76ers face an uncertain future with Harden and Harris deals up in the air

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FILE -Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) calls to teammates during the first half of Game 5 against the Boston Celtics in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. James Harden might have side-eyed questions, much like he did in a playful reaction to a question in his Houston days, about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers. Will Harden return to the 76ers for a third season? (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

PHILADELPHIA – James Harden might have side-eyed questions this week -- much like he did in a playful reaction in his Houston days -- about his future with the Philadelphia 76ers.

But the issue is real in Philly: Will Harden return to the 76ers for a third season?

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All signs point to Harden declining his $35.6 million option on Thursday and entering this summer as an unrestricted free agent. That leaves the 2018 NBA MVP and 10-time All-Star free to sign with any team.

A return to the Rockets? Perhaps, if he prioritizes cash over a championship chase. The 76ers? Depends. Does Harden really enjoy playing as the second option to NBA MVP Joel Embiid?

Plan C?

Harden might not have planned much beyond a potential Houston reunion or Sixers return. Philadelphia has the home-contract edge: The 76ers have the right to offer Harden a $210 million, four-year deal, $8 million more overall than any other team.

Houston, though, where Harden blossomed into a surefire Hall of Famer is a city that still tugs at his heart.

Nick Nurse, hired earlier this month to replace Doc Rivers as coach of the 76ers, wants a shot at coaching Harden.

“James has a decision to make, and I’d be very happy if he came back,” Nurse said when he was hired.

Tobias Harris, himself in a bit of a contract quandary this summer, also stumped for a Harden return as he grabbed rebounds and posed for selfies with children Tuesday at a Fanatics promotion.

“There’s not many guys that can go out and drop 40 in a playoff game. I think that goes under the radar a little bit too much,” Harris said. “I think James is a phenomenal player, somebody who works his tail off, and somebody’s who’s an overall great leader. Of course I want him back.”

Harden, who turns 34 in August, played the last few months with nagging left Achilles soreness and flashed only glimpses of his Houston prime. He scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories of the Eastern Conference semifinal loss against Boston, and was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses. He scored only nine points in Game 7, and that included going scoreless in the second half.

Stuck in the muck of salary cap restrictions, the 76ers have few real options to replace Harden should he sign elsewhere. Not only that, the Sixers are fielding trade offers for Harris, who enters the final season of a $180-million, five-year contract. Harris averaged 14.7 points last season, well behind NBA scoring champ Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey.

Torrel Harris, Tobias Harris’ father and agent, blasted the way the 76ers have used Harris since 2018 and said on the “Business of Sports” podcast his son was an “assassin scorer.”

“I mean, they can’t stop him,” Torrel Harris said on the podcast. “Nobody in the league can stop him. So he’s proven that over his career, even when he was with the Clippers.”

Harris has the all-important expiring contract that the 76ers can dangle as trade bait. While his dad believed Harris is still a prime scorer, the 76ers forward wants to put a freeze on public negotiations.

“When I’m a father, I’m going to tell my kid he’s better than LeBron James,” Harris said. “But I’ve also told him as a dad and agent, not to speak for me when it comes to the media. Obviously, he has his viewpoint on that. But that’s not the way I feel. I knew going into last year what my role was and I was going to be the fourth option offensively. I knew that going in.”

Harris said he was “OK” with that role and knew if the 76ers were going to win a championship, he would be the player to “sacrifice from that group.”

Sometimes, the dip in production meant a dip in popularity.

“Trade speculation, casual Sixers fans, they would trade me for a Crumbl Cookie,” he said.

The cookie certainly crumbled for the Sixers for the playoffs, where they were eliminated in the second round for the third straight season. The early exit for a team that won 54 games marked 22 seasons since the franchise reached the Eastern Conference finals. It cost Rivers his job.

It’s up to Nurse, who won a championship with Toronto in 2019, to find a formula that can win the 76ers a championship.

With or without Harden and Harris.

“I believe we have the right talent to be a championship team,” Harris said. “We have the right pieces and the right culture. With a new coach, I’m excited with what we can bring to the table.”

Harris and Embiid -- who declined to talk about the Fanatics’ goodwill merchandise promotion for underserved kids -- helped with the giveaway of 300,000 pieces of merch donated to around 100,000 kids and their families in nearly 100 different locations across the country.

Michael Rubin, CEO of Fanatics, also co-founded the Reform Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to probation, parole and sentencing reform in the United State. He once had an ownership stake in the 76ers, is a friend with Harden and tried not to pick a side on the contract issue.

So, should a 76ers fan buy in good faith a Harden 76ers jersey?

“I’d always tell them to buy a 76ers Harden jersey,” he said. “Look, I haven’t been close to the situation. Both the Sixers and James are family to me. But listen, I believe in these guys.”

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