The Harden Renaissance Is Coming
Newfound self-awareness may be the key to postseason success
So, look. Last year didn’t go the way James Harden hoped, and much of it was his fault. To recap: Harden showed up to camp pudgy as hell (not for the first time), and a dodgy hamstring stymied his efforts to get into shape as the season went on. James struggled with his shot as Nets teammate Kyrie Irving struggled with modern medicine, and Harden eventually demanded a trade to his old pal Daryl Morey, architect of those fascinating late-2010s Rockets teams, in Philadelphia.
Harden and the 76ers got off to a roaring start, and his partnership with All-World center Joel Embiid paid immediate dividends. However, in a tale as old as Embiid’s career, the center struggled with injuries in the playoffs, and Harden couldn’t shake his hamstring issue, which takes away the pop in a player’s first step and can take months to heal fully. It was bizarre: Harden would have games where he looked like his dominant, tricky self, and then he’d have games where he could barely limp up and down the court.
The 76ers were eliminated in the second round against the Heat. Harden, as has become his pattern, wilted in the deciding game, taking only two shot attempts in the second half of the decisive Game 6 (the same number as Ben Simmons took when he infamously passed up a wide-open dunk in the closing minutes against Atlanta the year prior). After the game, Embiid made some waves by saying that “everyone expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.” This is objectively true and non-controversial, so of course, it was mashed into grist for the hot-take morning shows.
It’s finally become apparent even to Harden that his prime is quickly closing. Harden’s actions and words since his disappointing final performance seemingly show a newfound self-awareness, a sense of urgency that has never been apparent in him before.
Harden started his offseason workout regimen earlier than ever before (which may not be saying much, to be fair) and has been practicing jointly with Joel Embiid to further their chemistry. More concretely, he signed a two-year deal (with a player option on the second) for roughly $33 million this season, which may sound like a lot of money until you realize he turned down a player option for $47 million this same season.
While he isn’t hurting for cash, and the contract manipulations aren’t as sacrificial as they seem, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he left a significant amount of money on the table for this season, something that very few stars have done in the past (look at Damian Lillard in Portland and Bradley Beal in Washington for very notable examples of guys not doing that). Players shouldn’t have to turn down money that they have earned. But it is an interesting acknowledgment by Harden that he needs more help to win a championship.
He knows he’s not a popular player, by superstar standards, and he’s heard the criticism. Only winning will get him the respect of the public and his peers, so he’s given Morey a little bit more room to finesse the roster.
The 76ers will enter next season with significantly upgraded depth. P.J. Tucker may be 37 years old, but he’s playing like a man a decade younger. He remains an excellent 3-and-D guy and possesses both credibility (he won a championship with Milwaukee two seasons ago) and toughness, something Embiid vocally advocated for after the playoffs. It’s not a coincidence that Embiid used Tucker, specifically, as his example of a winning player. P.J. has paired well with Harden in the past, as has wing Danuel House, who adds perimeter defense and shooting. De’Anthony Melton is an ideal backup guard who can fly around the court, get out in transition, hit shots, and help run the show when Harden and/or Maxey are on the bench.
Philly had arguably the weakest depth of anyone who considered themselves a contender last season, but they now have a full complement of two-way bench players to go along with their outstanding core four of Harden, Embiid, Maxey, and Tobias Harris (assuming he’s not traded before the start of the season).
The sour end to the season hid two key truths that augured well for Philly’s future: Harden unlocked the best version of bullet-train guard Tyrese Maxey that we’ve seen yet, and Harden had sweet, sweet pick-and-roll chemistry with new running mate Joel Embiid.
Maxey is primed to take some of the ballhandling load from Harden, who will be better served with decreased responsibility and playing off-ball more, where he once thrived on the Thunder many years ago. Maxey’s strength is decisiveness: he had a tremendous season shooting from outside, so opponents have to close out on him hard, and he knows before he catches a pass whether he’s going to shoot or drive. You can see plans forming in his mind before the ball even hits his hands:
(This clip is exactly why 76ers fans are so rightfully excited about Maxey. He just blew by Jimmy Butler and went straight into the chest of Bam Adebayo, one of the best defenders in basketball, to get the tough bucket.)
Maxey was a little overburdened playing as a point guard to start the season; being a play finisher instead of a playmaker is a better fit for him.
Tobias Harris’ counting stats took a bit of a hit after Harden’s arrival, but his efficiency improved. Maxey’s emergence and Harden’s presence meant that Harris went from the top perimeter option to third on the pecking order (fourth, including Embiid). He feasted on lower-caliber defenders and open shots (he shot 34% from three without Harden and 41% with him).
Pre-All-Star-break, 61.4% of Harris’ shot attempts had a defender within 4 feet of him. Post-All-Star-break, with Harden in the mix, that number was only 49.2%. Harden’s gravity and pinpoint passing gave Harris some of the best looks he’s ever had. I wrote extensively about Maxey and Harris immediately after the Harden trade here, so that’s enough about those guys.
The relationship between Harden and Embiid is the engine that drives this locomotive. Embiid was fantastic in 21 regular season games with Harden, outdoing his pre-Harden averages to the tune of 33.6 points on outrageous 52/40/81 percent shooting splits. No player in history has come close to combining that kind of efficiency with that level of scoring for a full season. While Joel almost certainly won’t replicate that over 82 games, it shows the heights the pair can reach.
According to Synergy, Harden ranked second in pick-and-roll efficiency among all players with at least 150 possessions (behind only Nikola Jokic on a much smaller sample), and the Harden-Embiid P&R averaged an incredible 1.25 points per possession.
It isn’t just the pick-and-roll, either. Embiid has never played with a passer like Harden in his career, and the big man quickly realized that he could gain an advantage by getting downcourt in a hurry and establishing a quick seal on a defender. Harden’s pinpoint-accurate long-range passes gave Joel a one-on-one matchup, which Embiid will win almost every time. The ease with which Harden leads Embiid into a spin move away from the defender makes this pass look a lot easier than it is:
Harden’s legitimate greatness has always been overshadowed by his distasteful methods — mainstream fans grew tired of watching Harden’s weird ball-dominant style and attempts to trick referees. But this is a player who has invented new basketball moves, whose sidestep and stepbacks were so deadly that teams had players guard him at a 90-degree angle, giving him a free run to the hoop:
Teams explicitly instructed their defenders to put their hands behind their back so that Harden couldn’t catch them reaching into the cookie jar (or hook their hands with his elbow to draw a foul). Watching defenses stretch and break and adapt to Harden was a fascinating storyline for late-2010s basketball nerds.
Between Embiid, Maxey, and Harris, Harden won’t have to replicate his Houston days. He can settle in as a true point guard, something he started to do in Brooklyn, and focus on facilitating the offense and conserving his aggression for when it’s needed most — assuming, of course, that he’s mentally ready to take on that burden.
It’s no secret that Harden hasn’t had his finest moments in the playoffs, and his disappearing act last year did nothing to dispel his rep. Harden hasn’t been able or, more disturbingly, willing to make things happen under intense scrutiny.
To paraphrase Joel Embiid, Houston Harden is gone now, and he’s not coming back. Harden still has the stepback, still has his strength, but some combination of age, conditioning, and hamstring problems eliminated his burst last season, limiting his threat. Harden’s actions this offseason show a man realizing that he’s almost out of chances. He’s declining athletically, and teams aren’t going to throw their futures away for a soon-to-be 33-year-old who has twice forced his way out of town despite having no playoff credibility.
This belated self-awareness is critical. Harden might not score 30 points per game this season, but I believe his craft, intelligence, and skill can still carry him to an All-Star caliber year. At this point, though, the regular season is just a tune-up; we need to see Harden perform under the bright lights of the playoffs. This is his last, best chance at changing his legacy.