The Philadelphia 76ers had to do all they could to move Ben Simmons during the 2021-2022 NBA season. As Simmons refused to play without a trade, the Sixers had a significant hole on the roster and a massive distraction in their locker room during practices and shootarounds.
It took a while, but eventually, the 76ers struck a trade with the Brooklyn Nets to move Simmons, draft picks, and other prospects to land Daryl Morey’s dream trade target of James Harden.
At the time, Harden had a quick window to opt into his player option for the upcoming 2022-2023 season, but it didn’t get done. While that left some skeptical about Harden’s future in Philadelphia, he assured everybody before making his Sixers debut that he intended to be in Philly for the next season.
After the Sixers lost to the Miami Heat in the playoffs, Harden once again made it clear he’d be back. For a while, it seemed inevitable that Harden would pick up his nearly $50 million option and potentially sign a short-term deal this summer, but the star guard went in a different direction.
Harden would decline his player option for next year, a move that helped the Sixers sign other key prospects in free agency. Once the critical phase of free agency passed, Harden and the Sixers finally agreed on a team-friendly deal, which gives Harden flexibility for his future.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Harden signed a two-year contract worth $68 million earlier this week. The second season has a player option attached.
Going into the offseason, there was speculation that the Sixers might offer Harden a contract in the ballpark of a max deal — if not one. Instead, they could get the ten-time All-Star back on a team-friendly contract, as Harden wanted to leave space so the front office could add depth to help the team on its quest to win a championship.
While the max deal talks never came to life, NBA reporter Marc Stein reports that people around the league suspect that Harden might have a big contract coming his way in the future to honor what he did during the 2022 offseason.
“There is a suspicion in some corners of the league that Harden had to have consented to this arrangement because he also secured a wink-wink guarantee about the future — meaning a promise from Morey that would allow Harden to recoup what he left on the table this offseason by declining the player option for next season in his new Sixers deal and then signing a whopper of a five-year deal in the summer of 2023 at almost 34. Such speculation is inevitable given how close Morey and Harden clearly are, but I’ve also heard plenty around the league question whether the Sixers, beyond the fact that these types of arrangements are against league rules, could actually bring themselves to give Harden any assurances.”
The Sixers have been under a microscope since Daryl Morey took over the front office. As Philadelphia had its sights set on Harden back when he was a disgruntled member of the Houston Rockets, Morey was fined for an automated tweet regarding Harden as it was viewed as tampering.
Then when the Sixers were finally on the road to officially landing Harden a year later, many wanted to see the 76ers get investigated for tampering again.
Fast forward to the 2022 offseason, and now the 76ers are expected to face a possible punishment for tampering after signing P.J. Tucker to a three-year deal in the opening minutes of free agency. Now, they are being accused of having a “wink-wink” deal in place with Harden.
It would be difficult for anybody to prove that’s truly the case, but as long as Harden remains on a Daryl Morey-controlled roster, league personnel will likely remain suspicious about how roster moves are being handled.
Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for All76ers, a Sports Illustrated channel. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.