The NBA world had seen a very similar scenario play out like this before. James Harden had forced his way off of an NBA team before, and it was happening again. The superstar guard was frustrated with the Brooklyn Nets, and looked to join his second team in as many seasons.
Harden was reportedly irked by point guard Kyrie Irving’s wonky vaccination status, and upset with the Brooklyn front office. Many thought that Harden would have to wait until after the season to be traded, but Brooklyn caved. Right before the trade deadline, the Nets sent James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers in a blockbuster swap.
The Aftermath of the James Harden To Philadelphia Trade
How Did Harden Get Here?
When superstar James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, it was supposed to be the beginning of an NBA dynasty. Harden was a former MVP, 10x All-Star, and seven-time All-NBA selection. His new teammate, Kevin Durant, was a two-time NBA champion and 12x All-Star. His aforementioned teammate Kyrie Irving was no slouch either, a seven-time All-Star and 2016 NBA champion.
On paper, the three were one of the most fearsome trios the NBA had ever seen. It was a perfect blend of veteran savvy, championship DNA, and offensive talent that could shred any defense in the league. It made the Nets an instant championship-caliber team, and Brooklyn quickly became the favorites to win it all. Things were looking up for Brooklyn, until they weren’t.
After bowing out in the second round to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks thanks to an oversized shoe and injury struggles, the Nets were eliminated from the playoffs. James Harden dealt with a nasty hamstring injury, Irving sprained his ankle, and Durant was playing 44 minutes a game. It couldn’t get any worse for the Brooklyn Nets, but then it got worse.
Before the season even started, Irving was ruled ineligible to play for refusing to comply with New York City’s new mandates. Durant also went down in mid-January with an MCL sprain that kept him out for over two months, leaving Harden with almost no help. Ironically, Harden went to Brooklyn to get away from carrying a team, and was put in the exact same situation. All of it was enough for Harden to want out just 80 games later, and he got his wish on February 10th.
How Did Players Perform After the Trade?
The 76ers sent Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks in exchange for Harden and veteran Paul Millsap. Ben Simmons, the centerpiece for the Nets in the trade, has yet to suit up. There were rumors he would make his debut in the playoffs, but Simmons ended up not playing. In terms of which team won the trade, it’s way too early to call.
For the Nets, Drummond will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Curry looks like he’ll stick around with Brooklyn, and the Nets can use the 2023 pick this season.
What about the 76ers?
Millsap has played sparingly with the 76ers, only appearing in 9 games, averaging just 3.7 points per game. Now, looking at Harden’s play. Harden averaged 21.0 points per game in 21 regular-season appearances on just 40 percent shooting from the field. He shot just 32.6 percent from three, which would be a career-low over a full season. His 13.6 shot attempts per game would also be the lowest since his last season in OKC.
Except for a hot 4-game stretch to begin his Sixers career in which he averaged 26.7 points, 12 assists, 7.3 rebounds, and had 50-40-90 shooting splits; Harden’s production wasn’t up to par. Harden shot just 37 percent from the field, 30 percent from three, and averaged just 19.7 points in the final 10 games of the season. The guard also disappeared in the playoffs, cracking 30 points just once as Philly fell in the second round to the Miami Heat. Harden even attempted less than 10 shots in a game twice this postseason, something he hasn’t done since the 2012 playoffs.
How Is Harden a Premier Free Agent Target?
After hearing all that, it’s probably a head-scratcher as to why he’s a premier free agent. The answer is that the Sixers are likely hoping the scoring champion-version of James Harden will return at some point. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that will happen. Harden’s signature blow-by dribbles are no longer what they once used to be, perhaps due to nagging hamstring injuries.
Harden’s loss of speed also means he can’t create as much space on shot attempts. That probably speaks to his drop in shooting efficiency across the board. So yes, this is the version of James Harden the 76ers will have for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, this edition of James Harden is still among the league’s best.
Sure, he no longer scores like he used to, but Harden can still get a bucket when asked to. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line as much, but best believe he still makes them. Harden rebounds the ball at a high level, and remains a lethal playmaker. In fact, Harden was second in the league in both the playoffs and regular season for assists per game. The shooting guard is in the tail end of his prime, but even 80% of his best years can still be considered elite.
The L.A. native looks likely to opt-out of his player option, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll reach the open market. He could opt out so the team can sign his former Houston teammate P.J. Tucker, who would be a welcome addition for the Sixers. If Harden doesn’t sign a long-term deal, it gives Philly flexibility and a chance to see how he fits over a full season.
Even if Harden does get a long-term deal and the team is forced to commit a large chunk of change to him, he’s still a top-20 player in the NBA. He’s still a premier talent in the NBA, and offenses would benefit from having him on the team. He has his shortcomings, but his undeniable talents are what make him the new premier free-agent target.