Today, I want to talk about the Sixers, James Harden and Joel Embiid. Once again, the Sixers lost in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs to the Miami Heat notwithstanding their acquisition of James Harden in February. If you want to be a Sixers’ apologist, you can write this playoff exit off on an injury suffered by Embiid in the final game of the first round of the playoffs; he missed the first two games of series with the Heat and played after that with a “broken face”. That discussion would not be particularly interesting to me because I think the more interesting point here is the future of the Sixers with or without James Harden.
You may recall that I was skeptical about the value of this trade from the Sixers’ point of view at the time of the transaction. Here is the link to my rant at that time. Much of what I wrote then has come to pass.
Now, comes the kicker – – Harden’s contract. Technically, the contract will be up when the NBA playoffs end but Harden has a player option for one more year at $47M per year. So, the NBA future for James Harden boils down to three possibilities:
- He exercises his player’s option and is part of the Sixers’ team next season making $47M.
- He and the Sixers agree to a long-term “super-max deal” which according to the terms of the current CBA would be something like 5 years and a total of $275M.
- He does not exercise his player’s option and puts himself out on the open free agent market seeking to find the best deal available to him.
I did not like the deal that brought Harden to the Sixers in the first place; the team is now in a situation where they can make it a lot worse if they choose to do so. The way for the team to “make it a lot worse” is to achieve Option 2 above. James Harden will be 33 years old before the next NBA season begins; he is not a “great athlete” and never was; his career arc is peaked at best if not already on the downslope. If the Sixers sign him to anything like the “super-max deal” – or even any sort of lower priced 5-year deal – they will come to regret that choice. In Wall Street terms, James Harden is a wasting asset.
Do not mistake what I have been saying here; James Harden is still a good player and potentially a significant contributor in the NBA. He is not worth, however, $50M even for one year and he will not be worth even half of that number 5 years from now.
The optimal outcome for the Sixers would probably be for Harden to exercise that player’s option such that the team can try to get a full season of “the best of what is left of James Harden” and then part with him saying “Vaya con Dios” as he moves on to whatever future endeavors are there for him. There is something standing in the way for that to happen because, for that to happen, Harden and the Sixers will have to have unproductive and potentially oppositional negotiations for a “super-max deal” and those sorts of talks do not usually play out well in the future. To use a phrase from the old Laurel and Hardy films, this is “another fine mess” that needs to be sorted out.
And what of Joel Embiid in all of this? As a viewer of NBA games, I see Joel Embiid at a very different place on the players’ spectrum than James Harden. Harden is an offensive player; he can score, and he can assist others in their scoring; meanwhile, Harden is a liability on defense. I do not read minds so I do not know if he cannot play defense or if he will not play defense. That is a procedural distinction if you want to make it; the outcome after one determines which route is correct is the same; James Harden plays no defense and gives up points aplenty.
Joel Embiid can score too; he averaged 29.8 points per game this season. Embiid also rebounds and is a good shot blocker on defense; he is not particularly adept at assisting teammates. Last season was his best year in terms of assists where he averaged 4.2 assists per game. Embiid is only 28 years old; barring injury, he has plenty of future in the NBA ahead of him; last season, he was a serious candidate for league MVP. Joel Embiid is a “foundation piece” for an NBA franchise but to be in a serious position to play for a league championship, a single outstanding player is not enough.
On the surface, it would appear as if the Sixers tried to get Embiid a “star player” as his running buddy when they traded for Harden. If you look only at Harden’s historical offensive numbers, that was a decent gamble. But now there is reality to face, and the reality is that Joel Embiid is still in a “go-it-alone” situation in a league where teams seek to build a “Big Three” on their roster.
So, let me amend the three options above where I said that the worst Sixers option would be to sign James Harden to a “super-max deal”. There is a happenstance that is worse:
- The Sixers sign Harden to a “super-max deal” and then…
- Joel Embiid realizes that he is not going to sniff a championship on a team that has assigned all that cap space to James Harden and Embiid finagles his way out of Philly.
Before any Sixers’ fans accuse me of being Chicken Little here, let me just say two words here:
- Charles … Barkley.
Finally, let me close today with a comment from humorist Brad Dickson formerly with the Omaha World-News:
“The world’s oldest person has died at age 119. You know, I’m starting to feel like the title is cursed.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………