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2022 NBA offseason preview: What's next for the Philadelphia 76ers?

2022 NBA offseason preview: What's next for the Philadelphia 76ers?

James Harden has averaged at least 15 field goal attempts per game in each of his last 10 regular seasons, encompassing his entire tenure with the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. He's put up at least 12 shots per game in 10 ten postseason appearances since 2013. 

So when Harden took just two attempts in the Sixers' Game 6 exit against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it was jarring to those who watch Harden and those who have followed the drama of the franchise over the past year. After all, it was just one season ago where Ben Simmons' shot selection created a firestorm that ultimately led to February's blockbuster deal.

But this felt different. Harden is one of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen. And the performance distracted from the fact that, even in his battle against Father Time, Harden is still one of the most talented floor generals in the world. 

His "down" year included 22.0 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game spanning a tenuous winter with the Nets and a midseason trade to Philadelphia. He still has the step-back, the strength and the court vision, even as his quick first step appears to be sputtering with age and injuries.

Harden is a game-changer for the 76ers, and it's why he is by far the chief offseason storyline. The 32-year-old holds a player option for next season. He could either opt-in and potentially sign an extension that could pay over $60 million in 2026-27, or decline and test the waters in unrestricted free agency. One more interesting wrinkle: According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, few around the league expect Philly to pony up with that max contract extension:

It's a pivotal summer for Harden and the franchise. Should Philadelphia commit upwards of $200 million to a guard showing signs of physical decline who turns 33 next season? Or should the team lower the offer and risk seeing an extremely talented, experienced playmaker (and a great fit with Joel Embiid) walk?

So Harden's contract is item No. 1 on president of basketball operations Daryl Morey's agenda. The next is evaluating which current rotation players are fit for long-term success. 

Ten different Sixers averaged 10 or more minutes per game in the playoffs. It often felt like Sixers head coach Doc Rivers didn't know where to look for help outside of Embiid, Harden, Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey. DeAndre Jordan, Matisse Thybulle and Georges Niang, among others, frequently drew the ire of fans on social media. 

Jordan will hit the open market this summer along with fellow veteran big man Paul Millsap. But Philly doesn't have many other free agency decisions to make; Shake Milton (team option), Myles Powell (restricted) and Harden are the only others to monitor.

The luxury tax hampers the 76ers, who will only have the taxpayer mid-level exception to add free agents unless Harden leaves and opens up some cap space. That MLE is valued at approximately $6.3 million. Maybe Philly locks in a permanent backup center like Thomas Bryant or Chris Boucher? Or perhaps they look for wings, whether it be a shooter like Bryn Forbes or a playmaker such as Kyle Anderson. Either way, it's at least a chance to reel in a rotation-caliber addition.

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The Sixers are also absent from the current NBA Draft picture. They traded their first-rounder to Brooklyn in the James Harden trade (though the Nets can defer that pick to 2023) and their second-rounder is headed to Miami. 

If Philly wants to make a serious splash, it'll have to turn to the trade machine. Morey has reasonable pieces at his disposal. Thybulle, for all of his offensive warts, is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA and will make just $4.38 million next season before entering restricted free agency. Niang is set to enter the final year of his current contract and will collect $3.47 million. Harris still has two years left on his massive deal, but the 29-year-old deserves credit for a resurgent playoff effort.

Ultimately, Morey's maneuvering will only do so much for a Sixers roster in need of tweaks and growth. The biggest development might come in the offseason gym with young players who have yet to realize their potential.

Paul Reed emerged as a high-energy bench big in the playoffs, but still has leaps to make away from the boards. Charles Bassey, picked 53rd overall last season, is another athletic center preparing for his opportunity. We're still waiting on 22-year-old Isaiah Joe (non-guaranteed for next season) to round out his flashes of microwave perimeter scoring.

I was a fan of Jaden Springer, last year's No. 28 overall pick, at draft time. Springer averaged 15.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League, flying around on defense. But he still has a long way to go as an NBA guard on offense.

If any of these players break through into the full-time rotation next year, that's a major win for the 76ers development system. Trades can only accomplish so much when teams are sending pieces out to make additions. For Philly to take that next step as a championship contender, they'll need to see in-house improvement from Harden, the supporting cast and the young guns.

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