The Athletic’s Sam Amick caused a bit of a stir on Clippers twitter today when he casually name-dropped LA as a potential landing spot for Brooklyn Nets star James Harden. Notice the word casually in that sentence, and the quotes around “rumor” in the headline. Take a look at the phrasing Amick used, in the context of an article about James Harden’s future with a central thesis of “nobody knows what’s gonna happen”:
I know the Nets continue to publicly claim that the level of Harden’s discontent is overblown, and I know that the Sixers — whose front office is run by the guy with more Harden history than any other executive in former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — truly believe that Harden is heading elsewhere this summer.– Sam Amick, The Athletic
It could be Philly, or the Clippers, or some other place where he doesn’t have to wonder if Kyrie Irving is playing that night or if his well-chronicled style of play will be pegged as a problem whenever times are tough.
That’s… not a whole ton. There’s no other mention of the Clippers in the article. Is LA special because Amick has reason to believe Harden is interested? Are they just the most logical superteam landing spot for James? Is he just throwing something out there? After all, following up with “or some other place” doesn’t exactly inspire a high level of confidence that he’s really trying to tell us something concrete here about LAC as a landing spot for Harden.
Now, it’s not a whole ton, but it’s also definitely not nothing. Sometimes I hear very silly things and have to tell Clippers fans “hey, I love you guys, but this is very silly.” The prospect of James Harden becoming a Clipper this summer might not be likely, and I’m certainly not counting the above passage from Amick as evidence to suggest it is… but it’s possible. Harden has a player option for next season worth $46.9M, or he can enter unrestricted free agency and sign a new deal worth a bajillion dollars.
I’m going to try to not spill a ton of (digital) ink on this until something more real happens (this is really a conversation for May and June, after the Clippers and Nets are both eliminated), but let’s just quickly recap some details of how maximum salary deals in the NBA work:
- Players with 10+ years of experience (like Harden) can sign a contract starting at 35% of the salary cap.
- Using bird rights, that deal can run for 5 years with 8% annual raises.
- Without bird rights, the deal can only run for 4 years with 5% annual raises.
- Players do not get to carry the bird rights perks (extra year/bigger raises) with them in sign-and-trade transactions to a new team.
Now, the Clippers do not have the assets to make a competitive offer for James Harden this week at the NBA trade deadline. By all accounts, the Nets are rebuffing offers from the Sixers with Ben Simmons–a player who, despite his struggles and controversies, is only 25 with three All-Star selections and an All-NBA selection under his belt. If Brooklyn decides to deal Harden while they still have the choice, the Clippers aren’t in the conversation.
But once the Nets are eliminated (or if they win the title this year, I guess), the power shifts entirely into Harden’s court. If he wants to leave, not only will he be able to do so, but he will be able to control his own destination (to an extent). If the team he wants to go to has cap room, he can just walk outright in a nightmare scenario. If they don’t, he can orchestrate a sign-and-trade to land there–but he probably wouldn’t, for two reasons. First of all, acquiring a signed-and-traded player is one of the actions that triggers the hard cap for NBA teams, and contenders looking to add another guy with a salary over $40M are going to struggle to accomodate that (the Clippers could, but there wouldn’t be a ton of guys left on the team besides James, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard when they were done). Second, as I noted above, Harden would have to settle for a smaller contract, without the 5th season or higher raises. For stars aging into their 30s, that 5th year makes a massive difference, as it’s extremely unlikely that Harden will recoup that ~$60M when he hits free agency again in 2026 just weeks before his 37th birthday.
So, if James wants to leave the Nets (if he decides to stay, he should opt out and sign the new 5-year bird rights deal with them), we probably wouldn’t see a traditional sign-and-trade but rather see him take a page out of former teammate and former Clipper Chris Paul’s book: the opt-in-and-trade, which would allow Harden’s new team to avoid being hard capped by his acquisition (because they are simply trading for an existing deal instead of acquiring a new S&T deal) and allow him to get the full-bird-mega-super-duper-max from his new team next off-season instead of taking the paycut associated with the non-bird-normal-super-max he would get if he switched teams this summer.
Okay, back to my promise to not spill too much ink on something that isn’t relevant during deadline week–the point here is that if the Clippers have a shot at getting Harden, it would be because he has decided to leave Brooklyn and recognizes that an opt-in-and-trade is his best way to maximize his long-term earnings (though you wouldn’t blame him for wanting to lock in 4 more years now instead of gamble) and has either named the Clippers as his desired destination or put them on a list of desired destinations, giving Brooklyn the ultimatum Chris Paul gave LAC in June of 2017: “if you make a deal with the Clippers, I’ll opt in and you’ll get their package back. If you don’t, I’ll opt out and walk.”
From there, the Clippers just have to make the money work. If Harden picks up his option, the outgoing salary package would need to be at least $35M ($37.5 if he opts in and they wait to execute the trade until the new salary cap year in July), which is a hefty price but not really that difficult for the Clippers to get to when you consider their overflow of depth right now:
Lose Morris? Re-sign Batum and Covington to be the PF duo. Lose Jackson or Powell? Harden is coming in to start at PG anyway. Lose Kennard? Amir and Mann can be the backup wings. Lose Zubac? Re-sign Ibaka and Hartenstein as the C duo. The Clippers have the depth to withstand losing three significant rotation players, and Brooklyn, quite frankly, is in sore need of quality NBA depth. It certainly wouldn’t fully make up for losing Harden, but adding three good players would be a really strong incentive for Brooklyn to play ball instead of attempting to call James’ bluff and let him enter free agency.
All in all, the current status of the Harden-to-LAC conversation still seems speculative, with no concrete grounding in verified, reputable reporting (Amick is reputable, but this isn’t him reporting something). But as far as speculative hypotheticals go, there’s a lot of reasons pointing to this one being plausible.