be entering his age-30 season by next summer. Given the age and fragile health bill, standing pat in hopes of “waiting” for next year would be a consequential mistake for the Sixers.

Philly entered the offseason at +1300 to win the 2024 NBA championship, good for the seventh-best odds overall and third-best in the East behind Boston and Milwaukee. Fast forward to this point in time, the Sixers now sit at +1700.

The frustrating part for Philly is that this was a pretty decent year to get to at least the Conference Finals. The East’s top two teams by record, Milwaukee, and Boston, still face an assortment of questions heading into next season. Miami, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, is holding out hope for a Damian Lillard trade. The next tier of teams, like Cleveland and New York, are nowhere as close to making the NBA Finals as the other aforementioned teams.

Where the Sixers go from here is a mystery and then some. Even if the return in a Harden trade is shockingly good, it’s still an uphill climb for Philly’s title chances. How long will it be until the Sixers realized this iteration of the franchise reached its postseason ceiling? Is it time to move on from Embiid and hit the reset button? At a certain point, after all, you are what you are.

Or, do you hold out hope? After all, it only takes one lucky break to make some noise in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, whether through self-inflicting, fate, or misfortune, the Sixers never found their stride under Embiid after all this time.

And now, it could be the end.

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About Dominic Chiappone

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