The 2023 NBA free agency period will be a crucial one for the Philadelphia 76ers. An extreme urgency to revamp the roster looms over the Sixers following yet another postseason dud. Part of making the roster a strong one is to simply keep some of the key players that are already in place around Joel Embiid.
The Sixers' key free agents are James Harden, Paul Reed, Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton. Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell could join the list if they decline their player options like Harden is expected to do. Philly will have some decisions that are easy, but one that is extremely, extremely tough.
Here are the three free agents the Sixers must re-sign.
3. Paul Reed
For the Sixers, there may not be an offseason move that is as much of a no-brainer as re-signing Reed.
The one fans call Bball Paul, who turns 24 years old next month, ended the Sixers' issues with finding good backup centers. His stellar rebounding and switchable defense make him one of Philly's more unique contributors. He got better as the season went on and took criticism from coaches and teammates well, even in high-intensity situations during the playoffs. His gregarious, genuine personality made him a fan favorite.
On top of all of those positives, Reed is a restricted free agent. He has voiced his desire to stay with Philly anyway, but the Sixers can match any deal he signs with another team. Losing him would leave a hole in Philly's depth chart and in the hearts of Philadelphians everywhere. Allowing him to leave would be a senseless mistake.
2. Georges Niang
Since Milton is probably (understandably) going to look at other places where he can get more playing time — and the Sixers likely won't prioritize bringing him back with young Jaden Springer lurking as a potential bench guard — Philly should look to bring back both Jalen McDaniels and Georges Niang. But if they have to prioritize one, it should be Niang.
When the Sixers acquired McDaniels in exchange for an All-Defensive Team member in Matisse Thybulle and what ended up being the 34th overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Dary Morey called McDaniels a “hidden gem” and suggested he has the tools to be a starting-caliber player. Instead, he fell out of the playoff rotation in Round 2. Niang is somewhat volatile as a contributor but is nearly indispensable when he gets a few big shots to fall from deep.
While it would behoove the Sixers to keep McDaniels and help him develop — which he absolutely has room to do — Niang was one of the Sixers' key bench pieces throughout the season. His shooting can be one of the key factors that can help unlock Embiid and Harden (more on that later). In the playoffs, he held up better than expected. One-dimensional as he may mostly be, that dimension is good for Philly and should come at a reasonable price.
1. James Harden
I know, I know. Just hear me out, please.
With Harden, the Sixers find themselves in one of the biggest lose-lose situations imaginable. The aging star demonstrated how much he can uplift the team but also how much he can weigh them down. To keep him, which Philly wants to do, it's going to take a maximum four-year contract. He turns 34 in August and is coming off of a season that featured two worrisome injuries.
The Sixers losing Harden for nothing would severely sting. They don't have the cap space to find a suitable replacement this offseason (or next, assuming they extend Tyrese Maxey) nor are they in a situation where his lone path to the Houston Rockets is a sign-and-trade. His former squad, which now expects to bring him back, has the cap space to sign him outright.
Even with his massive playoff clunkers, he was still hugely important to the Sixers' success this season. His two playoff masterpieces allowed the second round to remain close in the first place. It's no coincidence that Embiid's most efficient scoring season came in his first season with Harden, who opened up space at the nail for him to fire up shots and delivered him perfect pocket passes in rhythm.
Despite the success he had with Embiid, Harden seems to not be in favor of doing so much table-setting on offense. Perhaps a new coach could scheme up ways for him to get the level of “basketball freedom” that he desires. Should that coach find that balance and get more out of the roster — potentially one that better suits the two stars — the Sixers could be back in business. But none of that is guaranteed and could all come crashing down with one Harden injury or another miserable playoff showing.
The Sixers are stuck between a rock and a hard place and are just about guaranteed to smack their head whether Harden stays or goes. The bottom line is that there exists more of an upside with Harden than without: the Sixers are a better, more complete team with him. For that reason, Philly would be better off keeping him than letting him go for nothing.
On offense, the Embiid-Harden duo generated great results despite sharing the floor with two forwards who weren't always willing to let the ball fly, thus sacrificing some of their spacing. That problem really showed in the playoffs. While all the playoff failures of Harden's past correctly loom large — his age and injury concerns do too — the success he had with Embiid should not be completely overlooked. Nor should the room that they have to get better with a more creative coach and players geared more toward firing away from deep.
Plus, losing Harden would likely not sit well with Embiid, who was vocal about the two of them running it back together. Embiid doesn't (and shouldn't) control everything Philly does, but losing the co-star that helped him win the MVP and is, in his eyes, the best playmaker in the league would not give him any more confidence in the team. Vastly flawed and infuriating to watch when he's off as Harden may be, he is the only veteran star they can realistically put around Embiid right now unless they use Maxey as a trade chip.
It's possible for the Sixers to salvage Harden's departure by going with a sign-and-trade that gives them a trade exception, and thus the ability to acquire someone with a comparable salary. Even with that exception, getting someone as good as Harden will be extremely challenging, especially because Philly would have to dangle one of their few draft picks for Houston to help out.
If this really is gonna be the last hurrah with Embiid, the Sixers owe it to a lot of people — themselves, the players, the fans — to go all-in. They really only have two more years to try before Embiid gets to the final year of his deal. Retooling around Embiid and Harden could steer the ship in the right direction. Trying to do so without Harden is possible but not as likely. There are no great paths here — but one is ostensibly not as awful to walk down as the other.
James Harden is far from the ideal co-star for many reasons. But, realistically, he's the best the Sixers can do. And they have no business not doing the very best they can to put the team in a winning position. It's in their best interest to re-sign him as opposed to losing him to his former team.