James Harden was absolutely electric. In a series that featured a bevy of talent, The Beard was arguably the best player on the floor.
The year had to be, what? 2015? 2017?
Nope. It was June of 2021, a little over a year ago, that Harden went full supernova in his first playoff action as a Net. In a five-game series against the Celtics, the former MVP averaged 27.8 points, 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds a game. And his shooting numbers were outrageous — 55.6/47.5/90.9 splits, 76 percent true shooting.
After Brooklyn coasted in the first round, they were on to Milwaukee. Unfortunately for Harden and the Nets, the hamstring issue that caused Harden to miss the latter part of the regular season crept up 43 seconds into Game 1. Harden returned for Games 5, 6 and 7, but clearly wasn’t himself.
Those hamstring issues lingered into the 2021-22 season both with the Nets and then after he was traded to the Sixers. After a forgetful Game 6 loss to the Heat, there was plenty of opining about the 10-time All-Star and seven-time All-NBA pick, and whether he’d ever be able to play at a high level again.
But perhaps there’s a simpler explanation — he wasn’t healthy. While “Houston Harden” might be gone, the Harden that looked like an MVP candidate in the 2020-21 season and a juggernaut to start the 2021 postseason for the Nets could very well still be in there. Even if he can’t be that exact player, Harden still has the ability to elevate superstar Joel Embiid and rising star Tyrese Maxey in the Sixers’ quest for a title.
After the Sixers lurked as a suitor for Harden back in January of 2021, Houston ultimately traded him to Brooklyn.
And over the first two months of his time with the Nets, Harden looked like he hadn't missed a beat. In his first 32 games in Brooklyn, Harden averaged 26.4 points on 61.6 true shooting, which was actually slightly higher than his true shooting percentage the previous eight seasons in Houston. He nearly averaged a triple-double (11.4 assists, 8.9 rebounds) in 38.7 minutes a game. There was legitimate MVP buzz. "Brooklyn Beard" was on par with "Houston Harden."
Then on March 31, in a game against his former team, Harden tweaked his hamstring, playing just under 27 minutes that night. Harden went on to play only three of the last 23 regular-season game to close the year.
After Harden's unreal performance against the Celtics, the hamstring tweak against the Bucks appeared to be the beginning of the end for the Nets. Harden revealed that he’d actually suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain, which is a partial tear of one or more hamstring muscles.
Not only did Harden's hamstring issues linger into the next season, but the new rules emphasis hindered his ability to get to the free throw line at will like he had for nearly a decade. In 26 games to start the 2021-22 season, Harden barely shot over 40 percent from the field and averaged 20.8 points a game.
It was only after Harden missed two weeks (four games) with COVID that he looked like himself again. The rest did his hamstring good as he averaged 26.4 points on 58.7 true shooting in his next 16 games. The issues really arose after Durant suffered a sprained MCL in mid-January. With Kyrie Irving’s lack of vaccination, much of the burden fell on Harden to carry a Brooklyn team devoid of depth.
A four-point performance on the road in Sacramento wound up being the final game of Harden’s tenure in Brooklyn. He’d go on to miss an ugly four-game losing streak for the Nets.
That opened the door for the Sixers to swoop in.
Spurts for the Sixers
When Harden arrived in the blockbuster trade that ended the Ben Simmons saga, the first thing he did was rest. Harden missed the Sixers’ last four games ahead of the All-Star break. He didn’t play a game from Feb. 2 in Sacramento until his Sixers debut on Feb. 25 in Minnesota.
And what a debut it was.
Harden’s first four games with the Sixers were spectacular (26.8 points, 12 assists, 59.2/50/90.2 shooting splits). The next 21 regular-season games were a roller coaster. Harden dazzled against the defending champion Bucks in late March then had a 4-for-15 performance a couple nights later in Detroit. That was indicative of his output down the stretch.
That carried over into the postseason. Harden was good to very good in Games 1, 2 and 3 against the Raptors as Embiid, Maxey and Tobias Harris carried the scoring load. There’s no sugarcoating it — Games 4 and 5 were abysmal. Harden shot 9 of 28 in those contests, unable to pick up the slack as Embiid nursed a torn ligament in his shooting thumb.
But Game 6 was a totally different story. While he looked content to be a complementary scorer earlier in this series, Harden was ultra aggressive to start the deciding game in Toronto.
That’s vintage stuff.
Speaking of vintage performances, Harden was good for one more in Game 4 of the second round against Miami. He dropped 16 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, securing a victory as the Sixers’ offense was leaking oil and seemingly got his team right back in the series.
Again, you can’t gloss over his performances in Games 5 and 6 of that Heat series. He went out without a whimper, going scoreless and attempting just two shots in the second half of an elimination game. It was an incredibly disappointing display, to say the least.
But while the taste of that defeat will likely linger for many fans, there are reasons to believe he can be consistently better for the Sixers in 2022-23.
How he's changing his prep
Harden’s reputation proceeds him as a guy that works hard and plays hard off the court. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the Instagram posts.
Still, Harden rarely missed time throughout his career and avoided serious injury.
During his eight years with the Rockets, Harden was basically an ironman. He played 613 of 646 possible games for Houston. That’s 94.9 percent. Only two players played more games in that span — P.J. Tucker (637) and Damian Lillard (615). Harden’s 37.1 minutes per game were more than any player in the NBA during that stretch.
At age 31, he suffered his first significant injury. By all accounts, it seems like it was a difficult thing for him to physically and mentally cope with.
“I was getting [close to 100 percent], man,” Harden said after the Game 6 loss. “Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me. I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”
So far this summer, Harden has said all the right things.
“I’ve got to be cautious of what I eat, because as you get older, your metabolism slows down. It sucks honestly, because I love to eat and I don’t want to be having to watch how many calories I intake,” Harden said to Haute Time. “I don’t shred fat as fast as I used to, so I have to work extra hard, especially in the summertime. In the summertime, I just want to be free; I want to eat, sip wine, and do whatever I want to do.
“And it’s still [early summer], so I don’t want to be going crazy working out now, but I am going into year 14, so I’ve got to be cautious as far as hitting my peak — when I’m supposed to be in my stride — going into the season.”
Harden is a prideful person. He’s a former MVP and one of the top-75 players of all time. Surely how last season transpired didn’t sit well with him. These seem like the words of a man who did a little reflecting and realized that he needed to make changes.
“It won’t last forever,” he said. “I mean, I’ll be 40 or something when it’s all said and done, but I want to look back and be like, you have had one of the best careers for someone ever to play basketball. At the end of the day, I’m a competitor. I don’t want to go out there and look bad; I still want to be able to play and produce, be efficient, and be good. When the end comes, everybody is going to know it, so right now I’m just taking advantage of it, having fun with it, working my butt off, putting the work in, and enjoying the moment, so that when all is said and done, I can look back and hopefully, will have made people proud.”
During the same availability after Game 6, Harden mentioned that he wasn’t able to get in any open runs last summer because of the hamstring. That also likely contributed to his slow start to the 2021-22 season. This summer, he’s already looked good going up against a few pros — even adding a little midrange game to the arsenal.
But the idea that Harden is “washed” seems premature. There were too many instances where Harden looked like his dominant self.
And he’s 33, not 43.
A good comparison for Harden’s hamstring issues and subsequent struggles is one of his former teammates, Chris Paul. You’ll recall that Harden and the Rockets held a 3-2 series lead over the mighty Warriors in the Western Conference Finals back in 2018. Paul then suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the series, which Houston ultimately dropped in seven games.
The injury, which was also revealed to be a Grade 2 strain, lingered into the next season and people began openly questioning whether CP3 was no longer a star — or maybe even done. (Sound familiar?). The following offseason, Paul was traded to Oklahoma City, with Russell Westbrook going to the Rockets. Paul then went on to lead the Thunder to an unlikely run to the playoffs and looked rejuvenated in an All-Star season at age 34. Paul was then traded to Phoenix where he’s made two All-Star teams and helped the Suns reach the Finals.
The point being, perhaps Harden just needs that pesky hamstring to heal.
“I’ve had the luxury of not having to deal with any serious injuries — with surgeries or whatnot — my entire career,” he said to Haute. “But these last two years, I’ve been dealing with some hamstring issues, which are nothing to play with. So I’m taking this summer as an opportunity to do something for me, to make sure that I get back to the elite level that I know I can be at and that I will be at.”
Making everyone better
And that’s not to say Harden can duplicate his 2017-18 MVP season — nor do the Sixers need him to.
Embiid is the guy here. He’s been the MVP runner-up the last two seasons and cemented himself as one of the best players on the planet. Everything runs through the big fella.
And (yes, broken record) it seems like it’s a matter of when not if Maxey makes an All-Star team. Maxey was thrust into the starting point guard role while Simmons was holding out last season. When Harden arrived, Maxey was able to resume a more natural scoring role and thrived.
Harden is here to help make Embiid, Maxey and everyone else better. Even if Harden’s days of dropping 50 are over, this is a player that finished second in the league in assists last season. Since he led the league in assists per game back in 2016-17, only Westbrook has accumulated more dimes.
And even when he was dropping 50 in Houston, he still managed to make the entire team better. The Sixers felt the effects of that to close the regular season.
Top 15 two-man lineups in offensive rating, minimum 500 minutes played last season. pic.twitter.com/7cr2SZqX8Q— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) July 27, 2022
Introducing: Advantages Created— SIS Hoops (@SIS_Hoops) August 22, 2022
This metric measures when a ball-handler creates an opportunity, for themselves or a teammate, for a high-quality shot, regardless of whether that opportunity was seized. Here are the leaders in Advantages Created per 100 last season: pic.twitter.com/RKclN7UHcE
Harden should be better as a scorer next season. His best nine scoring outputs from last season came as a Net at his healthiest. He only broke 30 points twice as a Sixer. We should expect more scoring — there’s evidence and a history to back that up.
But even if the scoring wanes a little, there are plenty of ways for Harden to help the Sixers win games.
Can Harden make the Sixers a contender?
It’s hard to know if the Sixers will be title contenders. That’s clearly the goal with the signings of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House and the trade for De’Anthony Melton. With those additions, the team is undoubtedly deeper, tougher and more balanced.
Once last season ended, Harden said he would do whatever it took to get the Sixers closer to their goal of a championship. Thus far, you have to say he is a man of his word.
With Harden declining his $47.3 million option for 2022-23, the team was able to sign Tucker and House. His pay cut allowed Morey to improve the team. His bonding with Embiid and Maxey shows a desire to connect with its most important players. His physical appearance shows the emphasis on health and fitness is not just talk.
While “Houston Harden” and “Brooklyn Beard” might be things of the past, Harden’s third act still has the potential to be his best yet — if he can lead the Sixers to their first championship in four decades and add the ultimate team prize to his already Hall-of-Fame-worthy legacy.