Friday was, in a sentence, a much-needed sigh of relief for James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers. The 10-time All-Star scored 29 points — 25 in the first half — to go with 15 rebounds in Philadelphia’s 122-97 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Before that particular game, Harden looked far from the superstar the Sixers expected him to be. Rather than being rejuvenated by his midseason trade from the Brooklyn Nets, the 13th-year veteran was struggling to become a co-number one with MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid.
Considering Harden’s production, age, and contract status, the 76ers should be legitimately worried about what the next few years will look like as the Beard exits his prime.
James Harden’s numbers in Philly aren’t far off from his numbers with Brooklyn
Following this year’s jaw-dropping trade deadline deal, Harden went from playing alongside superstar Kevin Durant (and sometimes Kyrie Irving) to playing alongside the superstar Embiid. If anything, the 6-foot-5 guard should have been in more of a position to succeed.
Instead, the majority of Harden’s Sixers tenure bears an eery resemblance to his last stop.
In 44 games with Brooklyn this season, the 2017-18 MVP averaged 22.5 points, his lowest since his sixth man days with the Oklahoma City Thunder. A major reason why was his inefficiency from the field. The guard hit just 41.4% of his attempts from the field and 33.2% of his triples. His 48.6% eFG% (effective field-goal percentage) was the worst of his career with the exception of his rookie season.
Harden has seen a slight improvement from his Nets figures in Philadelphia. The 32-year-old is averaging 23.0 points across 13 games for the Sixers, shooting 42.9% from the field and 34.5% from three. But before Friday, the Beard was on an eight-game stretch of woeful inefficiency.
From Mar. 7-23, Harden averaged just 20.4 points on 35.6% shooting. He was also hitting just 25.5% of his three-point attempts despite tossing up over six per game. That period represents the majority of his time with the Sixers, as he’s had just one game shooting above 46.7% from the field since Mar. 4.
The 76ers should be worried about investing in Harden
When former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey became the 76ers’ president of basketball operations, it was obvious that Philly would target Harden. When the superstar made his feelings about Brooklyn clear and not-so-subtly demanded a trade, Morey sent Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks to the Nets in order to reunite with his former franchise star.
Harden’s best years were in Houston. It’s where he won his lone MVP and three scoring titles. But he’s not that player anymore, even if Morey thinks he can be.
At 32 years old, Harden can still give you over 20 a night. But based on his poor shooting from the field and dependence on free throws, it’s going to gradually become more difficult for him to take over a game. And come playoff time, Philly will desperately need a superstar version of Harden in order to make up for the depth it traded to acquire him.
Instead, the 76ers will employ a James Harden that progressively declines as a shooter. If it wasn’t for free throws (averaging nearly 10 attempts a night with Philly), Harden’s scoring numbers would look really concerning.
The reason why this spells trouble for Philadelphia isn’t just how Harden’s decline affects this season’s title run. It’s the fact the Beard is very likely exercising his player option after this season and re-signing a max deal with the Sixers. According to Hoops Rumors, that would pay him $245.6 million over the next five seasons.
In other words, Morey and the 76ers will end up paying Harden franchise cornerstone money through his age-37 season. And by the looks of things now, he’s not going to be worth the investment.
Philadelphia needs to win soon in order to validate the James Harden trade
The 76ers will have no issues with Harden’s inefficient shooting, his durability, his age, or his contract. So long as they find a way to win the big one.
At 46-27, the Sixers are within half-a-game of the one-seed. Keep in mind, they were the East’s top seed last year before Simmons and company lost in the second round to the Atlanta Hawks. There is no way Philly can let that happen again, especially if it secures home-court advantage for a second consecutive season.
Of course, Harden has never been considered a great playoff performer. Aside from failing to make it out of the Western Conference Finals with Houston, the 13th-year veteran has only shot 42.8% over 137 playoff games. That’s almost right in line with his current shooting percentage in 13 games with his new team.
The Beard should benefit from being the second option behind Embiid. Barring injury or foul trouble, the Process will be Philly’s top dog in every postseason game. But that doesn’t mean Harden can go 5-of-17 from the field and expect the team to pull out the victory.
If Harden and Embiid carry the 76ers to a championship this season, the downside to extending Harden won’t be nearly as severe. But there’s a good possibility that they won’t have a better shot than this year to hoist the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.