After spending eight years with the Houston Rockets, James Harden is now on his second team in a year after being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers at the deadline. During his time in Houston, Harden continually honed a specific style of basketball that was brutally effective, if he sometimes cringed in his resistance to taking any hit that didn’t match an actuarial table he seemed to be constantly updating. in real time. Despite how much this approach was influenced by basic analytic precepts, it was simultaneously a throwback to earlier eras in its isolationist bent, once again making a high-volume scorekeeper the absolute center of a game’s ecosystem. team. But as in the early 2000s, when such actors were ubiquitous, the limits of such an approach have again become evident.
Seen in a certain light, Harden can fit anywhere. His mere presence has, for a decade, guaranteed that his team will field one of the best offenses in the NBA and be, at the very least, a fringe contender for the championship. It’s strange to denigrate someone who can do and be so much, seemingly on his own. However, as high as he was able to lift the Rockets, he felt like there was an invisible ceiling he kept banging his head against, some force of bad luck preventing him and his teammates from to pierce. The ground rises and rises, though the top remains out of reach.
When the 76ers traded for James Harden, the team virtually replaced Seth Curry with James Harden. Even though Harden looks diminished this season due to a combination of nagging injuries and listlessness, it’s still a tremendous improvement. He’s still an effective playmaker and creator, someone who doesn’t need help finding his own shot while still providing countless open looks to his teammates. Harden may not be the greatest scorer or the most stylish in NBA history, but in his prime few were more deadly. And now Harden is paired with another superstar again, trying to prove that these methods can lead to more than regular-season dominance.
Considering the list of stars and future Hall of Famers Harden played, one can’t unequivocally call new teammate Joel Embiid the best running mate he’s ever had. He teamed with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving but hasn’t reached the final since 2012 when he came off the bench for the Thunder. Much of this is due to bad luck and timing, but it’s staggering to think of the different configurations of talent that failed to find ultimate success with him at the helm. Does Harden’s singular style undermine his teammates’ abilities? Harden and Embiid are worlds unto themselves, gamers who not only dictate the end result of a game, but set the parameters in which it is played. There’s an uncompromising nature to their styles, a nature that has served them and their teams well, but only up to a point. Will their union be what will change that? Or will their singular abilities undermine those of their equally overbearing teammate?
The passage of time solidifies things. What once seemed fluid or malleable turns out to be concrete, immutable. And strategies that previously seemed promising or sure to triumph turn out to have inherent flaws. Eventually the potential disappears and all that remains is raw fact, a reality that never lived up to expectations. A few years ago, one might have wondered, how could a player as good as Harden not lead a team to a championship? Over the past few seasons, it looks like we’ve found out.
This knowledge is provisional, however. All it would take for those stories to go away, for this very column to appear presumptuous and misguided, it would take Harden to win a championship. Instead of his previous playoff failures contributing to a tapestry that collectively reveals why his dominating style could never lead a team to the title, they would be recast as necessary hurdles, hurdles that had to be cleared before he could reach glory. It’s silly and maybe not fair or accurate, yet it’s the reality.
With Embiid turning in a season worthy of being seriously considered MVP for the second year in a row, Philadelphia may not need Harden to reach the heights his former self scaled so easily. Embiid is dominant enough on his own, that if Harden can just keep the team afloat when Embiid is on the bench, then that alone may be enough to make the Sixers a very real threat in the playoffs. If they can combine their talents and create the deadly two-player game they are capable of, then even better. But at this point it’s all theoretical, and while fans and analysts can imagine the best-case scenario – how these two stars could combine and create magic – are the players themselves capable of doing it? ? He is no longer a young man. His heyday is coming to an end and his chance to lead a title team is dwindling. At this point, expecting a drastic change in his style of play is a mistake. He’s a determined man, and in light of the individual success he’s found, why wouldn’t he be? The question then becomes whether he can move around enough to accommodate someone other than himself, to leave enough space for a star teammate to thrive alongside him. Can James Harden, one of the most deliberate players in NBA history, be someone different from the one he has repeatedly shown?