When James Harden made his way to the Sixers just before the trade deadline, he vowed to be in for the long haul. Not a few quarters thought it was simply bluster, though, and with reason. He said the same thing just 13 months before, when he also forced his way out of a situation he no longer deemed worth his while to move to a seemingly cozy setup with the Nets. And he looked like he meant what he said then, what with the prospect of teaming up with fellow All-Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving theoretically as good an incentive to stay as any.
To be sure, Harden soured on the Nets in some measure due to circumstances beyond his control. Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 vaccine affected their competitiveness and, as things turned out, camaraderie; it appeared that he didn’t particularly care for the increased load amid all the uncertainty, even with Durant sharing it. In any case, his output suffered, and to the point where all and sundry figured he had already mentally checked out.
It bears noting that Harden’s numbers were marginally worse with the Sixers for the remainder of their 2021-22 campaign. He was just the third-leading scorer in the first round of the playoffs, and proved particularly atrocious in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Reminiscent of his previous postseason failures, he pulled a disappearing act in the elimination match; he took only nine shots in 43 minutes, borne off an uncharacteristically low 14.1 usage rate. Which, for all intents, was why raised eyebrows greeted his reiteration of his pledge to remain in the City of Brotherly Love.
Well, Harden didn’t merely keep his promise; he did so while lending the Sixers a helping hand. He could have exercised his $47.3-million option for the 2022-23 season, guaranteeing a big payday in the interim while he negotiated for his next contract. Instead, he opted out and formally became a free agent to sign for less money and allow the red, white, and blue to go after desired talent. And, ostensibly, they’ll be using the additional salary cap space to ink journeyman P.J. Tucker to a two-year deal at the $103-million midlevel exception. In so doing, they won’t just pave the way for a reunion of the former Rockets teammates and president of hoops operations Daryl Morey; more importantly, they’ll be acceding to the request of top dog Joel Embiid, who gave the would-be acquisition a ringing endorsement following their elimination.
There’s something to be said about Harden’s magnanimity in the face of his dwindling Q rating. No doubt, he likewise understood his diminishing capacity to produce points with the same efficiency that once made him a singular offensive force in the National Basketball Association. As Embiid noted, “I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the (Rockets version) of James Harden, but that’s not him anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.” It may be a backhanded compliment, but he knows it’s true. And because he sees the writing on the wall, he’s angling for less, but over a longer time frame.
Whether Harden’s gamble will ultimately enable him to get his hands on the Larry O’Brien Trophy remains to be seen. At the very least, however, he has laid the groundwork for a graceful exit. At 32 and with declining skills, he will likely be affixing his Hancock on his last contract. Needless to say, it would also be good for him to repair his image and claim the hardware along the way.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.