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NBA playoffs 2022 – James Harden’s performance reveals the uncertain future for the Philadelphia 76ers’ star duo

Published:

9:59 PM ET

  • Tim BontempsESPN

IN EARLY MARCH, sitting on-stage inside Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the beginning of the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Daryl Morey wore a blue blazer over a red shirt that featured a cartoon of James Harden’s face from his famous web meme.

“Besides ‘Seize The Data,’ the theme of this conference is reuniting,” said Morey, the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations who co-founded the stats symposium nearly 20 years ago.

“I used to be lucky enough to get reunited with my basketball Jesus.”

Across Morey’s profession as an executive, he has come to be defined by two things on the court: helping popularize the usage of analytics across the NBA, and his eight-year partnership with Harden and the Houston Rockets.

A month earlier, Morey had accomplished his year-long odyssey to reunite along with his former MVP, a journey Morey punctuated with an image from a tarmac next to a non-public jet upon Harden’s arrival.

The caption: a single trophy emoji.

“Our mission that is been given to us, [it’s] the entire reason that everybody on the team is admittedly here,” Morey said at Harden’s introductory news conference a number of days later. “[General manager Elton Brand is] here to win a title. [Coach Doc Rivers] is here to win a title.

“It’s unfinished business for all of us. … We knew, from the moment Ben [Simmons] asked out, that if we were gonna do a trade, it needed to be for [a player] we thought could allow us to compete at a high level.

“And, the way in which this league works, you might have to get players of the caliber of a James Harden to pair with a Joel Embiid and Tobias [Harris]. You may’t win without it.”

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Morey’s considering was also an assumption: that Harden was still the extent of player that finished first or second in MVP voting 4 out of 5 seasons during their time together in Houston.

Nevertheless it’s develop into clear that the MVP-level version of Harden is gone.

He definitely didn’t show up in the most important game of Philadelphia’s season. With all the things on the road in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Miami Heat, Harden was a non-factor. He finished with 11 points, 9 assists and 4 turnovers. His giveaway with slightly below 11 minutes remaining within the fourth quarter — which led to Bam Adebayo’s fast break bucket — sent boos raining down from the sellout crowd inside Wells Fargo Center as Harden and his teammates trudged back to the bench.

Miami eventually ended Philadelphia’s postseason with a 99-90 win, sending the 76ers crashing out of the second round for the fourth time in five seasons.

Now the franchise heads into one other offseason filled with uncertainty with one other massive — and potentially expensive — query.

Is there a future for Harden and the 76ers?

“That is their bed,” said a Western Conference executive. “They’re making it, they’re gonna sleep in it and it is not gonna f—ing work.”

THE HARDEN-EMBIID partnership should make sense.

Harden has spent the past decade being an elite NBA offense unto himself. From the 2013-14 season — the primary season Second Spectrum began tracking data — through 2019-20, Harden recorded nearly 8,000 isolation plays, greater than 2,000 greater than another player during that span.

He averaged 1.10 points on those plays, the very best efficiency within the league. He made 734 step-back 3-pointers during that span, over 500 greater than another player.

The plan: Pairing Harden with Embiid, arguably the league’s most dominant physical force, one other of its elite foul-drawers and a finalist for the NBA’s Most Beneficial Player award for a second straight season, would create an offensive juggernaut.

Early on, the returns were good. Harden had a minimum of 25 points on a minimum of 50% shooting in each of his first 4 games as a 76er — all wins.

After toppling the Latest York Knicks within the duo’s second game together — during which Harden and Embiid combined to shoot 37 free throws — the massive man offered up an easy review:

“Unstoppable,” Embiid said with a smile.

Those early performances proved to be outliers. Over Harden’s final 29 games of this season — including Philadelphia’s 12 postseason contests — he managed to hit those benchmarks 4 more times each — and only had one game, against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 29, when he hit them each on the identical night.

The primary postseason of the Joel Embiid-James Harden partnership delivered a second-round exit. Getty Images

The underrated a part of Harden’s peak was his athleticism and burst, a mix that allowed him to each get to the basket at will and switch his stepback jumper into one of the vital unguardable shots in NBA history.

But recurring hamstring injuries over the past two seasons have zapped that burst. In 2019-20, per Second Spectrum, Harden blew by his defender on 44.1% of his drives. That percentage dropped to 30.3% last season and to 29.1% this season.

Harden’s offensive efficiency has taken a dive. His effective field goal percentage dropped below 50% for the primary time since his rookie 12 months. Amongst 71 players who attempted a minimum of 300 layups and dunks this season, per Second Spectrum, only two — Harden and the Knicks’ RJ Barrett — shot lower than 50% on them.

Those issues got here to the fore through the playoffs. Against two long, athletic defenses — the Toronto Raptors in the primary round and the Heat within the conference semifinals — Harden had a series of pedestrian performances with the occasional moment of brilliance dropped in.

Harden shot 44.2% within the paint this postseason, per Second Spectrum, his lowest number in any playoffs by which he’s played multiple rounds. He made 32 field goals and committed 29 turnovers against Miami, and his 0.88 points possibly on drives against the Heat, per Second Spectrum, was his lowest number since 2014.

Harden scored over 30 points once within the postseason — in Philadelphia’s Game 4 home victory over Miami — and consistently struggled to complete inside. His 40.4% shooting overall and 43.8% on 2-point shots were his lowest marks within the postseason in eight years. And he posted the very best turnover rate of his profession while having a far lower usage rate than in any of his prolific Houston seasons.

Thursday, May 12
Heat at 76ers, Game 6 (7 p.m.)
Suns at Mavs, Game 6 (9:30 p.m.)

Friday, May 13
Celtics at Bucks, Game 6
Grizzlies at Warriors, Game 6*

*If needed | All times Eastern

76ers coach Doc Rivers and Harden’s teammates repeatedly tried to readjust expectations because the playoffs went on. Harden still is an elite playmaker and the one pure point guard on Philadelphia’s roster.

“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said after Game 6. “But that is not who he’s anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.”

And even Harden has alluded to his game morphing away from the one-man show that won him three straight scoring titles with the Rockets.

“I’ve at all times been the communicator, the organizer, attempting to get guys in the precise positions,” Harden said after Game 3. “I believe [that’s the case] more now than ever.”

When Philadelphia has played well offensively in these playoffs, Harden has been a driving force. When he’s on the court, the 76ers offense clocks in at 114.7 points per 100 possessions — which might sit comfortably among the many top five within the league through the regular season.

When he goes to the bench, Philadelphia’s offensive rating plummets to 101.5, which might easily be the NBA’s lowest.

The Sixers were without Embiid in Games 1 and a pair of against Miami, but each were winnable attributable to middling performances by the Heat, who were without Kyle Lowry. But Harden shot just 11-for-28 from the sector, including 3-for-12 from 3-point range.

“It is not about James,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said after Philly’s Game 1 loss.”It’s about all of them. We’re a team, and now we have to play higher as a team. “It is not one guy who’s going to take up slack from not having Joel.”

The reasoning behind trading for Harden, nonetheless, was to have exactly that.

Now, Harden’s 2022 playoffs underlie how complicated his potential free agency will probably be to navigate — for all sides involved.

IN TRADING FOR Harden, Morey and the 76ers were expecting their season to finish in a unique place than it did last 12 months. As an alternative, it wound up delivering the identical result — just with different problems along the way in which.

Last 12 months, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star point guard passing up an open dunk within the closing moments of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against a lower-seeded team.

This 12 months, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star point guard going 4-for-9 as Philadelphia lost in Game 6 on its home court to a Miami team missing Lowry for the fourth time in six games of the series.

There are mitigating circumstances — most notably Embiid’s injuries. This loss, nonetheless, is about Harden. He was, by Morey’s own admission, the ultimate piece to the puzzle, the move that needed to work.

“That is literally our approach to pair Joel with Tobias and one other impact player to offer ourselves an actual likelihood to win,” Morey said in a radio interview two weeks before acquiring Harden on the deadline, explaining the importance of nailing any Simmons trade.

“And if we just do a marginal trade that is mostly sideways because we’ll all feel higher that there are names playing on the court, that can hurt Joel, that can hurt the 76ers, that can hurt our whole roster in the long term greater than if we’re patient.”

Philadelphia finds itself at risk of getting hurt again this summer.

Why? Due to Harden’s uncertain contract situation.

James Harden, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey could possibly be certainly one of the East’s higher big threes next season. Matt Slocum/AP Photo

When the Harden-Simmons swap was accomplished, Harden was expected to opt-in to the ultimate 12 months of his contract, giving Philadelphia a level of protection. Harden, nonetheless, didn’t — and he gave some slightly circumspect answers in February when asked why.

“Every little thing happened so fast,” Harden said. “I just desired to get here and take my time and most significantly give attention to the tip game, and that is winning a championship.”

Harden began this season expecting to get a recent max contract this summer. Lately, veteran point guards like Lowry, Chris Paul and Mike Conley have prolonged for somewhere between $25 and $30 million a season — far below Harden’s option 12 months of $47 million, and well below the $270 million he could command over five years if he turns down that option and becomes a free agent.

And while the 37-year-old Paul had one other sensible season for Phoenix, Harden is seen by executives as more fitting of being in comparison with those sorts of veteran, steadying presences than to players worthy of max money.

“I will be here,” Harden said of Philly after Game 6. “Whatever allows us to proceed to grow and recover and do the things needed to win and compete at a high level.”

Harden could also attempt to search out that cash elsewhere, there are only a number of teams — most are rebuilding without the usage of a dear guard who will turn 33 in August — with cap space this summer. For those self same reasons, the concept of paying Harden a full max contract should give any team pause, including the 76ers.

“Would he associate with a bit of less? I do not know,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “If there have been any logic by any means, the reply [to giving him a max deal] can be no.”

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Harden’s profession is suffering from postseason disappointments. He disappeared in Game 6 within the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, going 2-for-11 because the Rockets were routed by the San Antonio Spurs on their home court while Kawhi Leonard watched in street clothes. Harden and the remainder of the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers in Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors within the 2018 West finals, then flamed out against an injury-depleted Warriors team the next season.

He’s clashed with several star teammates, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Irving.

His arrival in Philadelphia, though, was a likelihood to vary the narrative. And for a city that grew exhausted of the Simmons saga, simply having the ability to have Harden on the court was enough to earn him loads of goodwill.

But then got here one other failed playoff run for this franchise, one which culminated with Harden’s disappearing act in an elimination game. Within the second half of Game 6, Harden was disengaged, taking and missing just two shots and ending with nine for the sport.

“We ran our offense,” Harden said postgame. “The ball just didn’t get back to me.”

Rivers called timeout to tug his starters with 68 seconds remaining after one final bucket by Jimmy Butler, the clock running out on the 76ers’ season as fans still scattered across the bowl of the world offered a final hearty round of boos.

“I’m in a spot where I could be one of the best James Harden I could be on the court,” Harden said at his introductory press conference.

The issue, for each Harden and the 76ers, is that his best today is not what it was once. Now, three months after they were brought together in what gave the impression of an ideal long-term union, the long run for each side couldn’t be murkier.

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