IN EARLY MARCH, sitting on-stage inside Boston’s Hynes Conference Heart for the beginning of the annual MIT Sloan Sports activities Analytics Convention, Daryl Morey wore a blue blazer over a red shirt that featured a cartoon of James Harden‘s face from his well-known web meme.
“Moreover ‘Seize The Knowledge,’ the theme of this convention is reuniting,” mentioned Morey, the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations who co-founded the stats symposium practically 20 years in the past.
“I used to be fortunate sufficient to get reunited with my basketball Jesus.”
Throughout Morey’s profession as an government, he has come to be outlined by two issues on the courtroom: serving to popularize using analytics throughout the NBA, and his eight-year partnership with Harden and the Houston Rockets.
A month earlier, Morey had accomplished his yearlong odyssey to reunite along with his former MVP, a journey Morey punctuated with an image from a tarmac subsequent to a personal jet upon Harden’s arrival.
The caption: a single trophy emoji.
“Our mission that’s been given to us, [it’s] the entire purpose that everybody on the group is admittedly right here,” Morey mentioned at Harden’s introductory information convention a couple of days later. “[General manager Elton Brand is] right here to win a title. [Coach Doc Rivers] is right here to win a title.
“It’s unfinished enterprise for all of us. … We knew, from the second Ben [Simmons] requested out, that if we have been gonna do a commerce, it needed to be for [a player] we thought may enable us to compete at a excessive degree.
“And, the best way this league works, it’s important to get gamers of the caliber of a James Harden to pair with a Joel Embiid and Tobias [Harris]. You’ll be able to’t win with out it.”
Morey’s considering was additionally an assumption: that Harden was nonetheless the extent of participant who completed first or second in MVP voting 4 out of 5 seasons throughout their time collectively in Houston.
However it has grow to be clear that the MVP-level model of Harden is gone.
He actually didn’t present up within the largest sport of Philadelphia’s season. With every part on the road in Sport 6 of their Japanese Convention semifinal in opposition to the Miami Warmth, Harden was a non-factor. He completed with 11 factors, 9 assists and 4 turnovers. His giveaway with just below 11 minutes remaining within the fourth quarter — which led to Bam Adebayo‘s quick break bucket — despatched boos raining down from the sellout crowd inside Wells Fargo Heart as Harden and his teammates trudged again to the bench.
Miami ultimately ended Philadelphia’s postseason with a 99-90 win, sending the 76ers crashing out of the second spherical for the fourth time in 5 seasons.
Now the franchise heads into one other offseason filled with uncertainty with one other large — and doubtlessly costly — query.
Is there a future for Harden and the 76ers?
“That is their mattress,” a Western Convention government mentioned. “They’re making it, they’re gonna sleep in it and it’s not gonna f—ing work.”
THE HARDEN-EMBIID partnership ought to make sense.
Harden has spent the previous decade being an elite NBA offense unto himself. From the 2013-14 season — the primary season Second Spectrum started monitoring knowledge — by 2019-20, Harden recorded practically 8,000 isolation performs, greater than 2,000 greater than some other participant throughout that span.
He averaged 1.10 factors on these performs, the very best effectivity within the league. He made 734 step-back 3-pointers throughout that span, greater than 500 greater than some other participant.
The plan: pairing Harden with Embiid, arguably the league’s most dominant bodily pressure, one other of its elite foul-drawers and a finalist for the NBA’s Most Invaluable Participant award for a second straight season, would create an offensive juggernaut.
Early on, the returns have been good. Harden had at the very least 25 factors on at the very least 50% taking pictures in every of his first 4 video games as a 76er — all wins.
After toppling the New York Knicks within the duo’s second sport collectively — throughout which Harden and Embiid mixed to shoot 37 free throws — the massive man provided up a easy overview:
“Unstoppable,” Embiid mentioned with a smile.
These early performances proved to be outliers. Over Harden’s remaining 29 video games of this season — together with Philadelphia’s 12 postseason contests — he managed to hit these benchmarks 4 extra instances every — and had just one sport, in opposition to the Milwaukee Bucks on March 29, when he hit them each on the identical evening.
The underrated a part of Harden’s peak was his burst, a mix that allowed him to each get to the basket at will and switch his step-back jumper into some of the unguardable pictures in NBA historical past.
However recurring hamstring accidents over the previous two seasons have zapped that burst. In 2019-20, per Second Spectrum, Harden blew by his defender on 44.1% of his drives. That share dropped to 30.3% final season and to 29.1% this season.
Harden’s offensive effectivity has taken a dive. His efficient area objective share dropped under 50% for the primary time since his rookie yr. Amongst 71 gamers who tried at the very least 300 layups and dunks this season, per Second Spectrum, solely two — Harden and the Knicks’ RJ Barrett — shot lower than 50% on them.
These points got here to the fore throughout the playoffs. Towards two lengthy defenses — the Toronto Raptors within the first spherical and the Warmth within the convention semifinals — Harden had a sequence of pedestrian performances with the occasional second of brilliance dropped in.
Harden shot 44.2% within the paint this postseason, per Second Spectrum, his lowest quantity in any playoffs through which he has performed a number of rounds. He made 32 area objectives and dedicated 29 turnovers in opposition to Miami, and his 0.88 factors per probability on drives in opposition to the Warmth, per Second Spectrum, was his lowest quantity since 2014.
Harden scored over 30 factors as soon as within the postseason — in Philadelphia’s Sport 4 residence victory over Miami — and persistently struggled to complete inside. His 40.4% taking pictures total and 43.8% on 2-point pictures have been his lowest marks within the postseason in eight years. And he posted the very best turnover charge of his profession whereas having a far decrease utilization charge than in any of his prolific Houston seasons.
76ers coach Doc Rivers and Harden’s teammates repeatedly tried to readjust expectations because the playoffs went on. Harden nonetheless is an elite playmaker and the one pure level guard on Philadelphia’s roster.
“Since we bought him, all people anticipated the Houston James Harden,” Embiid mentioned after Sport 6. “However that’s not who he’s anymore. He’s extra of a playmaker.”
And even Harden has alluded to his sport morphing away from the one-man present that received him three straight scoring titles with the Rockets.
“I’ve at all times been the communicator, the organizer, making an attempt to get guys in the proper positions,” Harden mentioned after Sport 3. “I believe [that’s the case] extra now than ever.”
When Philadelphia has performed effectively offensively in these playoffs, Harden has been a driving pressure. When he’s on the courtroom, the 76ers’ offense clocks in at 114.7 factors per 100 possessions — which might sit comfortably among the many high 5 within the league throughout the common season.
When he goes to the bench, Philadelphia’s offensive score plummets to 101.5, which might simply be the NBA’s lowest.
The Sixers have been with out Embiid in Video games 1 and a couple of in opposition to Miami, however each have been winnable as a consequence of middling performances by the Warmth, who have been with out Kyle Lowry. However Harden shot simply 11-for-28 from the sector, together with 3-for-12 from 3-point vary.
“It’s not about James,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers mentioned after Philly’s Sport 1 loss. “It’s about all of them. We’re a group, and we now have to play higher as a group.
“It’s not one man who’s going to take up slack from not having Joel.”
The reasoning behind buying and selling for Harden, nevertheless, was to have precisely that.
Now, Harden’s 2022 playoffs underlie how sophisticated his potential free company will probably be to navigate — for all sides concerned.
IN TRADING FOR Harden, Morey and the 76ers have been anticipating their season to finish in a special place than it did final yr. As an alternative, it wound up delivering the identical consequence — simply with completely different issues alongside the best way.
Final yr, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star level guard passing up an open dunk within the closing moments of Sport 7 of the Japanese Convention semifinals at residence in opposition to a lower-seeded group.
This yr, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star level guard going 4-for-9 as Philadelphia misplaced in Sport 6 on its residence courtroom to a Miami group lacking Lowry for the fourth time in six video games of the sequence.
There are mitigating circumstances — most notably Embiid’s accidents. This loss, nevertheless, is about Harden. He was, by Morey’s personal admission, the ultimate piece to the puzzle, the transfer that had to work.
“That is actually our method to pair Joel with Tobias and one other impression participant to provide ourselves an actual probability to win,” Morey mentioned in a radio interview two weeks earlier than buying Harden on the deadline, explaining the significance of nailing any Simmons commerce.
“And if we simply do a marginal commerce that’s principally sideways as a result of we’ll all really feel higher that there are names taking part in on the courtroom, that can damage Joel, that can damage the 76ers, that can damage our entire roster in the long term greater than if we’re affected person.”
Philadelphia finds itself in peril of getting damage once more this summer time.
Why? Due to Harden’s unsure contract scenario.
When the Harden-Simmons swap was accomplished, Harden was anticipated to choose in to the ultimate yr of his contract, giving Philadelphia a degree of safety. Harden, nevertheless, didn’t — and he gave some fairly circumspect solutions in February when requested why.
“All the pieces occurred so quick,” Harden mentioned. “I simply needed to get right here and take my time and most significantly deal with the tip sport, and that’s profitable a championship.”
Harden started this season anticipating to get a brand new max contract this summer time. In recent times, veteran level guards, reminiscent of Lowry, Chris Paul and Mike Conley, have prolonged for someplace between $25 and $30 million per season — far under Harden’s possibility yr of $47 million, and effectively under the $270 million he may command over 5 years if he turns down that possibility and turns into a free agent.
And whereas the 37-year-old Paul had one other sensible season for Phoenix, Harden is seen by executives as extra becoming of being in comparison with these kinds of veteran, steadying presences than to gamers worthy of max cash.
“I’ll be right here,” Harden mentioned of Philly after Sport 6. “No matter permits us to proceed to develop and get higher and do the issues essential to win and compete at a excessive degree.”
Harden may additionally try to seek out that cash elsewhere, there are only some groups — most are rebuilding with out using a guard on a pricy contract who will flip 33 in August — with cap house this summer time. For those self same causes, the thought of paying Harden a full max contract ought to give any group pause, together with the 76ers.
“Would he associate with rather less? I don’t know,” an Japanese Convention scout mentioned. “If there have been any logic in any way, the reply [to giving him a max deal] could be no.”
Harden’s profession is affected by postseason disappointments. He disappeared in Sport 6 within the 2017 Western Convention semifinals, going 2-for-11 because the Rockets have been routed by the San Antonio Spurs on their residence courtroom whereas Kawhi Leonard watched in road garments. Harden and the remainder of the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers in Sport 7 in opposition to the Golden State Warriors within the 2018 West finals, then flamed out in opposition to an injury-depleted Warriors group the next season.
He has clashed with a number of star teammates, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Irving.
His arrival in Philadelphia, although, was an opportunity to alter the narrative. And for a metropolis that grew exhausted of the Simmons saga, merely having the ability to have Harden on the courtroom was sufficient to earn him loads of goodwill.
However then got here one other failed playoff run for this franchise, one which culminated with Harden’s disappearing act in an elimination sport. Within the second half of Sport 6, Harden was disengaged, taking and lacking simply two pictures and ending with 9 for the sport.
“We ran our offense,” Harden mentioned postgame. “The ball simply didn’t get again to me.”
Rivers referred to as timeout to drag his starters with 68 seconds remaining after one remaining bucket by Jimmy Butler, the clock operating out on the 76ers’ season as followers nonetheless scattered across the bowl of the world provided a remaining hearty spherical of boos.
“I’m in a spot the place I will be the perfect James Harden I will be on the courtroom,” Harden mentioned at his introductory information convention.
The issue, for each Harden and the 76ers, is that his greatest today isn’t what it was once. Now, three months after they have been introduced collectively in what appeared like an ideal long-term union, the long run for either side couldn’t be murkier.