Sixers offseason primer, Part II: James Harden’s ups and downs, Doc Rivers’ future and more

the Philadelphia 76ers front office doesn’t have much flexibility this offseason. Think about that in terms of players, picks and cap space.

Outside of the top four players, who has the most trade value? That’s probably Matisse Thybulle, although he is in the last year of his rookie deal and cratered in the playoffs. The final game of the season saw a reasonable $10 million player (Danny Green), one who also could be traded, turn into a player with a long injury rehab ahead of him.

looking at the top four, Tyrese Maxey excellent this season, so it would take an incredible return to move him. Tobias Harris is the most ideal trade piece, but at two years and $77 million still owed to him, has his contract become more palatable around the league? Moving Harris for more complementary depth feels like an avenue the Sixers should explore. And then there is James Hardenwho we’ll get to in a moment.

As far as picks are concerned, the Sixers are already out three first-rounders in the upcoming years. My guess is that Brooklyn will give no. 23 to the Sixers to dangle the theoretical upside of the 2023 pick in trades. We will find out their decision on that pick by June 1. Then, there is the lightly protected pick to Oklahoma City in 2025 followed by the top-8 protected pick to Brooklyn in 2027.

Cap space? Even if you remove Green’s salary, the Sixers are about $20 million over the cap committed to 11 players. That calculus assumes that Harden picks up his $47 million player option, which might not be the case. In summary, Daryl Morey’s starting point for this offseason is not what you would call one of strength. It’s a far cry from the situation that Bryan Colangelo inherited in 2016 when the Sixers had young players, a war chest of assets and flexible books.

Hard looms over everything

We have buried the lede for too long here. Joel Embid has stated that the Sixers didn’t get the Houston version of Harden, specifically in terms of volume scoring. This is true. Harden’s usage rate was above 30 percent from 2014 to 2020 and now it’s down to 24.9 percent (and 23.7 percent in the playoffs) with the Sixers.

In the past, the question might have been: “Can Harden and Embiid co-exist?” That has been answered. Now, with the lack of one-on-one burst that Harden showed since the trade, it’s: “Can Harden pull his weight?”

It’s worth noting that the highs with Harden were still present. He’s still an incredible playmaker who had instant synergy with Embiid. When Harden is on his game, he can still transform an offense in a way that few players who were available for Ben Simmons can. Harden finished with 22 points and 15 assists in a closeout game against a stiff Toronto defense and dropped 31 points in Game 4 against Miami.

As Morey noted, the four-man group of Harden-Maxey-Harris-Embiid rolled through the league (plus-17.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass). That formula works.

At this point, the Sixers are past throwing parades for the best five-man unit in the regular season. That might have been fashionable in 2017-18 but this group is judged by the playoffs. And for Harden specifically, the lows were quite low.

When we talk about Miami breaking the Sixers’ spirit, it’s impossible not to focus on Harden. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with the Sixers’ season on the line, Harden was deferring to Shake Milton in the second half at the beginning of possessions. This wasn’t Miami putting two players on the ball as we saw at the beginning of the series, either (in fact, they went to a more traditional coverage in the final two games). For Harden to not have the physical burst is one thing, but that does not tell the entire story of how his series ended.

Of course, the lack of burst is something the Sixers have to weigh. After the season ended, Morey listed a bunch of contextual reasons as to why Harden could be “unlocked” (more time to gel, new players, time to rest). Perhaps there is some truth to that, but Morey knows better than anyone that Harden at his best is all the context that a team needs.

In Houston, Morey mostly gave him a rim runner and three one-dimensional catch-and-shoot players and, voila, an elite offense. That was far from the case in Philly and it’s hard to plan for a return to past normalcy with a player who turns 33 in August.

Is there a compromise contract for Harden?

Morey and Harden both said that Harden will be back next season, although the details of such a return are going to be critical. Harden has a player option for $47 million or there could be a negotiation for less money than his maximum extension.

The framework of the ChrisPaul contract (four years and $120 million, although some of that money is non-guaranteed for Paul) has been suggested in media circles, which would both pay Harden a lot of money but also save the Sixers quite a bit while providing some more wiggle room to tinker with the rest of the roster.

We have time to discuss Harden and the Sixers’ next steps later.

Rivers’ place in all of this is complicated

Coach Doc Rivers talks a lot about how he was tasked with changing the culture in Philadelphia, and how he believes the Sixers are making progress. That is overstated. Rivers came to Philadelphia after one disastrous season required the Sixers to clean house, but there were enough pieces left that made a quick turnaround doable.

Rivers does himself no favors with his public comments. Trust me, I have been on the other end of a few of them. Even so, it’s easy to lose sight of what the Simmons situation did to the Sixers. They had $30 million hanging out on the sidelines (and not even in green lambskin suits!) for two-thirds of the season and the Sixers still managed to achieve a top 4 seed in an improved conference. Embiid deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that accomplishment, but looking at the regular-season results, the Sixers are not underperforming under Rivers.

This season was ultimately more about surviving a toxic situation than building something sustainable, although Rivers can still improve in the latter department. Here is an example: Handing DeAndre Jordan the backup center job for the entire last third of the season was a complete failure. Every piece of evidence pointed to playing Jordan as a waste of time. Bypassing younger players (including Paul Reed, who the Sixers settled on for the playoffs) was an unforced error. Those things can’t happen anymore.

I don’t know if Rivers is “the right coach” in Philadelphia. If he were somehow to move on to Los Angeles, he feels eminently replaceable. Look at this year’s playoffs, though: Embiid was hurt, Harden was slow, Maxey was inexperienced and the depth was nonexistent. The Sixers are saying that Rivers will be back next season, and ultimately, I believe that fixing those other areas will have a greater impact than changing the coach.

Maxey’s season is a game changer

Besides Embiid’s continued brilliance, the Sixers needed something more for a chance at upward mobility. Philly got it with the 21st pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Maxey was up and down in this season’s playoffs. The Miami series showed that he has to be more consistent. Entering the regular season, I wondered if asking a 21-year-old to run the point and play winning basketball was too much. Maxey continues to answer those questions and raise the bar.

After years of finding players who don’t shoot or forgot how to shoot, Maxey went the other way. The highs that Maxey reached make him a core piece, but he needs to develop his craft to become an “every-down” type of pick-and-roll guard. That means shooting with volume off the dribble and leveraging the threat of that shot to open his playmaking options.

The good news for the Sixers is that he’s probably shooting in a gym somewhere right now.

Keep taking swings

That is what Rivers alluded to at the top of this piece. If the Sixers had a fringe superstar, a top 15 player leading the rest of this unbalanced roster, I would probably feel differently. But with Embiid, the best path forward is to keep taking swings with a roster built around him.

After a healthy regular season, Embiid’s injuries in the playoffs were due to awful luck. As much as the injuries impacted his playoffs, they’re unpreventable from happening again in the future. Looking back to the 2020 and ’21 offseasons, there was despair after brutal postseason exits. The Sixers rebounded and had strong regular seasons but broke their fans’ hearts in the playoffs yet again.

As long as Embiid is committed to the franchise, the Sixers need to put themselves in the best position to win it all every season.

(Photo of Doc Rivers, James Harden and Joel Embiid: Adam Hunger / Getty Images)

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