James Harden will be back with 76ers, but what version of him?

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James Harden will be back with the 76ers.

“I’ll be here, yeah,” he said Thursday night after a lackluster, low-effort performance where he took and missed just two shots after halftime, the former league scoring leader not getting one point in the second half of an elimination game.

His return to Philly was never in doubt — Harden’s biggest supporter on the planet may be 76ers GM Daryl Morey, who moved heaven and earth to get him to Philadelphia at the trade deadline. But there are plenty of questions.

• At what price does he return?
• Will he accept less than a max extension?
• And for how many years?
• How committed is Harden to changing his diet, his workout habits, or whatever else is needed to be the player Morey and the Sixers thought they traded for?
• What will Harden’s legacy be?

WHO HARDEN IS NOW

Morey is a smart man; he understood he was not trading for the 2018 MVP version of Harden.

But he also clearly thought Harden was closer to that guy than the player we all saw over the final month of the season and playoffs. This version of Harden was holding the 76ers back (and Tim Legler laid it out perfectly on ESPN).

We only saw Houston Harden in flashes this season (particularly the first four games after he was traded, and in Game 4 against the Heat). It was the same for Harden in Brooklyn, although it felt less pronounced — he can’t just blow by guys in isolation anymore. That’s what Morey had been banking on. The Harden who could get into the paint at will and used that to set up the game’s best stepback 3. The guy who could draw fouls at a rate that frustrated opposing coaches and fans. That Harden has faded with a couple of hamstring injuries and the passing of time.

Except he wasn’t a great playmaker either in Philly. He was good but not elite.

Harden was not the version of himself the 76ers need to contend.

BRINGING HARDEN BACK

All of that leads to the biggest offseason question for the 76ers: What will Harden’s price be to return?

Harden has a $47.4 million player option hanging out there. If he picks it up, the 76ers and Harden could kick the free agency question down the road a year and just let him play out this contract. Or, they can extend him off this contract for up to four years, $223 million. If he doesn’t pick it up, Harden becomes a free agent. Then the max Morey and the 76ers could offer is five years, $270 million.

After watching Harden this postseason at age 32 (he turns 33 in August), Philly will not want to be on the hook for five more seasons of Harden at max money (either extended or on a new deal). That has to be a non-starter, even for Morey.

Will Harden take less?

“Whatever allows us to continue to grow and get better and do the things necessary to win and compete at a high level,” Harden said as the follow-up to his “I’ll be here” line.

Does he mean it? Let’s say there’s skepticism around the league.

The model the 76ers want Harden to follow is out there. Chris Paul was in a similar situation a year ago and did not pick up his $44.2 million player option, instead signing a team-friendly four-year contract that guaranteed him $75 million and potentially up to $120 million over the course of the deal. CP3 could have squeezed more money out of the Suns — and it would be shocking if Harden did take that little guaranteed — but took less to put himself and the Suns in a position to contend.

Would Harden follow that path? Will Harden compromise and take $15-17 million less this coming season to get the security of years and more money overall? Or is he going to opt-in, take the biggest payday he can get next season, and see what comes next? The ball is in Harden’s court.

HARDEN’S LEGACY

These are Harden’s legacy years.

He’s an MVP, a seven-time All-NBA player, a three-time scoring champ and a lock Hall of Famer. His legacy as one of the game’s great scorers is secure. But that legacy also comes with a history of disappearing in the playoffs — as he did in Game 6 Thursday — and a trail of conflicts with former teammates (Dwight Howard, CP3, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant) that has seen him or that player jump teams to get away.

Philadelphia is Harden’s last chance to really fit in with a team, win a ring, or come close trying, and change that narrative.

It didn’t feel things were changing after Game 6.

“We ran our offense. The ball just didn’t get back to me,” Harden said of his second-half effort in Game 6.

The 76ers are a capped-out team built around an MVP-level player in Joel Embiid, but do they have enough to contend?

Not as constructed, the Heat and Jimmy Butler — the Embiid co-star who got away — proved that beyond a doubt. The 76ers need a better version of Harden, and they need to tweak the roster around their stars — both things Harden has some say over. Harden controls what kind of shape he shows up in next season and how focused he will be. Depending on his contract choices, he also can help the 76ers have some financial room to make moves with role players.

James Harden will be there next year in Philadelphia.

But the answers to the essential questions about what happens next in the City of Brotherly Love will be answered over the next couple of months. Most of those answers depend on Harden.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.

Three things to know: The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves
David Berding/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) The Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again

About that slow start in the Bay Area…

Over their last 11 games, the Golden State Warriors are 8-3 with a top-10 in the league offense and defense and a +4.5 net rating (fourth best in the league over that stretch). The latest win was Sunday’s destruction of the stumbling Timberwolves, 137-114, a game that saw the Warriors up by more than 20 in the first quarter and never truly threatened again.

“I think we’re starting to put it together and if we can keep building at this rate, you know, we’ll be poised for a run pretty soon here,” Draymond Green said.

All season long the Warriors have had Stephen Curry playing at an MVP level, carrying the team. So what has changed over the past few weeks that has the Warriors rolling? Three things.

First, Steve Kerr started staggering the rotation and separating Green’s and Curry’s minutes some, something he tried not to do much in the past. It’s one way Kerr dealt with the fact the Warriors’ bench has struggled (getting Donte DiVincenzo healthy helped as well). Curry now stays in for the entire first quarter, while Green gets his first rest about the five-minute mark, then Curry sits to start the second and Green returns to play with more of a bench unit (both stars finish the quarter together on the court).

“I’ve said for years Draymond is kind of the heartbeat of our team,” Kerr said. “He’s the guy who kind of makes everything go and he’s the motivator, he’s the bully, he protects his teammates on the floor, talks trash. But this guy is just so good at basketball.”

Second, the other way the Warriors dealt with the bench issue was Kerr scaled back the “two timelines” experiment. The idea was that the roles Otto Porter and Gary Payton Jr. filled last season could be filled by the young trio of James Wiseman, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga. That plan failed spectacularly. Wiseman is now down in the G-League, while Moody is out of the rotation. Kuminga is getting his shot — he played well against the Timberwolves — but has been up and down this season.

“I think we’ve settled into some roles, guys are comfortable now with when they’re gonna play who they’re gonna play with. So I think that’s been helpful,” Kerr said.

Third, Klay Thompson found his legs. He kept saying he needed more time, and whether it was a spark lit by Charles Barkley or Thompson getting off of social media and out of his own head, it’s worked. In his last 10 games Thompson is averaging 20.8 points a game and shooting 46.2% from 3. He is not defending like his old self (and may never again), but he’s back to being a No.2 scoring option on an elite team.

Green would throw in one more reason, the Warriors’ defense is back.

“Most importantly our defense has picked up which allows us to push the pace more,” Green said. “Like it’s one thing to push off makes, which we want to do, but when you’re pushing off a miss and getting a rebound then going, that’s tough to guard because it creates a lot of cross-matching.”

There was no magic bullet for Kerr to fire, it took a number of things to turn for the Warriors to get back to being themselves. But they have now, and the rest of the West should be worried.

2) Doncic says Antetokounmpo is “the best player in the NBA right now”

The Dallas Mavericks had no answers. Not that teams really ever do.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature Sunday and dropped 30 with 11 boards on the Mavericks, leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

After the game, Luka Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the game. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo returned the compliment.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

Antetokounmpo and Doncic are two of the guys in the early MVP conversation, along with Curry, Jayson Tatum and a few others. It turns out, those first two also have a mutual admiration society going.

3) Clippers Ivica Zubac put up a monster 31 and 29 line against Pacers

No Kawhi Leonard, no Paul George, but the Clippers picked up another win on Sunday knocking off the Pacers 114-100.

Thank Ivica Zubac, who had a monster 31-point, 20-rebound game.

After the game, Zubac was made he fouled out before he could get his 30th rebound and have a 30-30 game.

Quietly, Zubac is having a fantastic defensive season for the Clippers, but like the rest of the team his offense has been up and down as they try to adjust to ever-changing lineups. That Clipper defense locked down the Pacers in the second half, plus Indy was just off shooting 9-of-42 from 3.

Zubac found his offense, the Pacers had no answer for him, and the Clippers have a win and improved to 12-9 because of it.

Curry drains 7 3-pointers, Nets start homestand with win over Blazers

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NEW YORK — Kevin Durant scored 31 points, Seth Curry added a season-high 29 off the bench and the Brooklyn Nets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 111-94 on Sunday.

Curry was 7 for 10 on 3-pointers and had his highest point total with the Nets and the most by a Brooklyn reserve this season.

“I’ve always felt like if I get good shots I’m going to make them at a high clip,” Curry said. “Our offense was flowing pretty well. Guys found me open early on to start the game and I felt pretty good, aggressive.”

Kyrie Irving added 22 points for the Nets. Ben Simmons took just three shots but had 12 rebounds and eight assists.

“Ben did a great job of getting downhill,” Curry said. “He’s a great passer (and) he knows how to find me out there on the floor.”

Jerami Grant scored 29 points for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Anfernee Simons added 15 points and Justice Winslow had 14.

The Nets have won four of their last six games, while the Trail Blazers, who are playing without Damian Lillard, have dropped five of six.

“Tough little stretch that we’re in right now,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said. “It is what it is. Every team goes through it.”

Brooklyn made 52.6% of its shots from the field overall, and 42.9% from 3-point range, in the second matchup between the teams in 10 days.

“It’s a make-or-miss league,” Durant said. “It’s about baskets.”

With the Nets leading by four entering the fourth, Curry scored Brooklyn’s first eight points of the quarter. Royce O'Neale‘s free throw gave the Nets a 93-87 lead and following a Portland turnover, Curry made a 3 that extended the advantage to nine.

Nurkic sandwiched a hook shot and free throw around two free throws by Irving to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 98-90. However, after a timeout, Durant hit a 3 to push the lead to 101-90.

Brooklyn led 58-57 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter.

T.J. Warren targets Dec. 2 for return to court for Brooklyn Nets

2022-2023 Brooklyn Nets Media Day
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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T.J. Warren was a breakout star in the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers.

Warren has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

The Nets signed him this season hoping he could get healthy and provide some depth off the bench at the four. We’re about to find out if that can happen on Dec. 2, with Warren targeting his return then Toronto, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Nets have not confirmed this timeline. However, coach Jacque Vaughn has recently talked up Warren’s workouts and hinted that a return is getting close.

A healthy Warren could be a big boost for a Nets team looking for more of a spark off the bench.