Let’s not sugarcoat things for Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden — there is no player in the NBA Playoffs facing more pressure than the 10-time All-Star.
In the past year and a half, Harden has forced himself off of two teams as he tries to position himself for his first NBA title.
In January 2021, Harden got himself out of a bad situation in Houston — a situation which had his fingerprints all over it — and found himself on a super team in Brooklyn. Paired with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, a championship seemed all but guaranteed for Harden. And yet, just over a year later, the trio had won just one playoff series in Brooklyn, and Harden had seen enough to make him want to bolt.
A disgruntled Harden made it clear that his time in Brooklyn was over, eventually being traded to Philadelphia for point guard Ben Simmons.
Now playing for his third team in less than two years, the excuses for Harden are over.
With his superstar sidekick Joel Embiid sidelined indefinitely with an orbital bone fracture, all pressure lands on Harden’s shoulders as Philadelphia attempts to get to the organization’s first Eastern Conference Finals since the 2000-2001 season.
So far — albeit one game — Harden hasn’t risen to the moment.
On Monday night, the 76ers lost game one of the Eastern Conference semifinals, 106-92 to the Miami Heat. Harden, needed by Philadelphia to be aggressive offensively with the absence of Embiid, took just 13 shots on the night, preferring to be a distributor rather than a scorer.
“I think I can be a little bit more aggressive,” Harden said following the loss. “They did a really good job of just boxes and elbows, showing their bodies and crowding the ball when the ball screens came.
“But I think the shot-making is what opens up the floor for our entire team,” he continued.
Harden’s lack of aggression has become a troubling trend in his short time in Philadelphia, never attempting more than 20 shots in a game as a member of the 76ers. And yet, his lack of aggression may point to an even more troubling trend — Harden is losing a step as he ages.
It’s been quite obvious that his game has deteriorated over the past year, no longer able to blow past defenders, greatly impacting his ability to utilize his patented step-back jumper. Harden needs space in order to have his usual impact, and as he moves into a new phase of his career, his ability to create space has largely disappeared.
And it’s not like legacy is the only thing on the line for Harden this postseason.
Harden has a player option for this upcoming season, and if he opts out, Harden would be playing for a five-year contract worth $270 million. If he decides to opt in, the Sixers can offer him a four-year extension worth $223 million. It’s a heck of a price tag for a single player, even if Harden was playing at his MVP level. But he’s not, and for most NBA players, once the downward slide begins, it never goes back up again.
Is Harden worth $270 million at this point in his career? Probably not, but it’s hard to believe that president of basketball operations Daryl Morey won’t offer him the max, as he’ll want to have something to show for the Simmons trade.
For the past several months, we’ve been waiting for Harden to round into his old form, making the 76ers one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference. It hasn’t happened, and it more than likely won’t.
Another playoff failure for Harden, and he’s had many, will solidify our views on him as simply a rare regular season talent who never got it done when it mattered the most. NBA history is littered with players who we’ve put in this category, but none of them made $60 million a year.
The pressure has never been greater.
Joe Morgan is the Sports Reporter for The Daily Wire. Most recently, Morgan covered the Clippers, Lakers, and the NBA for Sporting News. Send your sports questions to email@example.com.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.