2023 NBA free agency: Should we be preparing for James Harden to end up with the Clippers?

OCT. 31 UPDATE: The Philadelphia 76ers reportedly traded James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers early Tuesday morning, according to multiple reports.

The NBA’s free-agent marketplace can shift at a moment’s notice. James Harden picking up his $35.6 million player option for the 2023-24 season Thursday afternoon, with the goal of Philadelphia finding a trade partner for Harden to leave the 76ers, counts for a clear disruption.

For months, Harden’s future seemed to hang in the balance between staying alongside MVP center Joel Embiid and rejoining Houston, where Harden once blossomed into an MVP in his own right. But as this final week before free agency melted down, the Los Angeles Clippers canvassed the league for trade opportunities regarding Norman Powell and Marcus Morris, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and contacted the Sixers about various targets that included Harden and Tobias Harris. It’s difficult to parse the exact sequence of events from there, but Harden and his representation were clearly not confident in the All-Star guard’s pending contract scenarios with the Sixers. His decision to opt in and seek a trade aligns quite perfectly with Los Angeles’ long quest to land a premium lead guard to run the Clippers’ offense with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And Harden, according to league sources with knowledge of the situation, prefers to land with Los Angeles.

There has been league-wide pessimism surrounding Philadelphia’s appetite for lavishing Harden with a long-term deal dating back to his contract talks with the Sixers last offseason — which resulted in the two-year agreement with a player option that Harden exercised this week. Many front-office personnel believed Harden’s flirtations with Houston were always just that: an attempt to draw a full financial commitment the 34-year-old wanted from Philadelphia all along, particularly after taking a perceived pay cut for this season in order for the 76ers to add P.J. Tucker and Danuel House. No matter the truth there, the Rockets appeared to move away from their possible approach for Harden — a shift that seemed to begin with the hiring of new head coach Ime Udoka — and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet emerged as Houston’s primary point guard target. Udoka, sources said, has pushed for adding defensive-minded veterans into the Rockets’ young core, which other top Rockets targets Dillon Brooks and Brook Lopez certainly fit.

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden plays during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference semifinal, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Is James Harden headed west? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sixers, of course, were penalized second-round picks in 2023 and 2024 after the league determined Philadelphia made early contact with Tucker and House, and team figures have indicated the Sixers were communicating great caution to Harden’s camp about discussing parameters of a new contract before free agency begins in earnest at 6 p.m. ET Friday. But Philadelphia also had to be aware of Harden’s dwindling market in terms of cap-space-heavy teams that would be willing to offer Harden the near-max money that any All-NBA talent desires. The Sixers never indicated they’d be willing to offer Harden that type of multi-year reward for his services to a championship contender, which Harden and his representation deemed as disrespectful, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Philadelphia left Harden’s camp with the impression the Sixers weren’t incredibly motivated to bring him back into the fold.

Philadelphia does not have to move Harden to his preferred destination with the Clippers. President Daryl Morey, league sources told Yahoo Sports, has already been active in exploring the trade market for Harden outside of just dealing with Los Angeles and the team’s obvious interest in landing the point guard. At this early point, the Sixers are at least projecting patience to this trade process, similar to how Philadelphia signaled it would take its time moving Ben Simmons before ultimately flipping him to Brooklyn for Harden at the 2022 trade deadline. Chicago would be one potential trade partner to keep in mind, as the Bulls have made Zach LaVine available in conversations this offseason, sources said, and could also send an All-Star such as DeMar DeRozan back to Philadelphia. But there will be many avenues the Sixers explore before finalizing a Harden trade.

James Harden headshot
James Harden
SG - LAC - #1
2022 - 2023 season

Miami has been mentioned by league personnel as another potential Harden suitor, although the Heat’s well-chronicled interest in Damian Lillard seems to outweigh any intrigue with Harden. It remains to be seen if Lillard will become available for trade himself, as the Portland Trail Blazers move forward into their own offseason full of questions. The Knicks have registered interest in Harden, sources said, but New York has long loomed as a leading suitor for Embiid — not to mention Harden’s curious fit with Team USA-bound Jalen Brunson — and it’s a wonder if the Knicks would target Embiid’s running mate as opposed to waiting to make a play for the all-world center in the aftermath of Harden’s departure. You can guarantee rival front offices are watching this situation with the hopes that Embiid could be the next All-NBA talent seeking a different destination. That’s just simple addition in this league’s cutthroat transaction world.

But the Clippers do stand as the most logical landing spot for Harden, a Los Angeles native who can bolster another championship push on an expiring contract next to Leonard and George — during the final guaranteed season for the Clippers’ pair of All-Star wings who have their own player options for 2024-25. How many other teams are going to welcome Harden into their franchise knowing he wants to land with Los Angeles?

The Clippers nearly satisfied their long-held wishes for better point guard play by landing Malcolm Brogdon in a three-team trade with Boston and Washington before the NBA Draft, but a poor medical evaluation for Brogdon nixed the deal. Los Angeles even re-engaged Boston about acquiring Brogdon in recent days, sources said. The Clippers were also prepared to offer Powell in a package for Chris Paul, league sources told Yahoo Sports, before Golden State ultimately acquired the veteran floor general in exchange for Jordan Poole.

Harden would give Los Angeles a similar outcome, albeit likely at a larger cost than what Paul would have been for the Clippers. How much pricier? There’s certainly a sense among league executives that Philadelphia isn’t operating from a position of particular strength, but the Clippers are looking at potential long-term salary savings that would at least call for some form of draft compensation back to the Sixers. Los Angeles has also made starting center Ivica Zubac available in trade talks, sources said, with an idea of retaining veteran big man Mason Plumlee in his stead.

The Clippers are expected to show resistance in including any prized young player, such as Terance Mann or Bones Hyland, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Los Angeles also has held a longstanding regard for Tucker, sources said, as the Clippers have registered interest in Tucker at various points over the past several seasons when Tucker tested the open market.

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 12: Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates against the Chicago Bulls during the 2023 Play-In Tournament at the Scotiabank Arena on April 12, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/Getty Images)
Fred VanVleet is in line for a major deal. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/Getty Images)

Houston Rockets

While Houston appears to be in the driver’s seat to land VanVleet, and the Rockets expect to offer the veteran guard a two-year contract worth roughly $80 million, the longtime Raptors starter is expected to at least meet with Toronto and Houston when free agency begins, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Should VanVleet ultimately stay north of the border, the Raptors appear willing to offer him a deal north of three years, $90 million, which could potentially open the door for Mavericks point guard Kyrie Irving to land an opportunity with Houston and gain the negotiating leverage with Dallas that Harden was searching for once upon a time. Even still, Irving and the Mavericks are expected to come to terms on a new deal, sources said.

Fred VanVleet headshot
Fred VanVleet
PG - HOU - #5
2022 - 2023 season

The Rockets will also be waiting for a decision from Lopez, who is said to have a two-year deal worth roughly $40 million waiting for him from Houston, but could also return to Milwaukee, where Lopez helped the Bucks claim the 2021 championship. It’s been difficult to pin down the Rockets’ backup options at center if Lopez spurns their advances, outside of Raptors center Jakob Poeltl, but Toronto’s big man is expected to return to the franchise on a deal larger than Nikola Vučević’s three-year, $60 million extension with Chicago earlier this week, sources said.

Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles created an avenue to use the full mid-level exception by declining the 2023-24 team option for Malik Beasley and waiving Mo Bamba’s non-guaranteed salary Thursday. It seems clear the Lakers’ top target is Denver combo guard Bruce Brown, but the new champion is one of the hotter commodities of this free-agent market.

The Lakers have signaled they will match any competing offer sheet for Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, league sources told Yahoo Sports. If that threat is enough to scare off a potential bidder for Reaves, who could get upward of four years and $100 million on an offer sheet from a competitor, the undrafted guard out of Arkansas will likely have to return to Los Angeles on the four-year, $50 million-plus maximum he’s permitted. In that scenario, look for Reaves to consider signing a three-plus-one agreement with the fourth year as a player option.

The other strong word out of Hollywood is that the Lakers are trending toward bringing back D’Angelo Russell after acquiring him from the Timberwolves at February’s trade deadline. Early indications are that Russell and the Lakers could come to terms on a two-year, $40 million deal with the second year a team option or non-guaranteed.

It remains to be seen which of Lonnie Walker or Dennis Schröder the Lakers would prefer to bring back on the $4 million-plus bi-annual exception. Los Angeles could also attempt to split its full mid-level between Schröder and a frontcourt target such as Plumlee, sources said.

Also look for Cam Reddish as a potential addition to the Lakers on the veteran’s minimum. There remains the possibility that Schröder could reunite with former OKC head coach Billy Donovan in Chicago as well, sources said.

Denver Nuggets forward Bruce Brown hugs the championship trophy during a rally to mark the Denver Nuggets first NBA basketball championship Thursday, June 15, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
New NBA champion Bruce Brown will be in demand. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Mid-level market

With so few top talents available as unrestricted free agents, this summer’s mid-level exception field has grown quite crowded. Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, New York, New Orleans, Portland, Toronto and Washington all have access to the $12.2 million salary slot, in addition to the Lakers.

That field has led to a wide market for Brown, who’s considered to be the top target for Cleveland, Dallas, Minnesota and the Lakers. Brown could still realistically return to Denver, where he helped the Nuggets power past Miami to claim the championship earlier this month, but Denver is limited to paying Brown just $7.8 million. If Brown were to return to the Nuggets, he’d be eligible for a four-year, $50 million-plus deal. But there’s been plenty of word in recent days that the Indiana Pacers could be the team that slaps a lucrative deal worth over $20 million annually for Brown, sources said.

Bruce Brown headshot
Bruce Brown
PG - TOR - #11
2022 - 2023 season

Heat shooter Max Strus appears to be the next in line after Brown in terms of widespread interest that includes Cleveland and Portland, sources said. Strus’ representation has told inquiring teams he will command upward of $16 million in average annual value. So for Strus to land with the Cavaliers — and he’s believed to be Cleveland’s top choice following Brown — league sources have indicated the possibility of a sign-and-trade that would bring Strus to the Cavs at a dollar figure at about the mid-level exception.

All indications suggest that former Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo will be headed to the Knicks, sources said, teaming with old Villanova teammates Brunson and Josh Hart.

Kyle Kuzma is searching for well above the mid-level exception, sources said, and it’s unclear where the scoring forward can command that type of money if Houston and Indiana use their cap space elsewhere. Utah was supposed to be a real landing spot for Kuzma before the Jazz acquired John Collins from the Atlanta Hawks, which has led league figures to pinpoint Kuzma re-signing with the Wizards after rumblings about interest from Sacramento.

Celtics forward Grant Williams will likely have to wait out this initial rush of mid-level signings to find an interested bidder. Dallas has been linked to various wings and forwards, from Williams to Jae Crowder to Eric Gordon to Beasley. Several league executives contacted by Yahoo Sports believe that Gordon, who was waived by the Clippers this week, can command the full mid-level or at least close to that salary amount.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have $30.8 million in cap space, and rival personnel continue to expect Detroit to throw an offer sheet at Nets restricted free agent Cam Johnson. The 27-year-old sharpshooter seems destined to command a deal approaching $100 million over four seasons, sources said, and Johnson could perhaps yield an even greater salary for Detroit to force Brooklyn to reconsider matching his number.

ARCHIVO - Draymond Green, de los Warriors de Golden State, celebra después de encestar en contra de los Mavericks de Dallas, durante la segunda mitad del juego 5 de los playoffs del baloncesto de la NBA, en las finales de la Conferencia Oeste, en San Francisco, el jueves 26 de mayo de 2022. Los Warriors quieren retener a Green, aunque están listos para que él rechace la opción de jugador por 27,5 millones de dólares por el último año de su contrato la próxima temporada y se convierta en agente libre sin restricciones. (AP Foto/Jeff Chiu, Archivo)
Draymond Green is expected to return to the Warriors. (AP photo/Jeff Chiu)

Golden State Warriors

After some league-wide chatter about Detroit, Memphis, Houston and Sacramento at various points in the last calendar year, Draymond Green is widely expected to return to the Warriors.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns are planning to bring back a majority of their reserve unit from last season, sources said. That includes Torrey Craig, Jock Landale, Damion Lee and Josh Okogie. Two other names for Phoenix on veteran’s minimums are former Nets and former Kevin Durant teammates Yuta Watanabe and Mike James, sources said. Another strong candidate for the Suns is former Blazers center Drew Eubanks, sources said.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets don’t appear to have a straightforward path to re-sign Miles Bridges. The 25-year-old forward missed all of 2023-24 following a domestic violence incident last summer. Bridges and his representation at Klutch Sports have even broached the subject of Charlotte pulling his qualifying offer to make Bridges an unrestricted free agent, sources said.

Orlando Magic

After being linked to Williams and Strus, Orlando has indicated it is not going to be a big spender with the team’s $21.9 million in cap space, sources said. Rival personnel are expecting the Magic to retain swingman Gary Harris, who has $13 million in non-guaranteed salary for the 2023-24 season.

One possible addition for Orlando: versatile veteran Joe Ingles, sources said, who could join the Magic at a dollar figure above the minimum.

Tip-ins and loose balls

  • Jae Crowder is expected to return to Milwaukee after the Bucks sacrificed five second-round picks to acquire the veteran forward at the trade deadline. But Crowder also has an interest in rejoining the Miami Heat, sources said.

  • Bucks guard Jevon Carter will draw interest from Minnesota, Phoenix and Los Angeles, sources said.

  • Amid interest to return to Chicago and other contenders, Patrick Beverley has another potential suitor in Boston, sources said.

  • Coby White is expected to re-sign with the Bulls for three years and north of $30 million, according to league personnel.

  • After picking up his 2023-24 option with Utah, rival personnel believe Jordan Clarkson will come to an extension agreement with the Jazz approaching $18 million in average annual value.

  • The same goes for the Pelicans and Herb Jones after New Orleans declined his $1.9 million team option. Jones is believed to be in line for a four-year deal just above $50 million.

  • New Orleans reserve center Willy Hernangómez is seen as more likely to take one of several lucrative offers from Euroleague clubs as opposed to finding a new NBA home on the veteran’s minimum.

  • Expect Dallas center Dwight Powell to return to the Mavericks, sources said.

  • Veteran forward Dario Saric has generated strong interest from the Golden State Warriors, sources said.

  • Former Sixers guard Shake Milton has drawn the eye of several Western Conference contenders, including the Lakers and Warriors, according to league personnel.

  • The Cavaliers have continued to take trade calls on swingman Cedi Osman. Cleveland has attempted to land either Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale from the Nets, sources said.

  • Wizards guard Monte Morris has drawn a long list of interested teams on the trade market, including the Timberwolves and Bulls, led by former Nuggets executives Tim Connelly and Artūras Karnišovas, respectively. Miami, should the Heat lose Gabe Vincent, Toronto, if VanVleet walks, New Orleans, Utah and Brooklyn have all been mentioned by league sources as teams to watch for Morris.