Sixers: Final thoughts on James Harden’s 2021-22 season

James Harden, Sixers (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
James Harden, Sixers (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

James Harden‘s 2021-22 season did not include the level of dominance we’ve come to expect from the three-time scoring champ. His shooting percentages plummeted, his aggression tapered off, and his approach became much more focused on facilitating for others — both in Brooklyn and in Philadelphia.

In the end, Harden played 33 total games for Philadelphia (including the playoffs). In the regular season, he averaged 21.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 10.5 assists for the Sixers. In the postseason, his numbers dipped to 18.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 8.6 assists (interesting context: Trae Young averaged 15.4 points and 6.0 assists on 31.9 percent shooting in his first-round battle with Miami).

Most memorable, of course, is Harden’s closing effort in Philadelphia’s Game 6 loss to Miami. He scored 11 points, zero of which came in the second half. He took as many shots in the second half of an elimination game as Ben Simmons did in last season’s infamous Game 7 collapse. Once again, Sixers fans were left clamoring for more aggression from Joel Embiid‘s playmaking partner.

James Harden didn’t live up to the hype. Now what?

Ultimately, Harden’s first half-season with Philadelphia was a disappointment. There’s no way around it. Some of that is rooted in unreasonable expectations from the fanbase (Harden started to lose a step well before his arrival in Philly), and some of that is Harden simply not delivering in the biggest moments. His Game 6 no-show will totally wash away his magical Game 4 performance, and that’s probably fair. He has to find more ways to put his fingerprints on big games, especially when Embiid is hurt and half-speed.

The Sixers cannot be content with Harden going Simmons-level AWOL in the biggest game of the season. That’s not okay. But, here’s where things get tricky: Harden definitely isn’t leaving, and the Sixers are definitely better with Harden on the team. For all the valid criticism of his performance this postseason, he was far and away the Sixers’ second-best player. He’s one of the best passers in the sport and the Sixers will probably have to sign him to an extension sooner than later.

Harden may ultimately take less than the max, but his next contract is going to make a lot of fans live in fear. It feels inevitable: Harden will be tethered to the Sixers for the remainder of Embiid’s prime. And, that might be the best option. The Sixers don’t have a ton of free cap space and there’s no player of Harden’s immediate caliber available in free agency, unless Bradley Beal finally commits to leaving Washington. Even then, Harden can opt in to the final year of his contract. He’s not passing up $47.4 million and the chance to compete so Philly can sign a different star guard.

In the end, Philly is kind of stuck with Harden. That’s not all bad — I will go to bat for Harden in general, he was much better than the consensus opinion of him would suggest — but there is serious, unavoidable concern over his future with the team. If Harden doesn’t look “right” next season, then the next logical question is how long until he’s just hurting the team?

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There is reason for optimism on that front. Harden has not been able to properly train for two seasons now. He spent all of last summer rehabbing his hamstring and, in his press conference after Game 6, said he’s only just now starting to feel right. If a full summer of training and conditioning can get Harden closer to his old self, then next season’s outlook will be much brighter for the Sixers.

It is plainly unreasonable for Philly fans to expect “Houston Harden.” That guy’s never coming back. It was not long ago, however, that Harden was a top-5 player in the NBA and a perennial MVP candidate. Heck, as recently as last season we were all wondering if Harden was actually Brooklyn’s most valuable star. The talent and skill level is undeniable, not to mention his basketball I.Q. He feels too smart to fail on some level, and with a full offseason to train and better understand his body, it’s not unreasonable to expect a more comfortable Harden next season. Especially with a full training camp to mesh with his new teammates.

We can only wait and see. Again, Harden was not bad for Philadelphia this season. The Sixers were meaningfully better post-trade, and Harden’s particular brand of patience was pretty important to Philadelphia’s late-game execution. He’s so smart, and even in his diminished state he clearly elevated teammates and put the team in a better position to win most nights. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris playing the best basketball of their careers after Harden arrived is no coincidence.

That’s shading dangerously close to the Ben Simmons narrative (but he made teammates better!) but Harden is a genuinely superior offensive talent. The defense is a different problem, but if you ignore his frustrating Game 6 apathy, Harden’s defense wasn’t that bad. It’s genuinely hard to put together a contender on the fly, and the Sixers’ lack of continuity does ultimately play a role here. Next season — with the roster more tailored to Harden’s skill set and a full offseason of training under his belt — will begin the true referendum on Harden in Philadelphia. If he falls short in similar fashion come 2023, then it will be a lot tougher to proceed with optimism.

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