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Tobias Harris a cautionary tale in Harden decision for Philadelphia 76ers

There was another time when the Philadelphia 76ers  had to decide whether to pay a lot of money to a player who might not perform up to that level, or risk losing him. Tobias Harris ended up making more money than any other Sixer for the past three years due to that decision.

The contract situation with James Harden is eerily similar to the circumstances involving Tobias Harris in the summer of 2019. The Sixers ‘management‘ at the time went all-in, on the 6-foot-8 forward, and awarded him a five-year, $180 million contract.

The contract has been a millstone around the neck of the Sixers’ salary cap ever since it was signed. Harris was the team’s fourth-option on offense this past season, but its highest-paid player at $37.6 million, more than Harden or Joel Embiid.

Harris gets $39.2 million next season, in the final year of his deal. Because of that large sum, even if Harden does leave, the Sixers are still over the salary cap, and can not sign a big-name free agent to replace Harden.

Why was Tobias Harris signed for so much cap-killing money by the Philadelphia 76ers?

If you remember, 2019 was the season of the ‘four-bounce’ Kawhi Leonard shot that knocked the Sixers out in Game 7 of the East semifinals.

Harris, and later Jimmy Butler, had been brought in by general manager Elton Brand during the season to make a title run.

Cap-wise, the Sixers could not retain both Butler and Harris. When Butler left for Miami (which we knew at the time was a big mistake on his part, as the Sixers would be doing so much better in the playoffs than the Heat in the future), if the Sixers then lost Harris, all of the players and valuable draft capital spent to get them would have been a waste.

Harris, and his smart agent-father, knew how terrible it will look if Harris also went to another team, and drove a hard bargain. The Sixers three blind mice running things, agreed to the huge contract, and that is where we are now.

Harris has been a good player for the Sixers, even having a borderline All-Star season in 2021, but he has not been worth the money being spent on him. But the Sixers worried about optics (and maybe retaining season-ticket holders) rather than looking at the long-term implications.

There are similarities between Harden and Harris situations

To keep James Harden, the Sixers will probably have to pay him more than he is worth, value-wise, much like the Tobias Harris situation in 2019.

Now, there are some differences:

  • Harris was entering the prime of his career at 27, Harden is on the downside as he is soon to turn 34, and it is not like he keeps himself in great shape.
  • The Sixers thought with young players like Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Harris, they would be contenders for years. Harden returning is just treading water on what they have now. Outside of Tyrese Maxey, the Sixers have no promising, young players.
  • There is no either/or in this situation like it was with Butler vs. Harris. With its limited cap space (thanks to the Harris deal), whether Harden goes or he stays, does not affect the other players on the current roster.

Harden stays with the Philadelphia 76ers if they do one thing

We know what James Harden would like: a max deal with $211 million for four years. The question for President Daryl Morey and owner Josh Harris will be if he is worth that.

If they give Harden a max deal, he will undoubtedly stay, anything less and then it gets fuzzy. Assuming he declines his option, Harden will be a free agent, he can sign with anyone. What the market would be for a 34-year-old who demands to be the focus of the offense, is not good on defense but just led the league in assists, is the conundrum that Morey and Josh Harris have.

The options are obvious:

  1. Be in complete panic mode that they will look bad if Harden walks for nothing, and with no replacement in sight. Like the Sixers in 2019 (and remember that the owner and, in a much smaller role, current general manager Elton Brand were there at the time), they could simply cave and give Harden what he wants, and worry about what happens three years down the road later on.
  2. Play a dangerous waiting game, see if this Houston interest is real, and if anyone else in the NBA bites. You might get him to agree to a shorter contract, like two years, or less money _ but you could also see him walk away for nothing.


That Tobias Harris is a fine player is not questioned. He is a good locker room game and has, honestly, shown more flexibility in his game than he ever showed when he received the big contract.

(It also should be noted that while Embiid and Harden were falling apart in Game 7 against Boston, Harris led the team with 19 points on efficient 7-for-13 shooting)

But a huge contract is not Harris’ level. Yes, it saved the 2019 management from embarrassment at the time, but it has been shown he is not a needle mover, as the Sixers are still in a second-round elimination rut.

Will the Sixers remember that lesson, or cave to do the expedient, and easy, thing and sign Harden to a big contract, and congratulate themselves for putting, once again, a millstone around the neck of their future salary cap?

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