Is there a James Harden renaissance on the horizon? An insight into Harden’s injury and potential resurgence

James Harden
NBA 10-time All-Star James Harden poses for a picture as he launches his first signature wine collection, “J-Harden” at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday, July 17, 2022. Harden spoke to The Associated Press to discuss his upcoming J. Harden x J Shed wine collaboration that debuts in September. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The initial debut for James Harden with the Philadelphia 76ers can only be summarized as a disappointment. While the flashes were excellent, the overall results were less than anticipated, especially when it came to the playoffs. Many expected Harden to show his well-known ability to take over games offensively, especially after Joel Embiid went down with multiple injuries. Instead, what many saw was a player who could not do the things that made him great in the past. This season, however, will be completely different, at least, according to Harden.

The Sixers’ superstar sat down with The Associated Press to discuss everything from his recent contract negotiations with the team to his projected return to dominance. While both topics are significant, it’s the latter half that is particularly interesting in this case. Harden spoke in detail about not only last season but precisely why he’s looking forward to the new year:

“I’m looking to have an unbelievable season,” he said Sunday. “I don’t want to just go out there and be running around and not being efficient and looking old out there. I still want to be really, really, really good.”

— James Harden via The Associated Press

Effectively speaking to his critics, James Harden showed he is quite aware of the public perception of himself and is looking forward to changing that narrative. Harden credited his injury as the primary cause of his struggles last season. The injury in question is a Grade 2 hamstring strain that Harden suffered during the 2020-21 regular season and subsequently re-aggravated in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Harden then returned without regard for Games 5 through 7.

What exactly happened with James Harden’s injury?

Often, a muscle strain is overlooked as rather unserious, but that’s primarily due to people not truly understanding what a strain is and/or how it can affect a professional athlete. There are also a lot of variables that are not often thought of, like the severity or the number of muscles involved. In general, a strain is a stretched or even potentially torn muscle/tendon. While a stretched muscle/tendon may not sound too bad, once the word tear is brought up, ears certainly perk up.

Any strain can be a tear, but again, there are different levels of severity. A Grade 1 strain, for instance, is generally considered to be a stretched muscle/tendon or perhaps a slight tear, typically thought of as not overly severe and only requiring a week to two weeks to recover. In James Harden’s case, it was reportedly a Grade 2 strain, more serious, but still usually only requires a typical recovery time of 2-4 weeks. So why was James Harden’s injury so different?

There are a few potential reasons to suggest. Many will be quick to say that Harden’s excitement-filled off-court lifestyle is to blame. That is more likely a casual fallacy than the actual scenario. In actuality, it likely has to do with Harden’s refusal to address the issue or at least two additional games.

A Grade 2 sprain is a partial tear of one or more hamstring muscles. In total, there are three muscles that make up the hamstring: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris muscles. It is not known how many muscles Harden partially tore, but whether it be one, two, or all three, playing on this type of injury would be the last thing a physician would recommend.

It’s not even wise necessarily to stretch the injury, at least not at first, let alone continue playing NBA playoff basketball on it. There is absolute risk in doing what James Harden did, but he did it for his team, for the game. As admirable as that is, however, he suffered the consequences not just over the offseason but the entirety of the 2021-22 NBA season. Harden even spoke about this and how the lingering effects hindered him during the season.

“I wasn’t able to get in my spots and get to where I needed to get to without thinking about it, so that right there slowed my confidence down,” he said. “It was craziness, but I’m finally back. I’ll be a lot more aggressive scoring-wise just because my body allows me to.”

— James Harden via The Associated Press

The Chris Paul comparison and where James Harden’s story differs

There is little doubt that Harden worsened his Grade 2 strain to the point where he could have entered Grade 3 territory, a complete tear. That type of injury is not one that someone returns from lightly. The frequently cited case is Phoenix Suns’ point guard, Chris Paul. Back during the 2018-19 NBA season, Paul suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain against the Miami Heat in December. Paul would go on to miss 17 straight games and struggled as the season went on, especially in the playoffs.

In the 2019 offseason, the Rockets traded Paul to the Thunder, where many thought he would be moved again, but Oklahoma City decided to give him the year whether to rebuild his value or for whatever other reason. Having the full offseason to recover, Paul was able to slowly ramp up his return in the low-expectation environment that was the Thunder (the Thunder did make the postseason, but it was due to Paul’s recovery).

In every month from October to March of the 2019-20 NBA season, Paul increased his points per game average, looking more and more like himself. This is the opportunity that James Harden was not afforded between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. During the offseason, Harden spent his time recuperating from not only the Grade 2 strain but the further damage he caused by his postseason play. He did not have the opportunity to train as he normally does, nor did he have the chance to ramp up his play as Chris Paul did.

The Brooklyn Nets were much more intent on competing than the 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder, and they were down one star already. Due to the City of New York’s vaccination mandate and Irving’s contrary opinion on the matter, he was ruled ineligible to play until he became vaccinated or the city lifted the mandate (which is what actually happened). Without Irving and with the Net’s championship aspirations, there was no chance of a ramp-up for James Harden, and his recovery greatly suffered for it.

This was no different after the future Hall of Fame player was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The team had no less enthusiasm when it came to pursuing the Finals than Brooklyn, and so again, Harden would have no ramp-up period. Now, with a full offseason to recover and train, James Harden is set to begin his comeback tour. His renaissance period, if you will.

Will James Harden follow through regarding his comments?

The only answer to this question is that time will tell. James Harden is undoubtedly confident in himself, as Daryl Morey seems to obviously be also. The Philadelphia 76ers will need Harden to find some semblance of his past self if they are going to be true contenders for the 2022-23 NBA season.

Until then, all Sixers fans will have to go on Harden’s word and past examples of similar injuries (Chris Paul). Is that enough to make one confident? Perhaps not, but an offseason dedicated to training and recovery should obviously be seen as a positive. Based on this, James Harden’s on-the-court stock should be trending upward at the moment with a chance to skyrocket once again.