It feels like a long time ago, but it wasn’t.
In 2018, following a regular-season campaign that earned him the league’s MVP award, James Harden and the Houston Rockets had the defending champs on the ropes. After a slugfest Game 5 victory that was more reminiscent of the 90s, the Rockets held a 3-2 series lead over the mighty Golden State Warriors.
You likely know how that story ended. A Chris Paul injury and the worst shooting luck in NBA history led to Houston losing the series in seven games. The Warriors would go on to sweep the Cavaliers in the Finals.
That was the closest Harden ever came to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy with the Rockets. It was also the closest a Western Conference team had come to knocking off Golden State during a historical run.
With the Eastern Conference seemingly wide open, and being paired with a guy playing better basketball than anyone on the planet right now, this could be The Beard’s next-best chance.
Fair or unfair, there are plenty of narratives surrounding Harden. Some may look at Harden as selfish for forcing two trades, with the Sixers being his third team in fourteen months. Or perhaps Harden was genuine when he said that Philadelphia was his first choice from the jump, and, in the era of player empowerment, saw his opportunity to get here in a mutually beneficial situation for the Nets and Sixers.
In either case, there’s a lot of pressure on the 32-year-old guard to make it work.
He seems happy to be here. He’s reunited with Daryl Morey and Tad Brown. He’s playing for a coach he views as “one of the best coaches to ever coach the game of basketball.” He’ll have the opportunity to play with Joel Embiid, the odds-on favorite to win MVP. The team he’s joining is well within striking distance of the top of the conference.
There are no mighty Warriors or any other dynasty to go through. There’s likely no LeBron James supernova that can single-handedly carry their team to the Finals. (That’s not to say players like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo aren’t great, but what LeBron did to the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade was otherworldly.)
There is no time like the present for Harden.
“That’s the goal,” Harden said at his introductory presser. “Like Daryl said, the opportunity, the window is now. Joel’s playing the best he’s ever played. So my job is to go out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward.”
It was even less long ago that Harden found himself in the MVP conversation again. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately and “post-pandemic” world we live in, things that happened yesterday feel like they took place months ago.
After the trade went down that sent Harden from Houston to Brooklyn, the 10-time All-Star was sensational in his point guard role. In 32 games before suffering a hamstring injury, Harden averaged 26.4 points, 11.4 assists and 8.9 rebounds a game on 61.6 percent true shooting. That stretch ended less than a year ago (March 29, 2021).
While Nikola Jokic took home the award, and Embiid was firmly in the mix, Harden’s name was in the discussion for a good chunk of the season.
All of this to say the expectations will be — and should be — sky high. The Sixers are pairing Embiid at the peak of his powers with one of the top 75 players in NBA history. They’re easily two of the top-20 players in the league right now. They could become the most formidable duo in the NBA.
There’s no running from the lofty expectations this city has for its basketball team. Harden has to embrace them.
it's go time. pic.twitter.com/WbMYdHDGxb— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 25, 2022
Everything is in place.
This could be James Harden’s moment to silence the critics and wash away the disappointment that’s overshadowed his career’s brilliance.
He just has to seize it.