NBA playoffs 2022 – James Harden’s performance reveals the uncertain future for the Philadelphia 76ers’ star duo

IN EARLY MARCH, sitting on-stage inside Boston’s Hynes Conference Heart for the beginning of the annual MIT Sloan Sports activities Analytics Convention, Daryl Morey wore a blue blazer over a pink shirt that featured a cartoon of James Harden‘s face from his well-known web meme.

“Besides ‘Seize The Data,’ the theme of this conference is reuniting,” stated Morey, the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations who co-founded the stats symposium practically 20 years in the past.

“I was lucky enough to get reunited with my basketball Jesus.”

Throughout Morey’s profession as an govt, he has come to be outlined by two issues on the courtroom: serving to popularize the usage of analytics throughout the NBA, and his eight-year partnership with Harden and the Houston Rockets.

A month earlier, Morey had accomplished his year-long odyssey to reunite along with his former MVP, a journey Morey punctuated with an image from a tarmac subsequent to a personal jet upon Harden’s arrival.

The caption: a single trophy emoji.

“Our mission that’s been given to us, [it’s] the whole reason that everyone on the team is really here,” Morey stated at Harden’s introductory information convention a number of days later. “[General manager Elton Brand is] here to win a title. [Coach Doc Rivers] is here to win a title.

“It is unfinished enterprise for all of us. … We knew, from the second Ben [Simmons] requested out, that if we had been gonna do a commerce, it needed to be for [a player] we thought might enable us to compete at a excessive degree.

“And, the way this league works, you have to get players of the caliber of a James Harden to pair with a Joel Embiid and Tobias [Harris]. You can’t win without it.”

Morey’s pondering was additionally an assumption: that Harden was nonetheless the extent of participant that completed first or second in MVP voting 4 out of 5 seasons throughout their time collectively in Houston.

But it surely’s grow to be clear that the MVP-level model of Harden is gone.

He definitely did not present up within the greatest recreation of Philadelphia’s season. With every part on the road in Recreation 6 of their Japanese Convention semifinal in opposition to the Miami Warmth, Harden was a non-factor. He completed with 11 factors, 9 assists and 4 turnovers. His giveaway with slightly below 11 minutes remaining within the fourth quarter — which led to Bam Adebayo‘s quick break bucket — despatched boos raining down from the sellout crowd inside Wells Fargo Heart as Harden and his teammates trudged again to the bench.

Miami ultimately ended Philadelphia’s postseason with a 99-90 win, sending the 76ers crashing out of the second spherical for the fourth time in 5 seasons.

Now the franchise heads into one other offseason filled with uncertainty with one other large — and doubtlessly costly — query.

Is there a future for Harden and the 76ers?

“This is their bed,” stated a Western Convention govt. “They’re making it, they’re gonna sleep in it and it’s not gonna f—ing work.”

THE HARDEN-EMBIID partnership ought to make sense.

Harden has spent the previous decade being an elite NBA offense unto himself. From the 2013-14 season — the primary season Second Spectrum started monitoring knowledge — by 2019-20, Harden recorded practically 8,000 isolation performs, greater than 2,000 greater than every other participant throughout that span.

He averaged 1.10 factors on these performs, the very best effectivity within the league. He made 734 step-back 3-pointers throughout that span, over 500 greater than every other participant.

The plan: Pairing Harden with Embiid, arguably the league’s most dominant bodily pressure, one other of its elite foul-drawers and a finalist for the NBA’s Most Helpful Participant award for a second straight season, would create an offensive juggernaut.

Early on, the returns had been good. Harden had no less than 25 factors on no less than 50% taking pictures in every of his first 4 video games as a 76er — all wins.

After toppling the New York Knicks within the duo’s second recreation collectively — throughout which Harden and Embiid mixed to shoot 37 free throws — the large man supplied up a easy evaluation:

“Unstoppable,” Embiid stated with a smile.

These early performances proved to be outliers. Over Harden’s ultimate 29 video games of this season — together with Philadelphia’s 12 postseason contests — he managed to hit these benchmarks 4 extra instances every — and solely had one recreation, in opposition to the Milwaukee Bucks on March 29, when he hit them each on the identical evening.

The underrated a part of Harden’s peak was his athleticism and burst, a mixture that allowed him to each get to the basket at will and switch his stepback jumper into one of the vital unguardable photographs in NBA historical past.

However recurring hamstring accidents over the previous two seasons have zapped that burst. In 2019-20, per Second Spectrum, Harden blew by his defender on 44.1% of his drives. That share dropped to 30.3% final season and to 29.1% this season.

Harden’s offensive effectivity has taken a dive. His efficient subject purpose share dropped under 50% for the primary time since his rookie yr. Amongst 71 gamers who tried no less than 300 layups and dunks this season, per Second Spectrum, solely two — Harden and the Knicks’ RJ Barrett — shot lower than 50% on them.

These points got here to the fore in the course of the playoffs. In opposition to two lengthy, athletic defenses — the Toronto Raptors within the first spherical and the Warmth within the convention semifinals — Harden had a collection of pedestrian performances with the occasional second of brilliance dropped in.

Harden shot 44.2% within the paint this postseason, per Second Spectrum, his lowest quantity in any playoffs during which he is performed a number of rounds. He made 32 subject objectives and dedicated 29 turnovers in opposition to Miami, and his 0.88 factors per likelihood on drives in opposition to the Warmth, per Second Spectrum, was his lowest quantity since 2014.

Harden scored over 30 factors as soon as within the postseason — in Philadelphia’s Recreation 4 residence victory over Miami — and persistently struggled to complete inside. His 40.4% taking pictures general and 43.8% on 2-point photographs had been his lowest marks within the postseason in eight years. And he posted the very best turnover price of his profession whereas having a far decrease utilization price than in any of his prolific Houston seasons.

76ers coach Doc Rivers and Harden’s teammates repeatedly tried to readjust expectations because the playoffs went on. Harden nonetheless is an elite playmaker and the one pure level guard on Philadelphia’s roster.

“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid stated after Recreation 6. “But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker.”

And even Harden has alluded to his recreation morphing away from the one-man present that received him three straight scoring titles with the Rockets.

“I’ve always been the communicator, the organizer, trying to get guys in the right positions,” Harden stated after Recreation 3. “I think [that’s the case] more now than ever.”

When Philadelphia has performed nicely offensively in these playoffs, Harden has been a driving pressure. When he is on the courtroom, the 76ers offense clocks in at 114.7 factors per 100 possessions — which might sit comfortably among the many prime 5 within the league in the course of the common season.

When he goes to the bench, Philadelphia’s offensive score plummets to 101.5, which might simply be the NBA’s lowest.

The Sixers had been with out Embiid in Video games 1 and a couple of in opposition to Miami, however each had been winnable resulting from middling performances by the Warmth, who had been with out Kyle Lowry. However Harden shot simply 11-for-28 from the sector, together with 3-for-12 from 3-point vary.

“It’s not about James,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers stated after Philly’s Recreation 1 loss.”It’s about all of them. We’re a team, and we have to play better as a team. “It isn’t one man who’s going to take up slack from not having Joel.”

The reasoning behind trading for Harden, however, was to have exactly that.

Now, Harden’s 2022 playoffs underlie how complicated his potential free agency will be to navigate — for all sides involved.

IN TRADING FOR Harden, Morey and the 76ers were expecting their season to end in a different place than it did last year. Instead, it wound up delivering the same result — just with different problems along the way.

Last year, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star point guard passing up an open dunk in the closing moments of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against a lower-seeded team.

This year, Philadelphia’s postseason ended with its All-Star point guard going 4-for-9 as Philadelphia lost in Game 6 on its home court to a Miami team missing Lowry for the fourth time in six games of the series.

There are mitigating circumstances — most notably Embiid’s injuries. This loss, however, is about Harden. He was, by Morey’s own admission, the final piece to the puzzle, the move that had to work.

“That is actually our approach to pair Joel with Tobias and one other influence participant to present ourselves an actual likelihood to win,” Morey said in a radio interview two weeks before acquiring Harden at the deadline, explaining the importance of nailing any Simmons trade.

“And if we simply do a marginal commerce that is principally sideways as a result of we’ll all really feel higher that there are names enjoying on the courtroom, that can damage Joel, that can damage the 76ers, that can damage our complete roster in the long term greater than if we’re affected person.”

Philadelphia finds itself in danger of getting hurt again this summer.

Why? Because of Harden’s uncertain contract situation.

When the Harden-Simmons swap was completed, Harden was expected to opt-in to the final year of his contract, giving Philadelphia a level of protection. Harden, however, did not — and he gave some rather circumspect answers in February when asked why.

“All the things occurred so quick,” Harden said. “I simply needed to get right here and take my time and most significantly give attention to the top recreation, and that is profitable a championship.”

Harden began this season expecting to get a new max contract this summer. In recent years, veteran point guards like Lowry, Chris Paul and Mike Conley have extended for somewhere between $25 and $30 million a season — far below Harden’s option year of $47 million, and well below the $270 million he could command over five years if he turns down that option and becomes a free agent.

And while the 37-year-old Paul had another brilliant season for Phoenix, Harden is seen by executives as more fitting of being compared to those types of veteran, steadying presences than to players worthy of max money.

“I will be right here,” Harden said of Philly after Game 6. “No matter permits us to proceed to develop and get higher and do the issues essential to win and compete at a excessive degree.”

Harden could also attempt to find that money elsewhere, there are only a few teams — most are rebuilding without the use of a pricey guard who will turn 33 in August — with cap space this summer. For those same reasons, the idea of paying Harden a full max contract should give any team pause, including the 76ers.

“Would he associate with rather less? I do not know,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “If there have been any logic in anyway, the reply [to giving him a max deal] can be no.”

Harden’s profession is plagued by postseason disappointments. He disappeared in Recreation 6 within the 2017 Western Convention semifinals, going 2-for-11 because the Rockets had been routed by the San Antonio Spurs on their residence courtroom whereas Kawhi Leonard watched in avenue garments. Harden and the remainder of the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers in Recreation 7 in opposition to the Golden State Warriors within the 2018 West finals, then flamed out in opposition to an injury-depleted Warriors crew the next season.

He is clashed with a number of star teammates, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant and Irving.

His arrival in Philadelphia, although, was an opportunity to alter the narrative. And for a metropolis that grew exhausted of the Simmons saga, merely with the ability to have Harden on the courtroom was sufficient to earn him loads of goodwill.

However then got here one other failed playoff run for this franchise, one which culminated with Harden’s disappearing act in an elimination recreation. Within the second half of Recreation 6, Harden was disengaged, taking and lacking simply two photographs and ending with 9 for the sport.

“We ran our offense,” Harden stated postgame. “The ball just didn’t get back to me.”

Rivers referred to as timeout to drag his starters with 68 seconds remaining after one ultimate bucket by Jimmy Butler, the clock working out on the 76ers’ season as followers nonetheless scattered across the bowl of the world supplied a ultimate hearty spherical of boos.

“I’m in a place where I can be the best James Harden I can be on the court,” Harden stated at his introductory press convention.

The issue, for each Harden and the 76ers, is that his finest today is not what it was. Now, three months after they had been introduced collectively in what appeared like an ideal long-term union, the longer term for either side could not be murkier.

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