What does the Kawhi Leonard extension mean for James Harden?

With the Los Angeles Clippers locking up Kawhi Leonard long-term, and already talking about doing the same for Paul George, what are James Harden's prospects of staying with the team?

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Clippers
New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Clippers / Katelyn Mulcahy/GettyImages

After a rough start, the Clippers have figured it out after the James Harden trade. They are 14-3 in their last 17, the Big Three is playing better and they have been used together on the court to make them impossible to guard for most teams. It just got so much better for them off the court.

On Wednesday morning, the team took to social media to announce they had reached a contract extension with Kawhi Leonard. Adrian Wojnarowski later reported it was a three-year, $154 million extension, which the annual values subject to change depending on how much the salary cap increases. Furthermore, Woj also posted that the front office was in talks with Paul George to lock him up to a long-term extension as well. Both had $48 million player options for next season. Leonard, with signing the extension, has voided that option, while it's expected that George declines his to seek a multi-year deal.

With them playing so well, and a new stadium on the way, it's nice that they locked up their key stars. It also extends the life of the Leonard/George duo; with them having struggled with injuries since they signed Leonard and traded for George in the summer of 2019, it was important that they didn't lose them for anything without making the Finals, as they are both on practically the same deal. And, in making the acquisition of Harden this season, in extending their contention window for at least two or three more years.

But what does the Kawhi extension mean for Harden's future with the Clippers?

Can the Clippers also re-sign James Harden?

No. Even if they wanted to, which is a tough proposition during the season, they can't do so. Players that sign standard contracts after their rookie deal can only negotiate an extension if they signed for at least three years. Since Harden only signed for two years with the Philadelphia 76ers prior to being traded, he can't be extended, which is something the Clippers knew going into making the trade. He has a player option for $35 million for next season, which he was even going to reject in Philly to sign a long-term deal.

However, besides having Leonard, and for the sake of clarity I'll assume George also re-signs, for next season for purposes of advertising for the new stadium, it also makes the picture clear for Harden: when he reaches free agency, he'll know what team he's returning to. He won't have to think about the possibility of Leonard and/or George walking away, because they're locked up for three more years, and Harden could even make his deal match theirs and I'm sure the Clippers would have no problem in doing so.

Though nowadays signing long-term means nothing because star players can ask out whenever they please (they get the guaranteed money and then worry about their destination if things in their current franchise change), it's more secure than not having those players in the salary cap chart.

With Leonard already taking a paycut (with this, and the max figure he could've signed for with a three-year deal being $161 million), and assuming George does as well, it also puts pressure on Harden to be the one to sacrifice the most in money. It's a tough proposition for James, who initially only signed for two years with the 76ers to give the team cap space to sign Danuel House Jr and P.J. Tucker.

But it's also the only way the Clippers could make this work: the new CBA will severely hamper the ability to make free agent signings (teams over the second apron won't have the MLE), sign players after buyouts and add contracts in trades for teams that are over the second luxury tax apron. The Clippers are WELL into the second apron this season, already spending $202 million in salaries this season, $20 million over the second apron of $182 million (and that's without counting the penalties they have to pay for going over it).

And sure, while the salary cap, and thus the first and second aprons along with it, go up, they are already spending approximately over the current salary cap figure, and that's without counting the adjusted figures of Leonard and George, and whoever they sign. That math will get completed in the 2025 summer, where they have six key free agents (counting Tucker, who could be traded before then).

The Clippers management will probably go into their meeting with Harden and say something along the lines of: "Hey James, you see that Kawhi and PG already did their part in taking pay cuts, so you should do your part too". As I said, it would be tough for Harden to have to do that two straight contracts, but it's something that, depending on what the George contract looks like, he'll have to do. Historically, when the CBA wasn't as restrictive and the salary cap wasn't as high as it will get, star players have always taken pay cuts to accommodate the rest of the team. Someone has to do it, and we'll see how Harden handles that conversation.

Leonard got his deal first because he was the star prize the Clippers chased, which made George want to demand a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder (after saying he wanted to be there the rest of his career, no less) in the first place. Following that, even if Harden were extension-eligible now, George would be next, as he's the one that has been on the court the most, and led them to their Western Conference Finals run in 2021.

So, through process of elimination, the onus is on Harden to play team ball once again. It's what he signed up for by asking for a trade in the first place, which left the Clippers through the negotiations as one of the few that could make a deal for him. So, we'll see how he approaches his negotiations given this news.

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