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One by one, members of the Philadelphia 76ers took a seat at the table in the visitors’ interview room in the bowels of Barclays Center to talk about finishing off a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. Head coach Doc Rivers, young guard Tyrese Maxey, veteran forward Tobias Harris, live-wire big man Paul Reed — they came in, sat down, praised how hard Brooklyn played and emphasized how important it was to get some time off to recuperate before Round 2, especially with league MVP Joel Embiid nursing a sprained right knee.
When it was his turn, James Harden said all that stuff, too. That wasn’t all he said, though. When asked about what motivates him, 14 years deep, to keep pressing forward and evolving in his career, Harden said a mouthful.
“I told myself this year, man, I’m going to go out there and it’s just, I’m all big on sacrifice,” he said. “Whether it’s the money or my role — just letting everything go and just sacrificing, and then seeing what it gives me.
“I’m not the type of person that’s naïve. I’m a sponge. I listen. And I can go out there and just be, you know, for the betterment of the team. Throughout the entire year, people expect me to be the scoring James Harden — the James Harden that goes out there and gets 40, 50 points. And then people talk: ‘Oh, you can’t win like that.’ And then it’s like, ‘Well, I’ll go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, he’s not the old James Harden no more.’ You know? So, it’s like, it’s always going to be something to say.”
Fast-forward two and a half months, and there is something else to say about Harden — although it’s not exactly something new. For the third time in three years, he wants out.
As it turned out, sacrificing $15 million and offensive primacy got Harden no farther than he’d been in the previous four postseasons, as Philly coughed up a 3-2 lead over the Boston Celtics before imploding in a Game 7 loss. And while many pundits expected Sixers team president/longtime Harden advocate Daryl Morey to offer the former league MVP a make-you-whole multi-year deal as the wink-wink back end of Harden’s initial pay cut, as it turned out, Philly entered the NBA’s 2023 free agency period apparently uninterested in ponying up that kind of long-term dough … which put the 10-time All-Star in something of a sticky predicament.
All those months of rumblings about Harden returning to Houston ended with the Rockets paying a different point guard more than $40 million a year. None of the other teams with significant cap space, it seems, even arched an eyebrow in Harden’s direction. Suddenly, a player who’d been able to gracefully move from monster deal to monster deal for a decade had to squint to see the greener pastures that had always just stretched out in front of him before.
“I think he looked out at the landscape and didn’t like what he imagined” might be out there for him, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said last week.
That shift in scenery must have come as a sharp shock to the system for Harden — and understandably so. A couple of weeks ago, he’d been considered something of a lock to decline his $35.6 million player option for 2023-24 to enter unrestricted free agency. And then, all of a sudden, he found himself opting in, because no lucrative new deal north of that number seemed to be forthcoming. Since when does a point guard who’s fresh off of leading the league in assists, who was one of only three players in the entire NBA to average 20 points and 10 dimes a night last season, who remains a top-15-to-20 player, according to a slew of different advanced statistical metrics, and who just hung 40 in the second round of the playoffs — twice — not have any real market to speak of?
Probably since that point guard also just went a combined 16-of-63 (25.4%) in the other five games of that series — including whisper-quiet performances in Games 6 and 7 that coated many Sixers fans’ tongues in an aftertaste that went beyond “bad” all the way to “you simply cannot bring this guy back next season at any price.” When that point guard, for all the individual laurels he’s earned throughout a career that earned him inclusion on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team and will result in first-ballot entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, has a track record of such whisper-quiet performances in pivotal moments that’s grown longer than a CVS receipt.
When that point guard is about to turn 34, has played more minutes than any other player in the NBA over the past 11 years and has missed significant time due to injury because of hamstring and foot issues in each of the last three seasons. And, perhaps most importantly, when it’s not entirely clear what that point guard is looking for at this stage.
“What is it [Harden] wants from his final years in the NBA?” asked Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports last week. “Is it a title and a chance to solidify his historical standing? Is it money? Is it being able to play the style he wants? Something else?”
The answer is probably “all of the above,” but in terms of priority, that first one seems most likely. As Harden himself told Weitzman last October, “Honestly, the only thing that I’m missing is a championship.”
The search for that missing hardware, and for the validation it would bring, has animated the latter days of Harden’s career. From Houston’s ill-fated swap of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, to its attendant requirement to quadruple down on small ball, which ran aground against the big bully Lakers in the bubble. From his assessment of the c. 2020-21 Rockets as a “situation [that] is crazy [and] something that I don’t think can be fixed,” to his eventual exit to Brooklyn to create a new superteam with the Nets. From his assessment of the c. 2021-22 Nets as a brand new untenable situation from which he’d need to extricate himself, to the trade-deadline blockbuster that sent him to Philly and left the Nets holding Ben Simmons’ bag.
And now, evidently, after yet another second-round seize-up, to cast his eyes westward. Multiple reporters, including Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer, indicate that Harden reportedly wants to play for the Los Angeles Clippers — an organization facing its own existential crisis in the form of looming extension talks with face-of-the-franchise wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who have appeared together in just 142 out of a possible 345 regular- and postseason games since joining forces in 2019 and who each hold $48.8 million player options for the 2024-25 season.
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After another disappointing early exit in which they could not consistently get their best players on the court at the same time when it mattered most, the Clippers reportedly entered this offseason considering dramatic changes. That included, according to Marc Stein, gauging the trade value of George, who’s one of the league’s premier two-way wings when healthy but who just turned 33 and hasn’t played more than 55 games in a season since he was in Oklahoma City. Those feelers didn’t bring back many bites, according to Stein: “The Clippers’ recent attempts to gauge Paul George’s trade value clearly conveyed to the team that the return on trading George and initiating a roster teardown wouldn’t be very appetizing.”
So, instead, L.A. might look to go the other way, doubling down on its current construction in hopes of maximizing its contending window and ending its years-long search for an upgrade at the point by importing Harden. There’s a certain ramshackle “island of misfit toys” charm to the notion — the team that can never seem to get and keep its act together when the money’s on the table turning to the player who, for all his sparkling and soaring skills, keeps that same energy.
It may well work, too. It’s worth remembering that the “not the old James Harden” version of the hirsute facilitator we saw last season helped propel Embiid to MVP status, authoring arguably the league’s most potent two-man game — well, outside of Denver, anyway — as the steady hand at the wheel of the NBA’s No. 3 regular-season offense.
Harden would combine shooting efficiency, assist creation, turnover avoidance and usage at a level the Clips haven’t seen since Chris Paul’s heyday. A Harden-Leonard pick-and-roll would be an absolute meat-grinder on opposing defenses. George would get some of the easiest looks of his career running off pindown screens on the weak side with Harden ready to set him up. And with the phalanx of lengthy perimeter defenders that head coach Tyronn Lue can call off the Clippers bench, L.A. might be well equipped to cover for Harden in a way few other teams could.
In a market full of imperfect options on the ball, then, Harden brings the kind of upside that could help the Clippers keep pace with the best of the West. Emphasis, though, on “could.”
Any analysis of what Harden still brings to the table is incomplete if it doesn’t reckon with the step(s) he’s lost off the dribble ever since he hurt his hamstring in Brooklyn. Harden averaged 13.5 drives to the basket per game last season — 10 fewer than he did five seasons ago. He scored fewer points off those drives than he had since 2013-14. A career-low 25% of his shot attempts came at the rim.
Second Spectrum tracks a stat called “blow-by rate,” which is just what it sounds like — a measurement of how often a ball-handler dusts his defender off the dribble. In his last full season in Houston, Harden blew by his defender 10.1 times per 100 drives. Last season in Philly, the rate was down to 3.7 per 100.
“Every game, guys who I could normally get by or certain moves that I’d always hit, it just wasn’t happening,” Harden told Weitzman last fall.
Harden’s lack of burst and lift was most glaring in the postseason, when the Nets and Celtics often purposely played him to drive and dared him to finish over length at the rim. The results were gruesome: Harden shot just 15-for-39 (38.5%) inside the restricted area and 15-for-40 (37.5%) on other attempts in the paint and had his shot blocked 15 times, the 10th-most of any player in the 2023 playoffs. (The nine players who got swatted more all played at least five more games than Harden did.)
He still has pathways to productivity: setting the table in the pick-and-roll, stopping and popping in the midrange to a greater degree than he ever did in Houston and occasionally turning back the clock to cook in isolation. When he’s got his stepback going beyond the arc — as he did in Games 1 and 4 against Boston — he’s still one of the toughest covers in the sport. When he doesn’t, though, he becomes much easier for playoff-grade perimeter defenders to hold in check.
His well-established weaknesses on the other end of the floor can make Harden a liability in the highest-pressure games in which we’ve seen him struggle time and again over the years. And considering those are the ones that the Clippers need to win to break through and turn this Kawhi-PG partnership into their long hoped for golden era, you’d be forgiven for being skeptical that this will wind up being the best fit for all parties involved.
Player and team might both be at the point, though, where neither can afford to fret over fit. The Clippers need a point guard, a way to up the variance and another source of shot creation. Harden needs a life raft, a platform from which to rebuild his value in the eyes of the league and another puncher’s chance at a ring. When you can’t get everything you want, how much you’re willing to sacrifice can determine how far you’re able to go. The questions, then: How much is Harden willing to sacrifice now? How much are the Clippers willing to sacrifice to get him? And how hard a bargain is Morey willing to drive to get what he wants in return?