Welp... not a major surprise here. But disappointing news, nonetheless. The Philadelphia 76ers are looking to exact some revenge on the Chicago Bulls this evening, but they’ll have to do so without the services of their All-NBA worthy point guard, currently leading the entire league in assists per game, one James Harden.
The good news though is that head coach Doc Rivers doesn’t sound concerned. Per Jamal Collier of ESPN:
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he wasn’t concerned about Hardens injury long term but no reason to take a chance tonight— Jamal Collier (@JamalCollier) March 22, 2023
Harden has actually been off and on the injury report with heel soreness, dating back to mid-January.
I guess this is roughly when James Harden first started dealing with this heel issue the team is now calling Achilles soreness…. He looked like he played about 30-40 min. Too many last game. https://t.co/R9kB2b6lEm— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 22, 2023
The 2018 NBA MVP would get what sounded like a load management game against the Indiana Pacers recently, ruled out with left foot/injury recovery. It was the second of a back-to-back so we didn’t think much of it at the time. He also missed a game vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves not long ago, listed with left foot soreness. That was also the second of a back-to-back.
But after he was seen wincing after one hard fall on Monday (a no call by the officials) in particular, Harden, who was already struggling by that point, reverted into a total shell. He didn’t look like his usual, confident and aggressive self at all.
Official 58 has clear view of foul here by DeRozan on Harden but opts for no call. Prob just a basic error but fwiw Tiven was part of that highly controversial crew that allowed multiple landing zone fouls, 17 (!) missed calls game favoring GSW over Hou in 2019 playoffs game 1. pic.twitter.com/MT94Wyibne— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 21, 2023
It was clear by the third quarter Monday that something was very, very off:
Harden flirting with one of those games like he had in Sacramento as a Net. Although he has been wincing in the second half. If he can’t help, someone on the bench has to notice and make a swap. Cause he’s not occupying a defender by hiding in corners on offense.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 21, 2023
By the second half of the team’s eventual soul-crushing 109-105 double overtime loss, Harden looked deferential, refusing to initiate much offense. He was deferring point guard duties to basically anyone else, and retreating to the wing or corner. He wasn’t helping on defense either. They probably could have won that one by subbing in Shake Milton, and sparing James from more grueling minutes on a sore foot.
Doc Rivers would admit after the game he felt Harden was “hurting” throughout the evening. When pressed on the matter, Doc said it was the three-time scoring champ’s foot that was the issue.
Still, I suppose because The Beard was medically cleared, nobody on the coaching staff thought to pull a clearly ailing Harden from the ballgame. Harden wound up logging a staggering 47 minutes, and more than 30 of those minutes came after Harden took that fall (linked above) that left him wincing.
So to recap, an injury that has bugged him since mid-January appeared to really slow him down more than usual vs. Chicago, yet the team didn’t protect James, who’d log 30-plus minutes on a clearly aching Achilles tendon. And now he’s ruled out for a vitally important basketball game. Not ideal.
It appears the Sixers have once again mismanaged James Harden’s workload. Perhaps at the most inopportune time imaginable. https://t.co/H9hntZ4teo— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 21, 2023
As our Paul Hudrick recently wrote:
“Unfortunately, the loss to Chicago had shades of the Game 6 loss to Miami last season, where Harden was clearly compromised and didn’t want the ball at all late in the game.
Which begs the question: why was he playing?
Harden’s struggles sunk the entire offense. That’s not a dig at Harden — quite the opposite. He’s made the Sixers’ offense hum all season long, so it’s noticeable when he’s not himself. Which makes it more puzzling is that such a critical piece to the roster was playing while hurt in a late-March game against a team that might not even make the playoffs.”
So this issue becomes the team’s biggest storyline as the year enters its most grueling stretch, and as the playoffs loom.
Jalen McDaniels is also out. He suffered what the team referred to as a hip contusion recently. He was ruled out in a game vs. the Washington Wizards. He’d missed the team’s next two battles. Then the former Hornet would surprise fans by making comments that he wasn’t quite right, yet playing against Indiana anyway last weekend. He’d follow that up by logging nine minutes vs. Chicago.
But Doc said he pulled McDaniels from that one because he wasn’t moving right.
Doc Rivers said James Harden’s foot was hurting tonight. Also said he didn’t like the way Jalen McDaniels looked physically so that’s why he took him out.— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) March 21, 2023
Why they didn’t make the same observation regarding Harden is a more pressing question. I know he’s a star and may have wanted to play, but like an ace closer in baseball, at some point you need to protect a player from the very warrior mentality which will one day propel him into the Hall of Fame.
Hopefully this isn’t something that causes the 76ers’ superstar to miss much time.
But they’ll have to tread water in Chicago without him. Philadelphia has a 12-6 record in games The Beard has missed. Tyrese Maxey has averaged 24 points per game in the nine contests he’s appeared in without his selfless running mate. Joel Embiid averages 32 points per game without Harden. They should still have the fire power to get it done. It’ll just be that much more difficult.
The Bulls at 34-37 represent one of the Sixers’ easiest games of the season remaining on paper. And a win on Wednesday would count just as much in the ultimate standings column as a win vs. Denver or Milwaukee.
The move to withhold Harden (assuming he is healthy enough for there to be any “decision” at all) is the right one. His health during the playoffs is what matters more than playoff seeding. But there is still an outside chance MVP front-runner Joel Embiid and the Sixers can snag a top one or two seed if they go on an absolute tear and get some luck.
P.J. Tucker is back from his absence related to a sore ankle. And De’Anthony Melton will start for Harden.