There will be lots of discussion about James Harden.
Washed. Deteriorating skills.
No longer a Batman. Maybe not even a Robin.
I’m not ready to go there yet.
But this is a critical offseason for the Philadelphia 76ers All-Star guard and the franchise — an intricate scenario that involves Harden’s health, his future, his relationships with key figures in the Sixers organization and his ability to coexist with MVP-caliber center Joel Embiid.
The Miami Heat on Thursday eliminated the Sixers 99-90, ending Philadelphia’s season well short of its stated goal: an NBA championship. It is the fifth consecutive season making the playoffs — and second with coach Doc Rivers — that the Sixers failed to reach at least the conference finals.
The Sixers have reasons/excuses for their demise: the Ben Simmons situation that commandeered the first two-thirds of the season, Harden playing OK but definitely not great (more on that topic in a minute), and Embiid’s injuries that slowed him in the playoffs.
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The Sixers went for it at the trade deadline, acquiring Harden and Paul Millsap from Brooklyn in the deal that sent Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to the Nets. Philadelphia wanted Harden to be the player it needed to compete for a title and came up short.
Harden, 32, wasn’t that player, at least not frequently enough in the playoffs. In Game 6, he had an inconsequential 11 points, including none in the second half. He attempted just two shots in the second half. That’s not enough scoring with a healthy Embiid and definitely not enough with an injured Embiid. Harden’s reputation is taking a beating.
Before joining the Sixers, Harden was bothered by a hamstring issue and did not play in his final four games with the Nets. After the trade, he missed his first four games with Philadelphia and sat out the All-Star Game. It was about a three-week shutdown.
There is belief in some NBA circles that Harden was not 100% in the playoffs either. If that’s the case, Harden needs to borrow a page from Chris Paul’s playbook. In 2018, Paul struggled with a hamstring problem and was written off in the same way Harden is now.
But Paul worked on his body, and while results weren’t overnight, Paul had several great seasons left, helping the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals last season and the league’s best record this season. He remains an elite point guard.
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“I know the work that I put in day in and day out — summer, season, whatever it is,” Paul said during last season’s Finals. “I don’t think about being 36 when I step out on the court. I’m grateful for the team that have I around me, whether it’s a chef, body work, trainers, all this different type stuff. It’s a lot of commitment, a lot of days and stuff to make sure you get your body ready for the game. But when you’re a competitor, it’s nothing. It’s just part of the routine.”
It’s on Harden to put in that work. He has shown flashes of his All-NBA self with his shot, drives to the rim and passing. It’s just been inconsistent.
Regardless of Harden’s health, he and the Sixers have decisions to make. Harden has one year and $47.36 million left on his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2022-23 season. He can also decline the player option on next season’s deal and become a free agent this summer.
Would Harden re-sign with the Sixers? If he doesn’t, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey will have traded Simmons, Curry, Drummond and first-round picks for a player who appeared in 33 games, including the playoffs, didn’t help the Sixers like Morey thought he could and then left.
After Thursday’s game, Harden said, “I’ll be here.” Maybe he will, but that’s also convenient to say in that moment.
If Harden wants to re-sign with Philadelphia, what kind of contract is Morey willing to offer? Are the Sixers going to invest in the neighborhood of $200 million, possibly higher, for what we just witnessed from Harden in the playoffs? If Harden isn’t injured, it makes it difficult to pay someone that kind of money for the player he used to be.
Then, there are the relationships that must be acknowledged. Morey and Sixers CEO Tad Brown are tight with Harden from their time together with the Houston Rockets, and Sixers partial owner Michael Rubin is also close with Harden.
Morey has spent the past two seasons getting to know Embiid and get on the same page. But the Harden dynamic adds uncertainty to the equation. Certainly, Morey has a good relationship with Harden. Can Morey get Harden and Embiid on the same page?
Do Embiid and Harden even want to be reading the same book? Can they play together?
After Tuesday’s Game 5 loss, Embiid bemoaned the lack of ball movement, and when asked what the Sixers needed to do better in Game 6, he said, “share the ball.”
In a separate press conference that same night, Harden said the Sixers could do a better job of getting Embiid the ball closer to the basket but also said, “We can’t just try to force feed the ball into him.”
Embiid made even more eyebrows askew after Thursday’s loss when he said, “Obviously, since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.”
That’s not who he is anymore.
It could have been frustration talking. Or maybe there’s a difference of opinion on how the offense should run.
Following another disappointing end to the playoffs, the Sixers head into the offseason unsure what the team will look like at the start of next season.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.