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August 12, 2022

Best case, worst case: Can James Harden turn back the clock and reclaim his old self?

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James-Harden-Sixers-NBA-Playoffs-05082022-UST Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

James Harden celebrates.

James Harden has to be one of the most polarizing stars in this recent era of basketball. He has earned a devoted legion of fans who would (and do) go to battle for him every single day, inspiring his loyalists with a sustained run of excellence in Houston. There are also the critics and doubters, who point out that he has never been able to climb to the mountaintop, who highlight his biggest failures in the clutch and view his style of play as an eyesore.

Where's the truth? Probably somewhere in between. And the glimpse Philadelphia got at Harden last season was a look at a man who was off the pace he had set across a long, dominant run in Houston, the veteran not all the way there following major hamstring problems a season prior. What he has left to give in 2022-23 will ultimately swing this year in one direction or another, pushing them toward the Finals or leaving them in the same spot they've been stuck in for the last half-decade.

We look at both possibilities:

Best case

The doomsday scenario for the rest of the league is Harden somehow looking like the guy who won an MVP award in 2018. Having a second guy who can routinely score 30 points per game and hoist the offense on his shoulders would be absolutely devastating, and any working strategy teams had to defend the Sixers last year would have to be re-examined. But I don't think it's fair to put that sort of expectation on Harden, nor do I think it's necessary for him to reach that level in the first place. On this team, at this stage of his career, Harden only needs to resemble the guy he was Year 1 in Brooklyn.

When I say "only," that is probably underselling how good Harden was prior to his hamstring issues. Even after a messy exit from Houston, Harden was playing at an MVP-caliber level on a team that we saw fall apart without him last season. Putting together a stat line of about 25-11-8.5 on 47.7/36.6/85.6 shooting splits, even if it was only across 36 games, is simply ridiculous. Balancing the need to score with the responsibility of setting up the rest of his teammates, Harden walked into a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and effectively took control of the offense. And in their first round win over the Boston Celtics, Harden took it up another level, averaging roughly 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game. The hamstring problem and the diminished play that came after should not make anyone forget how good he was as recently as 2021.

Harden does not need to have mid-to-late 20s burst in order to be a more effective attacker. And focusing too much on the percentages sort of misses the point — his steady diet of step-back threes means he's going to have a high average shot difficulty, but teams still live in fear of him making that. With a little bit of extra pep in his step, Harden can use that jumper to set up more frequent trips to the rim, where he should hopefully have better explosiveness than he showed last season.

One key to Harden's dream season is not about Harden at all. Surrounding Harden and Joel Embiid with a stronger group of shooters and creators makes it a lot more difficult to sit in the paint and wall him off on drives. There's an important distinction to make — we saw teams have success cheating off of Philly's role players down the stretch last season, but doubling Harden was often the wrong move, with the vet guard picking teams apart as a passer and generating an avalanche of open threes. Teams will have to think a bit harder about how and when they send help toward the middle of the floor, which will make Harden's life a touch easier as an attacker.

Without gaining anything physically, Harden is in a position for a bigger and better year by simply showing up and knowing a lot of the guys he'll play with. The most important is Embiid, who he was able to establish instant chemistry with while running the pick-and-roll action many were convinced the big man would struggle with. If they were able to put up elite numbers in that set after figuring things out on the fly midseason, imagine what they can do with a full season of work together. And that's without considering how they've grown closer since the season ended, with the two spotted working out together and at various social events throughout the summer. The reservoir of trust built there will allow them to communicate effectively and honestly — they can hash things out with passion on the floor without it having to mean that they don't like each other or aren't going to work out.

(Well, maybe that last part is optimistic. If they get heated in public view, you know it'll make all the debate shows. So it goes.)

If I had a dollar for every time I heard Doc Rivers talk about needing to get their spacing right last year, I'd be a rich man. That time playing off of Harden and Embiid should allow the role players to have an early understanding of their spots, and the beauty of acquiring multiple Rockets teammates is that P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. arrive with a built-in understanding of how Harden works. That goes both ways — Harden will know when and where those guys want to receive a pass, and deliver those in the spot that makes it easiest to rise and fire.

A version of Harden that can more regularly summon scoring outbursts changes how the flow of a game plays out. Instead of the Sixers constantly needing to take games the full 48 and rely on Joel Embiid to see things out, they'd be able to pass the baton to Harden and Tyrese Maxey to put away flailing teams earlier. A successful Sixers season features a lot of games where Embiid and Harden are on the bench midway through the fourth quarter, smiling and laughing while young guys and backups see out a comfortable win.

Underneath all of this, an ideal Sixers season sees a return to form for Harden that also leads to a strengthening of the partnership for all parties, an eventual long-term commitment that works for both parties. There are justified concerns about Harden and how he'll age, and if they end up in a place where giving him the full-boat extension seems silly, it won't catch everyone by surprise. But Harden remained one of the most productive players in basketball even in a diminished form, and all signs point to a productive relationship between the longtime star and the organization.

For the Sixers to get where they want to go, they don't just need Harden to be at his best, they need him to be bought into his position as a leader of the franchise. Positive signs are there, and though the Sixers are currently viewed as a step behind the true contenders, a Harden renaissance would have them right there with anybody in the league.

Worst case

There are so many scenarios that could end poorly here, so let's run through some of them in an abbreviated fashion:

• Harden's summer of work doesn't amount to any changes in how he looks and feels physically, and the Sixers end up with a guy who turns in a season roughly equivalent to last year's. That puts them in a pretty tough spot for the long-term, as that's still a good player but not one who is likely to be worth what Harden will be asking for. And the short-term problems are obvious — that leaves Philadelphia in roughly the same spot they were last year but with upgraded depth. Maybe enough to get out of the second round, but probably not enough for real contention.

• Harden looks more like the Harden of old next season, but he and Embiid struggle to settle on a power balance. Maybe this means Embiid grows tired of Harden passing up open catch-and-shoot looks, maybe it means Harden bristles at Embiid not setting more screens for him, maybe they get into an argument over a card game on a team flight that never gets resolved. These things can crumble for weird, petty reasons when you're dealing with guys who have earned themselves significant egos by becoming stars in their profession. As a result of that dynamic, one (or both) guys offer a "him or me" ultimatum to the organization, and we live through the offseason from hell.

• Harden plays well, but simply wants to go somewhere else for an opportunity more intriguing than this one after the season. That would leave the Sixers without many avenues to put together a short-term competitor, save for Tyrese Maxey waking up and being Damian Lillard.

• After reviewing the tape of Harden last season, teams decide to play further up on him and send fewer proactive doubles. With Harden still off the pace a bit physically, Philadelphia's offense underwhelms relative to expectations, and they're in roughly the same spot they were to end last season. The silver lining might be that you could start planning for a future without Harden, but you'd have to eat a treadmill year in the middle of Joel Embiid's prime, and nobody wants that.

• Harden is good, but he disappears in big moments the way he has at times in the past. This would wipe away any goodwill earned by a successful regular season, and create trust issues that will be hard to overcome for a guy this deep into his career. 

We're this deep in the article, by the way, and haven't spoken a word about defense. Though Harden's engagement level in Philly was decent, even good at times, the fact remains that he's not really helping your team get stops. When that's the case for both members of your backcourt, it puts a lot of pressure on everybody else to get the job done. Harden's assignment is essentially to make them such a good team on offense that any defensive weaknesses he brings to the table are worth living with. He lived up to his end of the bargain for a long time, but with his own individual brilliance dwindling, the ratio is going to need to be examined far more often.

A lot of the discussion about betting on Harden into the future has been centered around things we simply can't account for — Harden's lifestyle, the story goes, will either catch up with him or already has, making it impossible for him to sustain his prime the way other contemporaries have. That premise assumes that Harden or any other player has an actual choice in whether their body and mind remain in top form as they age. It's also possible that Harden can do all the right things, make adjustments and sacrifices, and still end up losing what made him special. It's what makes sports so compelling, as we never truly know when we've seen the last great performance a star has to offer until we have the power of hindsight.

Maybe the scariest future is one where we can never quite figure out what Harden has night-to-night, one where the Sixers are worldbeaters at their best and a sad bunch of bums when their bearded guard and their talented but oft-injured big man can't find the right gear for one reason or another. Five years ago, adding a guy like Harden next to Embiid would have meant flanking the big man with one of the NBA's iron men, a star who showed up and showed out for months on end. In 2022, the path forward and the gas in Harden's tank are harder to guage, and then you place the NBA's tampering investigation on top like the world's most disgusting cherry.

I think James Harden can be a major asset to the Sixers with or without a leap back to his glory days. But I don't blame anyone nervous that he may just be a different man now, and that the Sixers may be short the partner Embiid needs to reach the summit. We'll learn together exactly what he has left.


Sixers Best Case, Worst Case

Embiid | Reed | Harris | Tucker | Maxey | Melton | Thybulle | Harden | House | Rivers


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