Early in the fourth quarter of Game 6 between the Sixers and Heat, an exhausted Doc Rivers gave up attempts to get his team back in the game and directly appealed to his competitive spirit. “Battle for it,” Rivers pleaded. “Come on boys battle They didn’t. Miami’s lead swelled to 19 and then 20 before Philadelphia closed the garbage-time gap and ended the game — and its season — in a 99-90 loss.
At that moment, Rivers addressed everyone in that Sixers group. However, his message was probably aimed directly at James Harden. In the biggest game of the Philadelphia season, Harden played like he didn’t want to be there. He attempted nine shots, fewer than anyone in the Sixers’ starting lineup except for Danny Green, who left the game after three minutes with a knee injury. In the third quarter, Harden had more turnovers (two) than shots. He tried again in the fourth quarter. He did not attempt a free throw. His final line: 43 minutes, 11 points, nine assists, four turnovers.
“We never got an offensive rhythm tonight,” Rivers said. “I didn’t like how we played … I thought we had more.”
“Listen,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to make this a referendum on James.”
Fine. But how Philadelphia handles Harden this summer will determine the future of the franchise. The Sixers mortgaged the future to acquire Harden. They traded Ben Simmons, their most attractive trading chip. This included Seth Curry, a 31-year-old sniper who killed Joel Embiid Yes, really liked playing with it. They threw in a pair of first-round picks. Team President Daryl Morey believed that Harden was the missing piece and hitched Philadelphia’s car to him.
And now the 76ers’ front office has to decide what to pay him.
When Philadelphia traded for Harden in February, the Sixers were expected to secure Harden a five-year deal worth over $250 million. Morey’s affection for Harden is well known. He acquired Harden from Oklahoma City in 2012, empowered him and watched him grow into an MVP. Morey has regularly called Harden the greatest isolationist in NBA history and believed that the chance to play with a dominant scorer like Embiid — the type of player Morey and Harden talked about but could never bring to Houston — brought him would stimulate.
It didn’t. Harden averaged 21 points per game during the regular season. His field goal percentage (40.2%) and three-point percentage (32.6%) were career lows. His numbers in the playoffs were comparable. For every brilliant game Harden played (a 22-point effort with 15 assists in Game 6 against Toronto, a 31-point breakout in Game 4 against Miami), there were twice as many clunkers. In Philly’s last two games, Harden attempted 22 shots, scored 25 points and had almost as many turnovers (eight) as assists (13). While ex-six Jimmy Butler carried his team — “I still don’t know why we let him go,” said a still-salty Embiid — Harden was little more than a spectator on his.
When asked about his lack of aggressiveness in Game 6, Harden said, “When we were on offense, the ball just wasn’t coming back to me.”
It is not so easy. Embiid knows. “Everyone was expecting the Houston James Harden,” Embiid said. “He’s not anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.” Harden knows it. The rest of the NBA knows it. “The drop is obvious,” said an opposing team leader AND. “You can see it in his ability to create space to capture the shots he would normally create. He doesn’t have an outbreak. People are not afraid that he drives and scores. They challenge this step more often. He’s just not the same player.”
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He’s not, but Harden, who turns 33 this summer, heads into the offseason with leverage. He has until June 29 to decide on the final year of his contract, a decision that would guarantee him $47.4 million next season. He could bet himself that a healthy summer and a full training camp with Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle will result in a more productive season. It’s a risk – Harden’s hamstring problems have become chronic and he could be injured or his regression could continue – but it’s a stick he could use in negotiations.
Because what will Philadelphia do? Allowing Harden to sign up for his contract and play it off makes business sense. But Harden effectively quit in team two when he didn’t like what was happening. Philadelphia, desperate to maximize Embiid’s MVP level seasons, doesn’t want to be a third.
And what if Harden finds a better deal? He’s got six weeks to survey the landscape – spare me the manipulative outcry, unless you’re one of those who believe deals agreed to on a minute’s free hand in the 60 seconds after opening negotiated – and see what’s out there. The market will not be robust. But what if Houston, home of Harden’s most successful seasons, seeks a reunion? What if Portland, desperate to add more star power alongside Damian Lillard, opens the vault?
Can Philadelphia risk losing Harden for nothing?
For his part, Harden said he intends to be with the Sixers next season. Asked directly if he would opt for the final year of his contract, Harden said, “I’ll be here. Whatever allows this team to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level. When asked if he would need less than the max for it, Harden said, “Whatever it takes to help this team grow and take us to the top with the best of them.”
Morey bet heavily on Harden. Now he has to figure out how to make it work with him. There is an obvious contractual middle ground. Chris Paul’s deal last summer, for example. Paul signed a new four-year, $120 million deal, giving Phoenix financial flexibility. The Sixers would undoubtedly love to work out a similar deal with Harden. The question is whether Harden will go for it.
“That will define Daryl,” said the manager. “The trade did not work out as he had hoped. If he messes up and James leaves, where are they? If he overpays him, how do you build a winner? He knew James better than anyone. He knew his lifestyle, he knew where his body was. He had to have some level of knowledge of where this was going. He loves the guy. He’s loyal to the guy. I understand that. But you have to part with that when making these decisions.”
A significant off-season is upon us. Embiid – who struggled through a torn thumb ligament, a broken bone in his face and a concussion in this series – will need at least one surgery. Maybe two. Rivers could be replaced. Tobias Harris could be shopped. “[The front office] will do anything to win a championship,” Embiid said. “If it means trading people, signing new people, or trading me, then they will.”
However, no decision is bigger than Harden’s future. The right result could push the Sixers into the cover picture. The wrong one could ruin them.
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