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May 26, 2023

Sixers season grades: Are James Harden's highs worth the lows that come with them?

How should we grade James Harden after his eventful season?

James Harden was perhaps the biggest Sixers question mark heading into the 2022-23 season, and you could argue that holds true after the season has come to a close. Coming off of a productive yet typically confounding year, Harden is set to assess his options in free agency, and the Sixers will have to make a decision on just how much they value Harden's contributions to the franchise.

What grade would you give Philadelphia's bearded guard? 

Stat line: 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists on 44.1/38.5/86.7 shooting splits

The highs

If James Harden was in the lineup, the Sixers had a path to being the best offense in basketball. That is the best possible endorsement you can make of a player who embraced a role that we know now he was not necessarily thrilled about.

Far removed from his days as an apex-predator scorer, Harden has become the balanced point guard the Sixers appeared to need during the Ben Simmons years. The rhythm he established with Joel Embiid in the middle of the floor leveraged the gifts of both players beautifully, as Harden’s ability to find Embiid with pocket passes earned him at least a few easy buckets every game. But you could argue his impact has been more profound on other players throughout the roster. Tyrese Maxey has blossomed as a scorer in part because he has not had to shoulder the burden of primary creation, attacking in spurts and capitalizing as an off-ball attacker in transition and halfcourt possessions alike. Harden is to thank for some of that, sucking in defenders before finding Maxey on the second side.

While Harden often contributed to Philadelphia's lack of pace — let's be honest, "contributed" is selling it short — his outlet passing ability was one of the Sixers' best weapons to attack on the break. Whether it was Embiid running the floor for an early post-up or Maxey streaking down the wing, Harden found Philly's runners over and over again to score before defenses got set.

At his best, Harden also proved capable of flashing his old scoring ability in times of need, carrying the Sixers for stretches in the half court. Staggering Harden to anchor lineups without Embiid paid dividends for Philadelphia, giving the second unit an offensive leader to organize, hunt, and destroy opposing defenses, leading to critical runs to open fourth quarters and set up the closing kick. In the playoffs, he singlehandedly won the Sixers two games against the Celtics in round two, stealing a Game 1 victory without Embiid and saving his teammate’s butt in a Game 4 victory that came down to the wire. And there were signs throughout the season that Harden got more comfortable playing off of Embiid than you might have expected, showing more urgency as a catch-and-shoot option than ever before. 

As Harden moved further away from the hamstring issues that dogged him a year prior, he looked more like a player you could count on moving forward, if not as your main guy then at least as an important piece of the puzzle. It was one of his best shooting seasons ever, which is no small feat.

The lows

The problem with Harden now and in the future is the unknown nature of who he might be day-to-day. Is he going to drop 40 points and a near triple-double in a dramatic win, or check out of the game mentally while hoping the rest of the group will bail him out? No one has solved that riddle over a decade into a Hall of Fame career.

Harden’s inability to be an every-night ass-kicker didn’t matter much in the regular season, with Embiid dominating and the schedule more forgiving in opponent quality. Unfortunately, inconsistency is a death sentence in the playoffs, and Harden gave back the games that he won for Philadelphia against Boston with stink bombs in other games. It would be one thing for Harden to simply shoot and/or play poorly, but his biggest flaw has been shying away from responsibility at inopportune times. Rather than trying to fight through adversity, there were moments where Harden refused to continue attacking, bailing opponents out for playing him to pass. And it’s hard to figure out why he would do so, as even a coach intent on him playing “point guard” would want him to call his own number more.

Being more up-and-down as he ages comes with the territory, and the real issue with Harden has been not being able to figure out what you're going to get from him on a given night. You can afford a bit of give-and-take with role players and guys further down the roster, but sturdy, stable production is a borderline requirement for your stars if you want to win in the playoffs.

Mercifully, defensive issues for Harden were more of a regular-season concern than a playoff issue, as he played relatively engaged defense for most of their playoff run even if he had plenty of personal blunders on that end. Still, his shortcomings there made it hard to make up for poor offensive outings with impact on the other side of the ball, making him a boom-or-bust player as he heads deeper into his 30s.

Grade: B

Some of Harden’s negative tendencies might be less impactful on a team with a hard-charging leader to offset him. But that is the danger of partnering him with Embiid, as both players arguably need the same sort of thing in their No. 2 counterpart, a “foxhole guy” who can and will seize the game when the chips are down.

Harden’s view of himself will loom large as the Sixers try to figure out what the future looks like for the organization. Reports have suggested that he felt restricted under Doc Rivers last season. If he jumps to the Houston Rockets in free agency, it would be a reflection of his desire for more touches and more freedom, which would appear to be a misunderstanding of how he can bring nightly value to a team in the years to come. Bought-in Harden is someone who brings a lot to the table, but if he is an aging star who expects the organization to pivot around his needs and wishes entirely, that's a dangerous game to play.

All told, I thought Harden was a very good player who could find flashes of greatness in 2022-23, but he was often as liable to turn in an effort that made you wonder if he had forgotten how to play basketball. It puts the Sixers in a tough position — they will suffer in the short term if he walks, but bringing him back may well doom them to being stuck exactly where they are right now. What do you do? 

I’m glad I only have to write about that problem, while the decisions are left to other people.

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