He’ll have the opportunity.
Despite Nets general manager Sean Marks expressing confidence Harden would sign a contract extension before the season, the guard didn’t. Harden – who signed three contract extensions with the Rockets before getting dealt to Brooklyn – has a player option for next season. He could decline it and become a free agent for the first time in his career.
By all accounts, the former MVP has clear intentions to reach unrestricted free agency for the first time, even if that would lead him back to the Nets.
Harden for next season:
- Player-option salary: $47,366,760
- Max salary if he opts out: $46,526,382*
The benefits of opting in would extend beyond next season – definitely if Harden stays wherever he ends this season (presumably Brooklyn), maybe even if he leaves.
If Harden opts out and re-signs on a new max contract, he would earn $269,853,016 over five years.*
If Harden opts in and signs a max extension, he would earn $270,179,999 over five years.
Not a huge difference. But as much as NBA salaries distort perspective, the $65,397 difference is still a lot of money in the real world – especially if the only difference in getting it is procedural. From his perspective, Harden would still be signing for the next five years, either way.
The idea of becoming a free agent probably sounds nice. An extra $65,397 is probably nicer.
Of course, Harden might not stay put.
If he opts out to leave, Harden’s max would be $200,063,443 over four years (whether he signs directly with a new team or goes via sign-and-trade).*
However, Harden could also opt in for a trade. In 2017, Chris Paul used the threat of free agency to engineer an opt-in-and-trade from the Clippers to the (Daryl Morey-run) Rockets. Depending how the NBA feels about tampering at the moment, Harden could similarly pick his team before free agency officially opens. On a max extension signed within six months of getting traded, that route would pay him more over each of the next three seasons (a total of $149,323,711) than a direct signing elsewhere or sign-and-trade would. But he could secure just three years, not the four years that’d come with opting out and signing elsewhere or a sign-and-trade. The upside: Harden could seek a new deal in 2025 rather than 2026, though it’s far from guaranteed he’d make up the $50,739,732 difference then. (Another benefit of an opt-in-and-trade: Unlike a sign-and-trade, it wouldn’t hard-cap his next team, which could be crucial to the 76ers).
Harden could also shoot for the moon by opting in then – regardless of whether he gets traded – playing out next season and becoming a 2023 free agent. In that case, he’d get the higher 2022-23 player-option salary and could re-sign for at least and most likely $288,463,568 over the following five years. But there’s no guarantee Harden would secure such a large contract offer at age 33, either.
In short: If Harden is staying with the Nets, he’d earn slightly more money by opting in and signing an extension rather than opting out for a new contract. If Harden wants to change teams, an opt-in-and-trade might be his best option.
Perhaps, Harden won’t know his plan by his June 29 player-option deadline. If the NBA gets unprecedentedly strict on tampering, he might be better off opting out and having the opportunity to meet with teams this summer.
But based on history and considering the potential benefits, Harden could probably make up his mind by June 29.
He shouldn’t get hung up on the idea of officially becoming a free agent. The threat of free agency should work to get him into his desired situation, even if that means opting in and signing another extension.
*Unless the 2022-23 salary cap lands higher than $132,932,520, in which case Harden’s max would be higher. However, the 2022-23 cap is projected at just $119 million. The odds of the cap landing that much higher are infinitesimal.