James Harden has been one of the best and most controversial players in the NBA for the last decade. Heading into the 2022-23 season, it seems that many expect more of the same from the 10-time All-Star. Will Harden finally rise to the level of NBA champion, or are his best days behind him?
Harden started the season as a member of the Brooklyn Nets‘ dynamic ‘Big Three.’ Paired with superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, this group made the Nets a favorite to win the NBA title to many fans around the league. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the turmoil on and off the court would lead to a disappointing season. Irving missed most of the regular season due to mental health breaks and safety protocols related to COVID.
This move led to high expectations for the 76ers, with some experts naming them the new favorites in the Eastern Conference. The pairing of Harden and Joel Embiid was going to be the best pick-and-roll combo that the league has seen since John Stockton and Karl Malone. Philadelphia never did get it rolling, earning the fourth seed come playoff time and eventually falling to the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals.
The 76ers and Harden became the center of attention earlier this offseason when the details of the former MVP’s contract extension got around the sports world. To briefly recap, Harden’s team-friendly, two-year extension allowed 76ers President Daryl Morey to sign three veterans. PJ Tucker, Danuel House, and most recently, Montrezl Harrell were all added to the team’s rotation thanks to Harden’s self-imposed pay cut. While there is nothing wrong with this at face value, many have wondered if a handshake deal was in place between Harden and Morey that would see Harden paid back in full in the future. This would, of course, be tampering, but with no evidence coming forth from the league’s investigation, it is safe to consider this issue behind the franchise.
Still, the question remains, with a deeper roster and a full year in Philly, will Harden return to his former greatness?
Harden regressed slightly last year, statistically speaking. His averages in points (22), assists (10.3), and rebounds (6.8) per game were all down slightly from the year before. Harden’s 22 points per game average was the lowest in his career since the 2011-12 season. He shot a lower percentage across the board (three-point, free throw, and field goal) while taking fewer shots. While it’s possible that Harden’s prime is behind him, it’s not time to worry just yet. The three-time scoring champion had his best years working with Morey in Houston. Another full year together could see the 76ers making a deep run. Adding trusted former teammates known for their hustle and toughness adds a whole new layer to this team.
Philadelphia doesn’t need the Harden of old that can string together a month of 35-point outings. What they need is for him to be one of the best playmakers in the Eastern Conference. The team has added depth and defense around him to help cover inefficiencies. Now Harden will need to make plays for those around him, hit his open threes and free throws, and continue to feed it to his MVP-caliber teammate.
Harden has a new lease on life in Philadelphia. His old boss has surrounded him with talented coworkers that he should be comfortable with. A full season will tell us if this experiment has worked. We can expect this team to be a lock for the playoffs. However, if they want to win it all, Harden must improve upon last year’s performance.