According to mutliple reports (Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Shams Charania of The Athletic, and Chris Haynes of TNT were all within minutes of each other), James Harden is picking up his player option for the 2023-24 season so that he can be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers, with the Clippers the apparent frontrunners in pursuit of the All-Star guard. Harden is a 5-time All-NBA 1st team guard and a 10-time All-Star selection, though he earned neither accolate for the 2022-23 season and will turn 34 years old in August.

Known during his time in Houston as the cheap-foul-drawing scoring leader who repeatedly challenged and could not overcome the dynastic Golden State Warriors, Harden has settled into more of an orchestrator role alongside Kevin Durant in Brooklyn and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia in recent years. After averaging 29.6 points and 7.7 assists during his 8-year stretch as Houston’s best player, he’s averaged 22.3 points and 10.5 assists as a floor general costar in recent years. While he gets downhill less than in his prime, Harden still drew 6.2 free throw attempts per game last season, more than any Clipper. In addition to giving the Clippers the best pick-and-roll ballhandler since Chris Paul, Harden is also a strong shooter who can take and make high-difficulty threes (contested, step-backs, etc.) to keep defenses honest against Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

James has one year worth $35.6M remaining on his contract–a 2-year deal that he signed with Philadelphia last summer. He is not eligible for an extension because the original contract was so short, meaning that he will become an unrestricted free agent during the 2024 off-season. The Clippers, or any other team that trades for James, would have his bird rights next summer, with the star said to be looking for a long-term deal but flexible on the annual salary number.

In terms of a trade return, it’s unclear at this point what the Clippers would be sending back for Harden (no, I don’t care what random anonymous accounts that have never been reputable newsbreakers before are “hearing”). The team losing a star in an opt-in-and-trade situation typically gets a very underwhelming return, because the alternative was for that star to walk as a free agent. Remember, 6 years, ago, the Clippers traded Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets so that he could team up with Harden, a deal that they negotiated with Daryl Morey, who is now running basketball operations for the Sixers. Paul, then 31, was still near the height of his powers, but the Clippers only got an odds-and-ends salary-matching return from the Rockets to facilitate the trade. Chris had made it clear he intended to leave, and he had a player option that would have allowed him to do so, so the Clippers took back role players, prospects, and a first round pick. They could make a pretty comparable package for the Sixers now, built around Norman Powell, a high-volume, high-efficiency scoring guard. Throw in Robert Covington to make the money work (yes, Covington likely goes instead of Morris because he’s the better player and the one the Sixers should want), the Clippers’ 2028 lottery protected first round pick, and whatever combo of Amir Coffey/Brandon Boston Jr./Kobe Brown the Sixers find intriguing. Philadelphia will likely also push for Terance Mann, though the Clippers will hopefully successfully resist that. If Mann is included, some of the other value in the package should come off the table–LAC should keep their 2028 1st and even try to hold on to Powell and send Morris’ contract instead.

There will be a lot of chatter about the Clippers sending Paul George or Kawhi Leonard back for Harden from folks who are using “star for star” logic, but that neglects the realities of opt-in-and-trade leverage. The Clippers have been open to moving George this month, but it won’t be in a one-on-one swap for James Harden–if he were to be involved here, the Sixers would either have to throw way more LAC’s way, or work some three-team angles. All of that should be considered exceedingly unlikely, even if it makes for some fun trade machining.

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Lucas Hann

Lucas Hann

Lucas has covered the Clippers since 2011, and has been credentialed by the team since 2014. He co-founded 213Hoops with Robert Flom in January 2020.  He is a graduate of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA and St. John's University in Queens, NY.  He earned his MA in Communication and Rhetorical Studies from Syracuse University.

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