Harden, Ayton Could Both Stay Put

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James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers
James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Six of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals at Wells Fargo Center on May 12, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Most of the top 2022 NBA free agents have agreed to new contracts, but some notable names remain unsigned. Teams have limited cap space throughout the league, complicating matters for players who are seeking massive deals.  

James Harden is the best unrestricted free agent available. Deandre Ayton is the NBA’s top restricted free agent, giving the Phoenix Suns the right to match any offer that the center receives. Collin Sexton is also a restricted free agent and could land a contract that pays him at least $20 million a season

Here are predictions for the best remaining free agents on the NBA market, including where they might sign and the parameters of their contracts.

James Harden: Philadelphia 76ers (Three-Year, $100 Million Contract) 

There’s not much mystery about Harden’s future. The veteran guard will return to the Philadelphia 76ers for at least one more season. The only uncertainty is what kind of contract he will sign. Harden declined his $47.4 million player option for the 2022-23 season. He is expected to sign a longer contract at a reduced yearly salary in order to give the 76ers flexibility to improve the roster.

That doesn’t mean Harden is going to take some massive discount. With his stats declining and his 33rd birthday on the way, Harden will likely get some financial security that he might not have been able to find on the open market. A three-year contract worth nine figures seems fair for Harden, who has a chance to be the second-best player on a team that contends for titles with Joel Embiid as its top star.

Deandre Ayton: Phoenix Suns (Four-Year, $120 Million Contract)

Just a few weeks ago, it would’ve seemed highly improbable for Ayton to still be available five days into free agency. Kevin Durant’s trade request has seemingly held up the market for Ayton, which has only gotten weaker since the NBA Draft. The Detroit Pistons might have moved on from pursuing the center by re-signing Marvin Bagley and drafting Jalen Duren. The Indiana Pacers appear to be rebuilding, so giving Ayton a max contract wouldn’t make much sense.

The Suns are the favorites to trade for Durant, and Ayton would likely be at the center of any package sent to the Nets. Brooklyn, however, is in no rush to trade its best player. It’s hard to believe that Ayton would remain a free agent throughout the summer, and he can only be sent to the Nets as part of a sign-and-trade immediately after he inks his contract. The Suns’ best strategy might just be to hold onto Ayton and explore trade possibilities during the season, if only to ensure that they don’t lose their third-best player without getting anything in return.

Collin Sexton: Dallas Mavericks (Three-Year, $60 Million Contract)

Sexton only played 11 games last season before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year. The 23-year-old averaged career-highs of 24.3 points, 4.4 assists and 47.5% shooting in the 2020-21 season for the underachieving Cleveland Cavaliers. Without Sexton this past season, Cleveland went 44-38, recording a winning record for the first time since LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Sexton might not have much of a future in Cleveland. The Cavaliers just gave Darius Garland a five-year extension worth at least $193 million. Ricky Rubio and Caris LeVert are also back with the team. The Mavericks have been linked to Sexton, though the team is reportedly unwilling to give up any top assets in a sign-and-trade. Given that Sexton doesn’t really fit with this Cavs’ roster and Dallas is looking to replace Jalen Brunson, the two sides might be able to reach some sort of agreement.

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers

Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

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