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James Harden felt like he was ‘on a leash’ in Sixers’ offense last season

James Harden feels that the Sixers held him back offensively during his time alongside Joel Embiid. But does he have a point?

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden sat behind a microphone for the Los Angeles Clippers and casually unloaded on his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Set to make his Clippers’ debut against the New York Knicks, according to him, (#HardenattheGarden), James had strong words for his former club at a recent presser.

According to ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk, Harden said he felt he was “on a leash” trying to adapt his playing style, not so much in terms of shot attempts, but his overall game while in Philly. Per the ESPN NBA reporter:

Clippers beat reporter Tomer Azarly, of ClutchPoints has more context for us, via video:

According to Azarly’s footage:

“Philly is just changing my role, knowing I can give more, knowing I can do more, but if you want me to be honest, it’s like being on a leash and like me knowing that in order for us to get to where we want to get to I was going to have to be playing my best offensively, whether it’s facilitating and scoring the basketball, and Joel [Embiid] as well. And I never really had that opportunity. So I think all that plays into where I am today where whatever [Tyronn] Lue and the coaching staff needs me to do I’ve be prepared, having been in both situations whether that’s scoring 15-16 points or scoring 30, long as we win the game, and everyone is feeling confident about and good about themselves that’s all that really matters....”

So the phrase being on a “leash” is certainly a bit extreme. And normally, it might be a bit inflammatory for the local fan base or others for various reasons. But I think there may have been just enough (warranted) Doc Rivers criticism before he was axed, that local fans may not actually freak out this time.

Harden clarified his phrasing upon follow-up questioning:

“I think the game and I’m a creator on the court... [Need] somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me, that I’m not a system player. I am a system.”

I am a system... wow. Lol. Dude sure sounds like he’s in that Carmelo Anthony-esque stage of his career, where it’s time for a massive role change and passing of the torch, but he’s too proud to admit it.

On the other hand, Harden was probably the Sixers' best player in their last playoff series, when you account for the correlation between his two big 40-plus point games and the Sixers' three monster second-round wins over Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics.

The truth was that Harden, like Ben Simmons before him, wasn’t really optimized alongside Joel Embiid here. Blame Ben and Beard all you want but we knew all along that that’s something that has plagued Doc’s teams since long before the future Hall of Fame coach’s Philly tenure began.

Fact is, Doc has had a brutal time over the last decade or so getting multiple stars to thrive in the playoffs at the same time:

Doc’s Joel-centric offense and public-or-team-facing language underscored the issue many fans had.

But still, I really don’t think there are many Sixers fans coming to Harden’s defense in this moment.

Harden’s language is strong enough that despite Doc’s severe limitations as a playoff signal caller in our modern NBA, Harden had every single opportunity to play better and help the team advance one more game.

It would have left them hosting the Eastern Conference Finals if he had and helped him get that much closer to the trophy he left so many hundreds of millions of career dollars on the table to chase, to date.

But dude (!!!) James literally sucked when it mattered most in the last two seasons. Go back and rewatch his performances the last couple of games of the 2022 season vs. Miami, and the last couple of games of the 2023 playoffs vs. Boston and you’ll see a guy who (whether there are reasonable hamstring or Achilles asterisks or not) frankly choked under the brightest lights.

James Harden is a historic talent who might have a couple of rings by now with a couple what ifs (much less what IFs than Kevin Durant deserves, having joined a 72-win team that already won a title)... but he simply gets tight in (some not all) big spots, and it can absolutely bury a team relying on him when that happens.

With that said, if the 2018 Rockets and 2021 Nets had simply stayed healthy, he might have a couple of the most impressive championship rings we’ve seen in recent history sitting on his mantle. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, I know but still.... you can’t throw this stuff out completely if you want to crown a guy like KD for riding the Steph Curry Warriors juggernaut for a couple of fun, perhaps legacy-defining seasons.

So, do I think the Sixers could have made the most out of the Harden-Embiid duo with a legit playoff coach? Absolutely.

Does Harden make some reasonable points about the Embiid-centric offense being a bit too one-dimensional and easy for a smarter team like Boston or Miami or Milwaukee to scheme against? Sure!

But does Harden, like Doc, have a major, major self-accountability problem on top? Absolutely.

Does that strip away whatever benefit of the doubt he deserves? I have my opinion but I’ll let you decide in the replies.

All that being said, Harden may have helped Josh Harris (and/or Daryl Morey) rip the Doc Band-Aid off when he/they simply hadn’t been able to themselves. So they owe Harden one there if he played even a tiny role in helping this team swap out Doc for Nick Nurse.

Still, when Harden visits Philly, it’s going to be pretty lit. Can’t believe he choked so badly, then had the nerve to say they kept him on a leash, lol. Harden...smh. I won’t miss this coverage.

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