Healthy James Harden vows to get back to ‘top of my game’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Harden promises a return to his high-scoring form after battling a lingering hamstring injury that created rare doubt for the three-time NBA champion the past two seasons.

He expects similar big things from the Philadelphia 76ers after taking less pay in his contract this season to help the team improve and pursue the championship he still seeks.

Harden suffered a hamstring injury while playing for the Brooklyn Nets in the 2020-21 season. The first serious injury of his 13-year career was a “red flag” that made Harden think about life outside of basketball.

Finally healthy, he spent the summer in his hometown of Los Angeles. Relaxing barefoot in a fully furnished nine-bedroom, 14-bathroom rented mansion perched on a hill above Beverly Hills with sweeping views stretching all the way to downtown Los Angeles, Harden can’t wait to leave. the past behind him.

“I’m looking to have an amazing season,” he said on Sunday. “I don’t want to just go out there and run around and not be efficient and look old there. I always want to be really, really, really good.

Harden declined his $47.4 million player option with the 76ers for next season and instead agreed to a new two-year deal that will net him $32 million in 2022-23. It includes a player option for the second season. The deal is not yet finalized and Harden has not addressed negotiations.

However, the 10-time star confirmed to The Associated Press that he made the decision to give the 76ers the flexibility they needed to pursue other players. Had he not declined the option, the team would have struggled to bolster their roster led by NBA champion Joel Embiid.

“Taking less money this year to sign as many players as needed to help us fight and be the last team standing was very, very important to me,” Harden said. “I wanted to show the organization, the Sixers fans and everyone who supports what we’re trying to accomplish, what I’m trying to accomplish individually, that this is who I am.”

The Sixers signed free agents PJ Tucker and Danuel House. Harden previously played with both in Houston.

“We had some really good plays this summer, so now it’s time for us to go and work hard,” Harden said.

Harden has averaged 22 points this season for Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the lowest since becoming a starter in the 2012-13 season. He will be 33 in August.

“For all the other players it’s a max contract,” he said of his lower numbers, “but it’s like, for me, I’m not the same James Harden.”

He relied more on 3-pointers and free throws than driving to the basket. His usual speed was replaced by slowness and his mind was preoccupied with the injury.

“I couldn’t take my places and get to where I needed to go without thinking about it, so that slowed down my confidence,” he said. “It was crazy, but I’m finally back. I will be much more aggressive in terms of scoring just because my body allows me to.

The 76ers lost to top-seeded Miami in the second round of the playoffs. Harden had four turnovers, four field goals and didn’t score in the second half in the decisive Game 6 loss. They haven’t made it past the second round since 2001. Their last NBA championship was in 1983.

“Coming back and being the aggressor, the scorer first and then the playmaker, is something I need for myself,” he said.

Sitting in front of an unlit fireplace with the mansion’s air conditioning on, Harden taps his fingers on a wooden table.

“I feel like I had a perfect career,” he said. “I didn’t have any major injuries, but it (hamstring) slowed me down to where okay, you gotta start thinking about other things than basketball.”

Harden already owns restaurants, gyms and has a stake in a tequila company among his various business interests. Curious about just about everything, he got into wine a few years ago.

Harden sat down with the AP to discuss his upcoming J. Harden x J Shed winery collaboration which kicks off in September. The tag features bright colors and his likeness with sunglasses and his trademark beard. Prices range from $14 to $18 per bottle.

“We came to disrupt the wine business, that was our mindset,” he said. “I don’t feel like any other wine does that.”


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