Sixers: Handling the James Harden hoopla

James Harden, Sixers (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
James Harden, Sixers (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

There has been recent speculation that the Philadelphia 76ers should be concerned because James Harden declined to sign a contract extension after the trade, despite saying that he would. Adding to that worry is the story that he reportedly kept telling both Nets management and close teammates that he didn’t want to leave Brooklyn and was planning to re-sign there, leaving people to wonder about his real intentions.  Perhaps the Sixers should not be looking at this as a cause for concern, but rather as an opportunity. When Harden decided to wait to re-sign the Sixers may have dodged a bullet.

It’s time for everyone to make a difficult concession — the Sixers lost the Nets trade.  It feels better to just admit that than to fight the obvious. Yes, Ben Simmons hasn’t even played one minute for the Nets this year, but even if it’s next year, he will.  Simmons was an anchor on this 76ers team and they had to make a big move to try to bring in a stud to pair with Joel Embiid.  Wasting a talent like Embiid would be criminal, so give Daryl Morey and the Sixers all credit, they went for it.

Adding a former superstar and scoring champion like James Harden cost them a lot more than just Simmons.  Ben had to go and Harden was worth the risk.  The reason they lost the trade was because they also gave up the best perimeter shooter in the game in Seth Curry, the best backup center Embiid has ever had in Andre Drummond, and two first round picks, the second of which will probably come after Embiid has retired.  All for a player who should not be a Sixer next year.

They took the big shot and chose to chase a star and not settle for smaller fish, which is admirable. But the difference between good organizations and bad ones is that good ones admit their mistakes and move on from them.  Bad ones refuse to acknowledge that they ever made a mistake and double down on that error, turning it into a multi-year catastrophe that ruins careers.  As it now stands, this move will certainly impact the future of both Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey, but Embiid’s flame will only burn for a short time longer and must be sustained at all costs. If they do not push in all their chips to win a ring with Joel now, they run the risk of becoming a long-term joke, like the Sacramento Kings.

How should the Sixers handle James Harden’s struggles?

Since Harden is a top 75 player of all time and a historically excellent scorer, maybe they should just chalk this stretch up to a lingering hamstring injury and hope for the best, right? After all, at least he’s here now, right? Wrong, and thinking like that is how organizations fall apart.  On offense this year Harden has been a brilliant passer and floor general and a willing but very poor shooter, making him the offensive player that we always hoped Ben would become.  The problem is that he is also a truly terrible, awful defender who gives very little effort and has no interest in improving on that end of the floor, so he’s hurting this team exactly as much as BS ever did.  Ben was a great defender who hurt the team on O, Harden is a great offensive leader who hurts the team on D.  They are the yin and yang of one another.

The numbers and the eye test match up.  When Harden and Embiid are on the floor together the Sixers are 16 points better than the opposition, Embiid without Harden, they are five points worse, and Harden without Embiid they are 11 points worse.  If Harden is a superstar and wants to get paid superstar money then this team should be able to hop on his back when Joel is not on the floor and not get crushed. The Sixers hurt their depth when they traded for Harden and have made things worse with this DeAndre Jordan nonsense.  Embiid can carry this team regardless of who else he plays with, and has earned his superstar status, no matter who wins the MVP this year.  If they are going to pay anyone to be a second superstar alongside Joel it has to be someone of his caliber.

Age has caught up to James Harden.  For more than a decade he was rarely injured and played a ton of minutes.  He led the league in minutes played twice and for some crazy reason is still playing 37 minutes per game.  After a while, everyone’s legs start to go.  Harden’s problems over the last few years have been hamstring issues in both legs, which is a huge red flag because soft tissue injuries often linger and very frequently reoccur.  Recurring hamstring issues have cost a lot of star athletes in various sports their careers.  The Sixers cannot look at this as just a fluke injury, because in all likelihood he will be dealing with this on and off for the rest of his playing time.

By all accounts, James Harden is a basketball junkie who lives to play, and perhaps that might be his saving grace.  The only reason for anyone to take the risk of signing Harden to a long term deal is if he shows (not just says, but physically demonstrates) a new commitment to taking care of his body.  Later in their careers LeBron James and Chris Paul, who also had hamstring issues, both made a decision to lengthen their careers by investing in their health and their bodies.  Both players chose to invest more than a million dollars a year on a personal team that includes private chefs, nutritionists, massage therapists, and exercise therapy and recuperation equipment in their homes.  A commitment like that could buy Harden a few more star years, but his current party lifestyle makes a change like that feel unlikely.

Father Time never loses, and he has Harden by the collar right now.  Harden is shooting career lows from both the field and the three point line and has lost both his first step and any lift off his jump. If he were under contract for next year you would just try to build around him and Embiid, but this is not about this year, this is about paying him INSANE amounts of money for four additional years of what almost certainly has to be a gradual decline in his play from where it is right now.  He is going to ask for a four year deal worth 233 million dollars, including a 61 million dollar year when he is a very tired 36 years old.

Harden is demanding money that is owed to him based upon his former days as a superstar, but he is not that now and will only get worse.  His averages this season are 22 points, almost eight rebounds, 10 assists, on 41 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent shooting from behind the line.  The shooting is atrocious, and his rebound and assist numbers are boosted by both his high usage rate and his high minutes.  Remember that he should be playing 5-6 minutes per game less and knock off 1-2 rebounds and assists from his totals.  If you looked at just those numbers alone and did not factor in that he was James Harden, would you ever stand in line to pay that guy 233 million dollars?  Bear in mind that he will be paid more than Embiid every single year that they play together, which is an insult that will be noticed by both Joel and teammates as time goes on.

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This is not a matter of whether Harden is still a really good player- he is.  The issue is that he is no longer a superstar and he’s asking for top 5 player in the league money.  He is probably not a top 25 player in the league right now and he’s wildly unlikely to improve over the next four years.  No one should sink that much money into a player so clearly on the decline. That massive salary will prevent them from ever building a team any better than this current one, making their playoff performance this season the ultimate deciding factor.  If they win it all, you have to re-sign him, if they lose in the first or second round, you simply must move on.

So what options do they have now that they gave up so much for Harden? Well, the hard part is going to be getting Morey to acknowledge that it was a mistake and move on.  Harden was his guy from the start and his call all the way.  Big egos have a history of refusing to admit they ever made a mistake, so this will be a real test of his basketball mind versus his giant ego.  The reality is that freeing up Harden’s salary cap space may be worth more than Harden himself.  Let’s examine the Sixers offseason possibilities, assuming that they do not win the championship this season.

  1. Keep James and hope that everything that you have seen this year has been a blip on a brilliant career.  Pray for the basketball gods to reverse the aging process.
  2. Chase a different superstar.  Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal are both free agents this offseason.  Both are likely to stay with their current teams but it is very possible that they are ready for a move, particularly to play next to Joel.  Both stars are also a bit of a health risk, coming off of injuries this year, but both are far safer long term bets than Harden and his faulty hamstring.  Both guys skill sets would fit in like a glove next to Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.
  3. Use the cap space to go after 2- 3 outstanding role players to give Maxey and Embiid more help while also carefully selecting players who will accentuate their skills and be the best fit.  There may even be enough money for a decent backup center.

This has nothing to do with anyone liking or not liking James Harden.  This is simply about the money.  Anyone asking for money so exorbitant has to be worth the price tag.  Harden is not that now, and will never be worth that enormous amount.  To pay a good player like a superstar player destroys any possibility of spending money to improve other positions.  76er fans are acutely aware of how this can hurt a team because we are currently living through the terrible Tobias Harris contract.  Well, this would be twice as costly a mistake as the Harris contract.  It would be a team killer and set the Sixers up to be back at the bottom of the lottery in four years.

It’s okay that the Sixers lost the Simmons deal.  They took a gamble and it didn’t work out, so be it.  Trying to win it all requires the courage to take risky moves.  But let’s not exacerbate a problem that can be fixed.  Just admit it didn’t work out, live with the fallout, and try again.  Don’t throw good money after bad at James Harden.

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