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A game of chicken: Is Sean Marks taking a risk of ‘epic proportions?’ asks Sam Amick

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The Athletic’s Sam Amick is clear that he doesn’t know which way the James Harden for Ben Simmons discussion — if there are discussions — will go, but suggests that whatever leverage the Nets now have could be dissipated if Harden decides to opt out of his contract this summer and the Nets would be left without Harden or the players, picks and swaps they gave up 13 months ago to get No. 13.

If, Amick writes, Sean Marks — and Steve Nash — are wrong about Harden’s commitment, it could be a “miscalculation of epic proportions.” Here’s his reasoning...

[I]f Nets general manager Sean Marks is wrong here, and if it turns out that his view on Harden’s alleged unhappiness was off-base and they missed out on a chance to salvage the situation by landing a three-time All-Star whose contract runs through 2025 in Simmons, then this would be a miscalculation of epic proportions. And the question at the center of it all, it seems, is this: Which team has the right intel?

Truth be told, I can’t tell you.

Bottom line, he argues, is who is right about Harden’s intentions. Are the Nets right in believing he wants to stay the course and try to help the team win its first championship or are the 76ers right in believing that Harden is unhappy in Brooklyn with everything from a lack of spacing to the lack of a full-time backcourt mate. Amick suggests that the Sixers may know better.

I know that the Sixers — whose front office is run by the guy with more Harden history than any other executive in former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — truly believe that Harden is heading elsewhere this summer.

Amick lays out the litany of players, picks and swaps the Nets gave up for Harden and wonders if the Nets are prepared for that risk. Like a number of writers, Amick thinks the Nets have the advantage now, but that could change ... particularly if the 76ers can find a way to dump Tobias Harris contract who is in the third year of a five-year, $180 million deal and free up enough cap space to either sign Harden out right or offer the Nets a sign-and-trade on their terms.

[T]he prospect of them signing Harden outright is even more real than most likely realize.

And the plan, sources say, would look like this …

Step 1: The Sixers trade Simmons and the three seasons remaining on his deal ($108.8 million combined) to a team with cap room in exchange for assets in return. Detroit, Orlando and San Antonio already have the space, and teams such as Memphis or the Rockets (who could waive and stretch John Wall) could get there fairly easily.

Step 2: Find a new home for Tobias Harris’ contract via trade, which would be challenging but likely not impossible. He’s owed a combined $79.4 million over the next two seasons. The Sixers could theoretically waive and stretch Harris as well (per our cap expert, Danny Leroux, that move would open up approximately $22.3 million in space).

Step 3: Sign Harden for either the max (starting salary of $42 million) or something close to it. And for anyone who’s hung up on the fact that the Sixers might struggle to get to Harden’s max number, consider this much: At this later stage of Harden’s career, he has made it abundantly clear that his focus is on the goal of winning a title. The belief in Philadelphia, sources say, is that he wouldn’t let $10 million or $20 million (over the life of a deal) be a deal-breaker if he wanted to play for the Sixers.

However, the Nets may be banking on the degree of difficulty the 76ers would have in getting this all done according to plan. Although Amick doesn’t mention the possibility, Keith Pompey, the 76ers beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has suggested the Sixers could face a tampering probe if the scenario Amick lays out comes together.

In his Twitter Spaces with colleague Gina Mizell earlier Tuesday, Pompey also said for the 76ers to have a reasonable shot at a sign-and-trade, they’d “have to clear $76 million in cap space.”

Pompey noted as well that “Brooklyn right now has the upper hand.” suggesting again that the threat of a tampering investigation hung over any discussions the two teams might have. In his update Monday, Pompey wrote that if Harden does wind up with Philly in the off-season, several NBA teams will likely seek a tampering investigation of Michael Rubin, the Sixer minority owner who he suggested has been behind the Sixers efforts to get Harden out of New York and down the Turnpike to Philly.

Pompey also said that coming to the Sixers would be somewhat of a homecoming for Harden with all the former Rockets brass now in Philly. “Coming to Philadelphia is kind of like coming home to him.” But Pompey also said that the Nets and everyone else realizes that “He’s the guy” Morey et al want. There is no back-up plan for now.

And as he has reported previously, Pompey said the Nets would want Tyrese Maxey in any deal, but that the Sixers will not give up the 21-year-old point guard.

Meanwhile, on Halftime, Jake Fischer said that he had spoken to a source in Brooklyn and the source said, “the Nets have no interest in engaging on a deal with Philly.”