James Harden’s safest decision might be his most controversial

James harden
Brooklyn Nets’ Mikal Bridges (1) drives past Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden (1) during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Thursday, April 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

So, turns out, it wasn’t quite the “Year of the Beard.” It’s been almost two weeks since James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers choked themselves out in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in a comically predictable fashion, and yet, the cold sweat-inducing nightmares make it feel like it was just yesterday.

While it’s hard to scrub the mental image of Joel Embiid, Harden, Doc Rivers, and pretty much every 76er not named Tyrese Maxey or P.J. Tucker keeling over in the second half out of our hippocampi, it’s important to remember the positives that came from this past season, as well.

James Harden’s 2022-2023 in review

Through this past season, Harden has proved many things. First and foremost, he not only showed that he could play alongside Joel Embiid, he quantifiably elevated the big man’s game, erasing his former tagline as an MVP candidate and replacing it with the official moniker of reigning MVP. Not only did he pave the way for Embiid to win the scoring title and the Michael Jordan Trophy, but the two stars also led the Sixers to their 15th-winningest season in franchise history. Their 65.9 winning percentage was Philadelphia’s second-highest mark since 2000-2001.

Individually, Harden also posted two of the top 20 “game scores” in the Sixers’ postseason history in this past playoff run, according to stathead (subscription required). While he had a few stinkers along the way, those don’t erase two of the literal best playoff games in franchise record.

What does the future hold for the Philadelphia 76ers?

It’s easy to believe that this core is tapped out, faces pressed up against the ceiling without space to breathe, but the same could have been said about the Denver Nuggets, or the Miami Heat, or the Boston Celtics. No vision is clearer than that of someone looking in retrospect. The Sixers and James Harden or currently at a fork in the road, a save point that will clearly affect the organization one way or another.

Should they run it back and fail with Harden, the narrative will be that they should have blown it up and another year of Joel Embiid’s undefined prime has been wasted away with a notorious playoff shrinker by his side. But, if the Beard returns, and the Sixers can capture the elusive Larry O’Brien, nothing but praise could be lauded on Harden, Philadelphia, and its brass for having the guts to stay patient.

James Harden
Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden grabs his head after a collision against the Boston Celtics during the second half of Game 2 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

It’s been rumored that the dismissal of former Head Coach Doc Rivers was a move that was supported, if not leveraged, by Harden and his camp. Now that he’s gotten his way, what excuse will he have for leaving the Sixers high and dry?

If the Beard flees a squad that was one game away from a Conference Finals appearance, with two chances to advance, both of which he objectively underperformed in, how could anyone think anything other than “Harden doesn’t care about winning anymore?”

At first glance, it may seem like Harden has his back against the wall, with nowhere to go except down into the pit of NBA obscurity, destined to play out the remainder of his career solely to rack up meaningless stats and piles upon piles of money sign adorned tweed sacks stuffed with blue notes. While that certainly isn’t a bad way to go out, it isn’t his only option, nor is it a temporary one.

The Beard can certainly re-sign with the Sixers, evaluate the ceiling of this team next season with a new coach and, hopefully, a few different teammates, and make his decision later. He doesn’t even have to wait that long. Should Harden re-up with Philadelphia, and the team fails to meet expectations before the trade deadline and after he’s eligible to be dealt with a new contract inked, he could request a trade then, and the backlash would be significantly softer.

After all, this current era of the NBA has shown that the player always wins in these standoffs, even those with little to no leverage a la Ben Simmons and Jae Crowder. Even a half-season of acceptable effort back in Philly would be much better received than if he were to leave in outright free agency this summer. After all, the Sixers would actually get a return for their troubles in dealing away Harden, and his last game with Philadelphia will almost certainly be better than his current swan song.

The Pitch

The Sixers are the ones with their backs against the wall here. If Harden leaves, there won’t suddenly be a massive amount of cap space for them to try to replace his production. It’s unlikely that they’ll be able to pull off a sign-and-trade deal that brings anything of significant value in return. Every path to contention in the near future for Philly starts with re-signing the Beard.

The pitch is this, bulleted for simplicity:

  • He can still earn the most money by staying with the Philadelphia 76ers — $210 million through four years, as opposed to $201.7 million, according to RealGM.
  • Now that Joel Embiid has earned both his rightful MVP award and a First-Team All-NBA nod, the big man should be able to fully focus his efforts on the postseason, leaving James Harden with more touches and opportunities to dominate the regular season, as he’s done in the past.
  • There will be a new coach on the sidelines.
  • If everything fails spectacularly once again, he still has the option to return to the Houston Rockets or whatever team he prefers.
James harden
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden gives his sneakers to John Hao after Game 4 in an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Sunday, May 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. Harden invited Hao, a student severely wounded in a Feb. 13 mass shooting at Michigan State University, to view the game. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

There’s no red carpet here, no entourage to greet him at the airport or marketing firms to show him the glamour of settling in Philadelphia. Basically, he has nothing to lose giving it another shot with the Sixers. But, if he were to leave, especially for the Rockets, it might just mark the end of Harden’s time as an impactful NBA star.