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James Harden had to navigate ‘dark moments’ in quest to regain form

James Harden had to overcome a lot physically and mentally to be “in a really good space” for his first full season with the Sixers.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden is one of the most polarizing figures in the sport of basketball.

He’s been an MVP, named one of the top 75 players of all time and put up offensive numbers that would rival just about any player in NBA history. He’s also been labeled a diva, a foul-baiter and a selfish player by his detractors.

Harden has heard it all during his Hall of Fame-caliber career.

“For the most part I’m to myself,” Harden said at Sixers media day Monday. “The media or whatever they take their little jabs and their shots at me or whatever the case may be, but I never respond because I know who I am and I know what I’m about.”

Still, what The Beard endured over the last couple seasons took its toll.

“But mentally it was very, very difficult for me,” Harden continued. “Just because I love the game of basketball. If the money wasn’t involved I’d be playing basketball. … It was very difficult. A lot of tough times, a lot of dark moments, which I never really went through because I was always healthy and playing the game of basketball. But I’m in a really good space right now and I feel like I’m back to where I needed to be and where I’m supposed to be. The feeling is great.”

Harden is entering his first training camp as a Sixer after joining the team mid-season last year in the blockbuster trade that sent Ben Simmons to Brooklyn. Harden’s stint with the Nets and brief time with the Sixers was marred by the hamstring injury he suffered late in the 2020-21 season. Throughout the 2021-22 season, he struggled to regain the form that made him an offensive juggernaut for nearly a decade in Houston.

As Harden himself will tell you, it was a difficult time. Especially for someone like him, who played 613 of 646 possible games for the Rockets (94.9 percent). He also averaged 37.1 minutes per game, more than any player in the NBA during that stretch.

The past couple seasons have been tumultuous for the 33-year-old 10-time All-Star to say the least.

“It was a combination of things, but I feel like those things are ironed out,” Harden said. “There’s conversations being had and things like that — everybody’s comfortable and everybody knows what to expect and now we just gotta go out there and do it.”

There were plenty of flashes with the Sixers last season to believe that an elite version of Harden is still in there. His first four games with the team went preposterously well. While the rest of the season was a roller coaster, there were moments — a 32-point performance against the Bucks in late March, a 15-assist Game 6 against the Raptors, his 31-point Game 4 effort that (for a second) got the Sixers back in the series with the Heat — where Harden was brilliant.

And there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into the 2022-23 season. The pick-and-roll duo of Harden and Joel Embiid was nearly unstoppable last season. Expect the team to explore that action more this year. Even as Harden’s scoring proficiency dipped last season, he still managed to make his teammates better, most notably Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris.

This summer, Harden worked out often with the tireless Maxey. We heard a lot about the bulk of the Sixers’ roster heading out to L.A. to get runs in together. On media day, Georges Niang revealed it was Harden who organized it all.

And as we all know, Harden’s willingness to take a pay cut this offseason allowed the team to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. When Embiid gave Harden credit for sacrificing money to win, Harden humbly asked, “What I do?”

Though Harden’s deal only runs through 2022-23 (with a player option he’s almost certain to decline given he returns to form), there’s plenty to suggest he is all in with the Sixers.

“He’s a selfless guy,” House, who spent parts of three seasons with Harden on the Rockets, said. “On and off the court he does a lot of great deeds that aren’t talked about and he [doesn’t] want credit from it because it’s all done from the heart. ... Growing up around him and seeing all the things that he’s doing on and off the court it just makes my respect for him as an elite athlete so much greater. He’s a tremendous leader on and off the court and a selfless guy. He’s always willing to make sure he can help you in any way possible.”

Both Tucker and House spent multiple seasons in Houston with Harden at the peak of his powers. Both players were eager to reunite with Harden — with Tucker revealing the duo wanted to be in Philly together during the 2020-21 season.

It feels like Harden is misunderstood in some ways. For a player that’s been labeled as selfish, he sacrificed to make the team better this offseason. He had two former teammates itching to play with him again. He made a concerted effort to bond with all of his teammates, new and old, over the summer. He also rededicated himself physically, joking about his trim figure (“[I lost] 100 pounds. Tweet that.”)

And Harden opening up about his mental state is atypical. When asked a follow up, he gave a response that was much more in line with what you’d expect from The Beard.

“You want to know how I was feeling?” Harden asked.

The reporter said, “Yes.”

“I don’t want to tell you how I was feeling.”

The old Harden is still in there, with maybe a dash of extra motivation and clarity provided by the struggles of the last two seasons. We’ll see how that translates to the court soon enough.

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