James Harden unquestionably deserved to be named one of the top 75 players of all time — a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer, an MVP and one of the great pure scorers the sport has ever seen. He helped change the way the modern game is played, focusing on the most efficient of shots (free throws and threes). The man is a walking bucket. He deserves every accolade that comes his way.
However, within that top 75 there are tiers. Harden, for all his greatness, is not on the same level of modern players such as Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
It’s more than simply not having won a championship, it’s how he has played in the biggest moments of the postseason. It’s never taking his game and his team to a higher level in the playoffs. It’s cycling through teammate after teammate — Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Durant — and growing disenchanted with all of them. It’s not being the guy who lifts everyone around him (as CP3 has done in Phoenix).
Think of it this way: In a playoff series, would you rather have Harden or a healthy Kawhi Leonard?
Philadelphia is Harden’s last chance to change that perception.
Harden forced his way to the Philadelphia 76ers in a blockbuster trade for Ben Simmons. In Philly, Harden is paired with Joel Embiid — who is both playing at an MVP level and wants to be the guy lifting up a team in the biggest moments. Together, they will chase a ring and the next levels for their legacies.
The Beard has arrived in Philly!
Daryl Morey after over a year of trying, landed his man James Harden
🎥 @dmorey pic.twitter.com/Ug3hBNVQyy
— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) February 12, 2022
For Harden, that has to happen in this stop. The benefit of the doubt is gone.
Harden understood the PR backlash from his actions, forcing his way off a second team in 13 months, which reportedly made him hesitant to demand the trade (although he ultimately did ask directly to get out of Brooklyn). He understands this pairing with Embiid needs to work, because at this point nobody will be blaming the other guy.
Philadelphia GM Daryl Morey believes great players figure out how to play together. He’s generally right. But in Harden’s case, he has appeared to quickly grow disenchanted anytime things don’t go smoothly or work out as he envisioned — this time he needs to see it through.
It may not be smooth sailing at first, either. Harden prefers to work in isolation with a stretch five that pulls the opposing rim-protecting big away from the basket. Or, to have a rim runner who sets the pick then rolls hard (ala Clint Capela in Houston). Embiid is not a rim runner. He can space the floor out to the arc, but having Embiid stand in the corner a lot as a decoy is not the best use of his skill set.
More than that, Embiid needs to have the rock and let the offense run through him — and he has earned that right with his recent play. Embiid wants the ball in the post, or maybe 18 feet out in the wing to face up (he can score in a variety of ways, it’s part of his greatness). But often when James Harden is off the ball, he becomes disinterested, doesn’t cut, and is more traffic cone than player.
Also, Harden is not a great defender; he loses interest and his man consistently. This is one of the biggest changes from Simmons, and one Philly will need to overcome in the postseason.
how many 30 MPG guys have been worse defenders than Harden this year? pic.twitter.com/DVc4WODZI2
— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) February 3, 2022
Maybe they will, maybe Philadelphia is where Harden puts it all together and reaches the next level. It is possible, nobody is questioning the talent and potential of Harden and Embiid together.
But for Harden, at age 32, this is the stop where everything needs to work out. If not, this is as far as his legend and legacy go.