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ANALYSIS: The James Harden trade ‘dividend’ and Nets prospects in free agency

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Ben Simmons has yet to play for the Nets, may not in the regular season. It is a legitimate bummer.

But down in Philly, James Harden, while playing, has been disappointing. This week alone, Chris Mannix, echoing a number of league sources, told Bill Simmons podcast that there are some in the organization who would rather not give the 32-year-old a full, quarter-billion dollar extension beyond this season. (If you add this season to the extension, the total Philly tab for Harden would amount to $$314,490,834 through 2026-27, including $61,671,519 in that final year when Harden will be * checks notes * 37.)

Two days ago, Sixers Coach Doc Rivers absolved his bench of not hitting shots down the stretch in their ignominious loss to the Pistons. No, he said, It was about Harden.

“Well, they didn’t struggle, they didn’t get a lot of shots, in their defense,” Rivers told reporters in Detroit on Thursday. “I think during that stretch it was more James [Harden] than them. So, you know, yeah it’s just a tough night.”

On Saturday, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that the Sixers were experiencing a “hiccup in the Harden era,” stating among other things that the 10-time All-Star “has had more subpar shooting nights than solid ones as a Sixer. Thursday night was the latest example of losing a step and lacking some of the explosiveness he displayed as a Rocket.”

Uh oh.

So what, you might say, that’s Philly’s problem and don’t we have enough to worry about with Ben Simmons back?!? True, but somewhere in the Nets vast archives is a comparison of what the Nets will save long-term in salary and luxury taxes, comparing what Harden is likely to get from Philly and what the Nets will pay out to Simmons over the next three years. The Nets believe they gained a big “dividend” in the trade, more flexibility they’re going to need over that period.

Start with this year. Simmons will make $11,306,904 less than Harden also the value of the trade exception the Nets got in the February 10 trade deadline.

It’s the three years after that when the disparity grows. Remember, the number for Harden is what the Nets would have paid him if he had, as expected, signed the extension with Brooklyn. It was “signed, sealed and delivered, remember?”

  • In 2022-23, Harden will make $47,366,760 while Simmons will take home $35,448,672, a nearly $12 million difference;
  • In 2023-24, Harden will make $49,735,098 while Simmons is owed $37,893,408, another nearly $12 million.
  • In 2024-25, Simmons last year under contract, Harden will make $53,713,905, Simmons $40,338,144, more than $13 million.

If you stop there, the Nets will have amassed a “dividend” totaling $37,135,539. And that doesn’t count the luxury tax — including the repeater tax — that will kick in during the period. Nor does it include final two years the 76ers will have to pay Harden beyond the end of Simmons deal, another $119,364,231.

If you’re really cap nerdy, here’s the numbers we came up with...

HARDEN:

21-22: $44,310,840

22-23: $47,366,760

23-24: $49,735,098

24-25: $53,713,905

25-26: $57,692,712

26-27: $61,671,519

Total: $314,490,834

SIMMONS

21-22: $33,003,936

22-23: $35,448,672

23-24: $37,893,408

24-25: $40,338,144

Total: $146,684,160

Bottom line: the Nets savings — salary, luxury taxes, etc. — has to be in the low hundreds of millions of dollars when everything is tallied up. League insiders point to that cache of cash as collective savings that should open the door to more flexibility in spending down the road.

One might argue in response that the Nets will also have to pay Seth Curry $8,496,653 next season plus the first round draft pick — now No. 23 — Philly gave up this year another $2,128,300 (unless in his wisdom, Sean Marks decides to postpone the pick till 2023, his option.) But that’s all at the margins going forward.

As Brian Lewis points out in a Post Sports Plus column, the Nets face a number of key free agent decisions this summer. Based on talks with Bobby Marks of ESPN and other capologists, Lewis reports the general ranges for Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond seem reasonable: approximately $7 to $8 million a year for Claxton, not much more than $5 million (because of his unique fit) for Brown and somewhere in the range of the taxpayers MLE, about $6 million, for Drummond.

There are, of course, other questions like will Patty Mills opt out of his $6,184,500 player option and renegotiate with the Nets or seek a better deal elsewhere. The Nets can also offer Curry an extension this summer, one that starts in 2023-24.

All those decisions — and future ones — will be made easier if the Nets have that savings brought on by the Harden-for-Simmons trade. Joe Tsai has said repeatedly that he is committed to the long haul. When asked by NetsDaily back before the season, he responded, “Do you think that is still a question? I mean I did pay luxury tax last season. This season, it’s all public information, I’ll be paying over $100 million in luxury tax. So the answer is yes, yes.”

Tsai also said that he sees the luxury tax as an investment in the long-term value of the franchise. Still, you don’t want to spend if you don’t have to, or if there’s a better way. Indeed, since last August, this year’s luxury tax has dropped by 25 percent, down to $$97,686,001 now, per Spotrac. That’s even higher than what Mikhail Prokhorov paid back in 2013-14 but nowhere near what the Warriors will pay this year: $170,331,206.

As Lewis writes, decisions will come quickly. Even if as widely expected, Kyrie Irving signs a new extension and Mills decides to stay, the Nets will still have nine roster openings depending on whether they keep the first rounder, postpone it till 2023 or even trade it.

But Marks and his team as well as Tsai know they will have more flexibility, collective savings from the trade deadline blockbuster. They may have dodged a bullet along the way as well.