Year of the Beard: James Harden can cement his legacy with the Philadelphia 76ers

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James Harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden, right, tries to get past Cleveland Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

After a year that saw James Harden face what just might be the most criticism he’s seen in his career, the generational player now has a chance to cement his legacy with the Philadelphia 76ers.

“James Harden is an elite quitter.”

— Tim McMahon

“He hasn’t shown he has the makeup to fight through adversity to get to that level.”

— Chris Broussard

“You can’t keep hiding, you can’t keep running, you can’t keep using other people and situations as excuses… You’re the reason why you haven’t been able to win and you could wind up in a career where you don’t win.”

— Rob Parker

Clearly, the NBA media hasn’t held back in their critiques of James Harden. For any fan who only started following the league in the last two years, it may be jarring for them to see the sheer amount of criticism that Harden draws.

What is Behind the Hate for James Harden?

In his past two seasons, he’s averaged 23.1 points, 10.5 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 43 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc. A basketball fledgling might wonder why James Harden doesn’t receive more recognition for his play with those numbers. The real question, though, is: why does he receive so much criticism with that output?

After all, the amount of hatred he receives is far greater than that reserved for even the proven All-Stars in this league. Players like Damian Lillard, Paul George, and Devin Booker — no strangers to criticism themselves — are glowingly received by fans and media compared to James Harden. The Beard has been the subject of more vitriol and scrutiny than perhaps any of his peers aside from LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.

Why is that when his recent performance has been more in line with the second tier of stars than that of LeBron, KD, and Steph? After all, those are three out of only five players who have led their respective teams to championships in over a decade — the others being Kawhi Leonard, whose title run with the Toronto Raptors is so well respected that he’s been afforded the grace to remain under the radar in terms of criticism compared to his fellow Finals MVPs, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s darling who, unfortunately for him, has also started to garner a significant amount of push back.

It’s because James Harden has shown in the past that he’s more than capable of leading a championship charge, but he’s yet to reach the pinnacle. Other players, including the Philadelphia 76ers’ own Joel Embiid, have shown the potential to be a number one option for a title team someday, but none of them have displayed the consistent dominance that Harden has while remaining ring-less.

Between the vicious narratives created by the media and his recent output while dealing with a lingering hamstring injury and taking a backseat to Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant in the past two years, it’s easy to forget the player that James Harden once was or how he got to where he is now. His pundits and skeptics are quick to point out that he’s been on four different teams, demanding trades twice within two seasons, but few ever credit him for being one of the most malleable players that have ever graced an NBA basketball court.

James Harden’s NBA Beginnings

Younger fans, or those that have recently started following the league, may not remember that the Beard was the third overall pick in his draft and graciously accepted a Sixth Man role playing alongside KD and Russell Westbrook.

It was obvious then that the Oklahoma City Thunder were at their best when James Harden was on the floor. In 2011-2012, OKC had an offensive rating of 101.4 when he was on the bench. While he was on the court, that number skyrocketed to 115.4. But the Thunder needed the Arizona State product’s ball-handling, playmaking, and shot creation for their reserve unit, and he happily accepted the role despite his looming contract extension.

In large part due to James Harden’s on-court brilliance off of the pine, the Thunder made a surprising run to the Finals that year, toppling the reigning champion Dallas Mavericks, Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, and the San Antonio Spurs dynasty on the way there.

And as OKC’s young Big 3 was gentlemanly swept out of the Finals by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat in 2012, a lasting image remains of Harden embracing his co-stars, one in each arm, as if to say that they’d be back soon.

That summer, though, the Thunder clutched tightly to their purses as it came time to pay James Harden his due. He had already made plenty of sacrifices on the court, but OKC demanded that he be generous with his paychecks as well. Long story short, the Houston Rockets saw the potential that Harden had in him and paid him accordingly.

The Beard Lifts Off

Unshackled from the bench, the Beard saw a meteoric rise as a first option leading his own team. He quickly established himself as one of the greatest isolation scorers and most singularly efficient offensive engines in the league, eventually making it clear that there was no better place for the basketball to be than in his hands. He would go on to notch record-breaking scoring performances, leading the entire NBA in scoring three seasons in a row from 2017-2020.

With that historic offensive output, though, came astronomical usage numbers. That level of ball dominance, along with his unmatched ability to fish for trips to the free throw line, drew the ire of so-called basketball purists.

That’s where the criticism started. And as he kept running into the Golden State Warriors dynasty, ultimately unable to overcome perhaps the greatest collection of talent in NBA history, his haters only gained more ammunition. Even though James Harden came closest to upending the Kevin Durant-era Dubs, closer than even LeBron James himself, he’d receive no credit for horseshoes and hand grenades.

While the exit wasn’t pretty, is there ever really a great way to leave a team once a player has staked his claim as one of the top three talents in franchise history? If Damian Lillard were to finally grow tired and run from the grind, a portion of the fans might embrace him as he flees the Portland Trail Blazers, but there are certain to be those that scrutinize him for being a “ring-chaser.”

That fate befell James Harden as he rejoined his old co-star Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets and formed a new Big 3 alongside Kyrie Irving.

The Evolution of James Harden

With two score-first talents as his running mates, the Beard again evolved his game, turning into a true floor general and allowing Kyrie to focus on putting the ball in the basket. With Harden running the offense and KD and Kai finishing off plays, the Nets strung together some of the most dominant, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing offensive basketball this world has ever seen. Ultimately, though, due to injuries and Irving’s extracurriculars, Brooklyn underwhelmed despite their incredible collective talent.

There have been conflicting reports as to how James Harden’s relationship with the Nets decayed. It’s been rumored that the Beard took issue with Irving’s decision not to get vaccinated, a choice that would keep him on the sidelines for half of the season due to New York’s policies, an indication that the rest of the team wasn’t as serious about competing for a title as he needed them to be.

Conflictingly, it’s also been said that Harden wanted out after Kevin Durant questioned his commitment to basketball when the Beard showed up to training camp out of shape. Regardless, Harden’s trade request was honored, and he found himself on his third team in less than two calendar years.

What didn’t change was his newfound preference to create for others rather than replicate his tour-de-force, ball-dominant offense that he displayed in Houston. Through the last two seasons, only Chris Paul has averaged more assists per game than Harden’s 10.3, according to statmuse.

Yes, the exit again was less than perfect, but does it not show how serious he is about winning? And since coming to the Philadelphia 76ers, Harden has done nothing but shut down the doubts around him with resounding answers of confidence.

Suddenly, the critiques of James Harden’s game have lost traction as he’s shifted his play style to better suit his offensively gifted teammates. The haters still have plenty to work with, though, as he’s jumped ship twice in two years. How committed could he possibly be to his team and winning if he’s willing to do that?

A Commitment to Winning

Apparently, committed enough to take a $15 million pay cut to afford General Manager Daryl Morey the ability to bring on two familiar 3-and-D specialists in P.J. Tucker and Danuel House. The Sixers were able to build a deep two-way bench to back up one of the most well-rounded starting lineups in the league, thanks to Harden.

How about his conditioning? He seemingly enters every season out of shape and plays his way into peak form.

James Harden hasn’t just made it known that he’s dedicated to this team with his bank account; he’s done so in the gym as well, having appeared in better shape than he’s been in years. While he hasn’t reached his Rockets-era level of offensive dominance, his bounce and first step look miles better when compared to last season as he continues to recover from his hamstring injury.

With the Beard sacrificing his long-term financial security, showing his commitment to basketball and winning physically this summer, and morphing his game into one of the best floor generals in the league, only one critique of James Harden remains valid.

How James Harden Can Cement His Legacy

He’ll continue to incur the intense scrutiny and vitriol reserved for players like him, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry: those who have established themselves as top-five talents at their respective positions in league history.

It’s due to their dominance that they draw so much pushback and negative attention in response. Unlike Harden, LeBron, KD, and Steph have all reached the pinnacle of the sport, each of them having led their squads to an ever-elusive championship and earning a nod as Finals MVP along the way.

While even lifting the Larry O’Brien won’t eradicate all criticisms from haters and pundits off of a player’s mentions, it does provide the single best armor for one’s legacy — one that can stand the test of time and is the ultimate trump card in any and all debates.

James Harden remains armor-less, exposed to those who mean to poke holes in his robust and growing legend. But after this offseason, his barren ring finger may be the only subject left vulnerable to even his most committed skeptics. And he’s shown time and time again that he means to render that nitpick irrelevant as well.

He has the talent. He has the dedication. He has the roster necessary. He has the opportunity this season to silence all of his detractors.

If he etches his name into NBA history as a champion, few will remember that he forced his way off of two teams. As one of the league’s true elite, his critics will undoubtedly continue to fire shots at him even if he were to win it all. But if he were to reach the pinnacle with the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden would become indisputable. Unquestionable. Bulletproof.