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Rachel Nichols: ‘[Harden] thinks he should be leading the show’

Showtime’s Rachel Nichols offers a bold opinion on James Harden and what type of role he’s looking for a this point in his career.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden has requested a trade and wants to join Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the Los Angeles Clippers. Sixers President Daryl Morey is in The Beard’s doghouse because Harden, it’s believed, didn’t get the long-term contract he was hoping for, and because Morey hasn’t been willing to accommodate his trade request to date.

(Sighs). That’s the most summary I can muster for you right now because frankly, I feel we’ve written way too much about Harden this summer.

Now the latest comes from Showtime’s Rachel Nichols, who appeared on FS1’s “Undisputed” with Skip Bayless.

Per Nichols:

“It’s the fact that he is 34 (years old), he’s not the player that he used to be, and if he can acknowledge that I think he will continue to have success in the NBA for a while. He is right, guys want to play with him when he is motivated, when he is into it. And the fact that yes, as you point out, Games 6 and 7 in that series against Boston it’s not just that he combined for 22 points over two games, he had 10 turnovers. But he still thinks of himself as the guy from Game 1. Or the guy from that Game 4. He thinks he should be leading the show. The reason why he wanted out of Philadelphia in the first place is that it’s the Joel Embiid show right now and he wants a different role. He has to realize that if he is going to opt in to a $35.6M contract that is the choice you are making. He had the choice this summer to be a free agent, he could have walked onto any team, written his own ticket if he had decided ‘hey, I just wanna win, it’s time for me to win a title, I’ll take a lot less money, I wanna be a team player, I wanna do what I can, here we go.”

Now you may have also spotted this tweet going around the internet with a clipped version of her quote that’s quite a bit more intriguing than the full context version:

If you only spotted the tweet, you might have been tempted to assume she was providing some sourced intel. And maybe her opinions are based on some stuff she’s heard from others but when I listened it became pretty clear to me she was simply offering her take to perhaps match the master of takes himself Skip Bayless. She’s just speculating about what’s going on in Harden’s head. A bit of armchair analysis, if you will.

As many of you following this story have reasonably assumed, had Daryl Morey backed up the Brinks truck to keep James around he’d probably have been merrily peddling wine from Michael Rubin’s house in the Hamptons all summer. And this idea he wants out of Philly because of Embiid would sound absurd.

The idea that he could have simply opted out and taken much less money to go win is something Harden has already done on literally numerous occasions. So it’s not as if he’s never considered the idea before.

Had the Sixers wanted James around beyond this season, we’d probably have heard more nuanced versions of how he feels regarding his role.

Remember when ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, back in May, was describing the ongoing rift between Doc Rivers and James after Rivers was let go? Per Shelburne:

“On the court, I don’t think there was ever a real fit. I think James is a free-flowing offensive player,” Shelburne said. “He played a role in this team that he really has made no secret that he saw as a sacrifice. I think James was never quite comfortable on that role.”

Chris Haynes, writing for Bleacher Report on the importance of the Sixers' next coaching hire (before Nick Nurse) would write:

“The Houston Rockets have long been a rumored destination, but sources say Harden will only entertain suitors that present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself, sources say.

At the moment, the Sixers are the only logical option, coming off a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. But the dynamic in Philadelphia will undoubtedly change next season, considering the Sixers have to find the right coach after dismissing Doc Rivers.”

So again, had Morey decided he wanted James around for the long haul, I think the conversation about Harden’s role would have sounded a lot more nuanced. Maybe stuff like that above and how Nick Nurse might add more movement and unpredictability around the pick-and-roll.

Yes, I do I believe James would have wanted to play on an offense that wasn’t quite so Embiidcentric. But the idea he needs to be the man?

Let’s remember, this is the same guy who turned down a $103M extension to stay in Houston back in 2020, where he assuredly would have remained the man. That helped him force his way to join a Nets team where he appeared to thrive (in limited appearances due to injury) alongside two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant and NBA Champ, Kyrie Irving.

“He came to Brooklyn expecting to be part of a three-headed monster,” was how The Athletic’s Alex Schiffer once put it before Irving’s controversial vaccination incident contributed to that Big 3’s derailment.

“Harden saw [Embiid, a leading MVP candidate] hungering for his first ring, according to several people close to him,” was how Jake Fischer would put it after Harden landed in Philly back in 2022.

And now Harden’s single-team trade request to go and join two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and eight-time All-Star Paul George screams more “I want to be part of a three-headed” monster than Nichols’ version of things too.

So was Harden unhappy with his role in Doc Rivers’ offense last year? Yeah, I’m sure he was. Had they maxed him out would he have given Nick Nurse every opportunity to perhaps distribute the scoring load a bit so that Embiid wasn’t necessarily leading the league in scoring? Probably. Tyrese Maxey and the fans might enjoy that more as well if I’m being honest.

On the flip side, had the Houston Rockets and not the 76ers offered Harden a four-year max, might James have enjoyed potentially returning to a more scoring-minded role without a high usage post big? I could buy that too. The money is the major element I think Nichols overlooks. Has James had a difficult time accepting that he’s not the same player he once was? Maybe. More so than others? I’m not sure. That part is difficult to say. The interesting thing is that when James is at his absolute worst, when he’s melting before your eyes in a huge playoff moment, he’s not “going down swinging.”

He’s deferring a bit too much, standing off in the corners, hoping others will do the work, he’s shrinking into a player who no longer scares defenses and kicking it out to shooters instead of applying the pressure like he’s so often capable of.

We’ve heard from credible reporters that the Sixers want Harden back. We’ve seen Harden enjoying himself with other members of the Sixers and been reminded that his beef is really just with Daryl Morey not Joel Embiid or his teammates. For these reasons, I think Nichols may touch on some truths but not quite hit the mark on the true dynamics at play here. He never asked out because of Joel and his role. He asked out because of Daryl Morey and the money that didn’t come. By now, everyone should know at least that part.

But at this point, Harden’s camp may as well leak anything about hating Joel to help get him traded.

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