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In February, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks for James Harden.
For the second time in 13 months, Harden was moved to a big-market team that was supposed to be a contender following his addition. For the second season in a row, his recently assembled contender has been eliminated in the second round.
In 2021, there wasn’t much Harden could do to prevent that. A hamstring injury limited him to four appearances in a seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks. And this season, according to Harden, still presented challenges on the health front. But that won’t be enough to stop the metaphorical slings and arrows that are surely on the way.
The East’s top-seeded Miami Heat cruised to a 99-90 victory on Thursday that didn’t feel close throughout the second half. In an elimination game on his home floor, Harden did nothing to change that feeling.
Almost literally, nothing.
Harden went 4-of-9 from the field in the game, but he attempted just two shots after halftime (and missed them both). It was hard not to think of the All-Star the Sixers moved for him.
Simmons took three fourth-quarter shots in the entirety of Philadelphia’s playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks last year. On Thursday, Harden took one. For the series, he was 6-of-19 in the fourth.
“We ran our offense, and the ball didn’t get back to me,” Harden told reporters of his lack of late-game attempts. But that explanation doesn’t pass muster.
The opportunities were there. For whatever reason, he shrunk from them.
In ESPN’s postgame coverage, Stephen A. Smith said, “That performance by James Harden requires an investigation.” Given his history, it’s fair to assume an investigation wouldn’t turn up anything nefarious.
This isn’t the first time Harden has floated in and out (mostly out) of a crucial playoff game.
For his career, Harden is now averaging 23.4 points, 5.9 assists and 4.5 turnovers while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from three in elimination contests. Those numbers don’t sound terrible, but each is worse than his regular-season marks, and the percentages dip even further (to 40.0 and 25.3) when you just look at the last nine elimination games.
And some of his single-outing stinkers in that sample are hard to forget.
In a Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2015, he went 2-of-11 and had 12 turnovers. That same shooting line happened two years later against the San Antonio Spurs. In an elimination game his team actually won in 2020, he went 4-of-15 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I did the deep dive,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on The Lowe Post shortly after this season’s Harden trade. “Harden’s fourth-quarter numbers, in big games, in elimination games, in 2-2 series games, are bad. His crunch-time numbers are bad.”
Now, we can add another disastrous performance to his resume, and this one wasn’t exclusive to the offensive end.
Harden did little to deter Miami’s guards and wings from getting the shots they wanted in the half-court. And on more than one occasion, he barely moved to get back in transition. One-game samples aren’t great for numbers like this, but Philadelphia gave up 32.3 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor Thursday.
This doesn’t feel like a sudden aberration, either. Beyond the history of playoff struggles, Harden hasn’t played like a max player for a while. Over his last 17 games of the regular season, Harden shot 36.3 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from three. And in the playoffs, he averaged 18.6 points and shot 40.5 percent from the field.
James Harden playing with “no pressure” this playoffs:
— Lowest PPG since he was in OKC
— Lowest FGM since he was in OKC
— Lowest FTA since he was in OKC
— Lowest FG% since 2014 pic.twitter.com/sduURshBuj
Assuming Harden is looking for a max deal on his next contract (he’ll be a free agent if he declines his $46.9 player option for 2022-23), Philadelphia might be looking the NBA’s most vivid example of the sunk cost fallacy square in the face.
Yes, the Sixers gave up a boatload to get Harden. Given the tension after last year’s playoffs, the fit with Simmons may have been done for good, but he’s a 25-year-old three-time All-Star. Curry is one of the best floor-spacers in the league. Drummond was one of the game’s better backup 5s. And first-round picks always hold some value. That’s all gone, but cratering flexibility for the next few years certainly isn’t going to bring it back.
Harden turns 33 in August. The last couple of months suggest a decline is either on the way or already started. How can Philadelphia, even if it is over the cap with or without him, justify committing $50 million-plus per year for the next few seasons?
The end of this run was bad. Compounding it with that kind of burden could be disastrous.
The decision doesn’t necessarily have to be made this summer, though. After this collapse and its coverage in the media, how confident can Harden be in declining that option?
One more year with he and Joel Embiid, following a full offseason and training camp, could work for both sides. Philadelphia can have one more short-term shot at a good playoff seed and kick the can down the road on the more difficult Harden decision. Harden gets a year to hopefully rehab his individual value in advance of one more big contract (and maybe contract-year Harden is more motivated than usual).
That route isn’t free of trepidation, either. How can the Sixers have any confidence in 2023 postseason Harden? If he has another playoff flop, Embiid is a year older with nothing to show for it. He just turned 28 in March, and his health history suggests the title window could shut in the next three or four years.
And he’s talking like he knows his time is precious.
“Obviously, I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore,” Embiid said after Thursday’s loss. “He’s more of a playmaker.”
That doesn’t mean this partnership can’t work, but The Process can’t afford many more postseason no-shows.