Why James Harden's team-friendly two-year contract is ideal for the 76ers and makes sense for him too

Mere minutes after the Philadelphia 76ers were vanquished by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, James Harden was asked a simple question by a reporter: Would Harden, a pending free agent, take a pay cut in the short-term in order to help the Sixers build out the rest of the roster around Harden and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid?

Harden answered the question diplomatically at the time, giving the following response: "I'll be here. [I'll do] whatever it takes to help this team continue to grow, and put us up there with the best of them. We're trying to win a championship. That's the goal. Whatever that looks like."   

Harden's comments sounded good at the time, but there were many who were skeptical that he would actually follow through with them. As we know now, though, Harden indeed lived up to his word by declining his $47 million dollar player option for the 2022-23 season and instead agreeing to a new two-year deal that will pay him $32 million next season and includes a player option for the second season.

By shaving $15 million off the amount owed to him next season, Harden, 32, created financial flexibility for the Sixers this summer -- flexibility that the team used to bolster the roster with additions like P.J. Tucker and Danuel House.

Such signings wouldn't have been possible without Harden leaving some bread on the table. Plus, the organization was able to retain Harden while it simultaneously avoided making a long-term commitment to an aging player. For those reasons alone, Harden's new deal should be considered a major victory for Philadelphia. 

Given his performance during the postseason -- 18.6 points, 10.5 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game  -- the Sixers likely had some reservations regarding Harden's long-term outlook as an impactful player. Those reservations are shared by a plethora of pundits and a lot of fans. 

The former league MVP is clearly still extremely effective as a playmaker and a floor-spacer. His sheer presence out on the floor commands the attention of defenses in a way none of Embiid's previous teammates has. However, he didn't appear to be the same lethal scorer that he once was when he was a perennial MVP candidate as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Harden was never necessarily an athletic high-flyer, but he looked occasionally sluggish during his first season with the Sixers, and at times he displayed a noticeable lack of burst. He had a tough time blowing past defenders on the perimeter, and a similarly tough time finishing over defenders around the rim. Without that burst as an offensive attacker that he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his point production.  

If the Sixers had signed Harden to a massive four or five-year extension, there's a real chance that such a deal could become a liability on the back end. Overcommitting to a player with a [potentially] diminishing skill set could prove very costly, as it could hamstring the team's ability to improve in the future. The team hedged against that by signing Harden to a 1+1 deal, which will offer an extended opportunity to see how he looks physically after an entire offseason of training

It should help the team get a better gauge of just how much premium gas Harden has left in the proverbial tank. Remember, he was dealing with the hamstring injury that he suffered as a member of the Brooklyn Nets throughout last offseason, so he admittedly didn't get as much of an opportunity to train at a high level as he would have liked and that may have impacted his performance.

"I've been trying to get right through the course of a basketball season for two years straight," Harden said in May. "And it's like, that's not it. You know what I mean? All last summer I was rehabbing. It was a little frustrating because I'm not used to going through something like that, but it is what it is. I'm just happy to be healthy now. I've got a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year."