The only confusing thing about the Sixers’ biggest playoff question is how to phrase it. To contend for a title, they need the old James Harden and not the Old James Harden. The former version, not the elder. They need the guy they attempted to trade for in January of 2021 instead of the guy they ended up trading for in February of 2022.
Can they win a title with the second guy at some point? Sure. Can they do it this year, with this team? Highly doubtful.
All of this leads us to the big unknown: How much can we realistically expect to change in a week? The Sixers will enter Saturday’s playoff opener against the Raptors with a 65-game sample that says that Harden is no longer the automatic bucket he was during his nine seasons in Houston.
He is getting to the rim less frequently than he has since his early days in Oklahoma City. He is making fewer of his three-pointers than any point in his career. The eyes suggest a player who is 32 years old going on 36, lacking the first step and the finishing ability and the quick-twitch liftoff that made him a three-time scoring champ.
Make no mistake: Harden is still an immensely skilled player who has been a net positive in his two months in Philly. Since the trade, the Sixers’ scoring average has risen from 107.5 to 115.8 points per game, their net point differential from +1.5 to +5.2 points per game. They are 14-7 in the games he has played, a 54-win pace. He has averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds since his arrival. For context, Ben Simmons’ career marks were 15.9 points, 7.7 assists and 8.1 rebounds.
The problem is that Harden hasn’t looked like a guy you can pair with Joel Embiid and expect that any roster around them will contend. The Sixers’ championship potential was always predicated on that notion. Doc Rivers told Harden as much a couple of weeks ago during a half-hour sit-down.
“He’s trying to fit in and get guys going, and I told him, ‘No, thank you,’ ” Rivers said of the talk. “I said, ‘You get going, and we’ll figure it out. We just need you to be you.’ ”
Little has changed in the seven games since. Harden is still averaging as many points from the foul line (6.3) as he is from the three-point line (6.3 points on .288 shooting) or from two (5.8 points on 5.9 attempts). He is still struggling to beat switching defenders off the dribble. He still isn’t knocking down his step-back jumper. One logical conclusion: Maybe this is him.
On Sunday, Rivers said he has no concerns about the hamstring injury that Harden has battled since last summer. He said he thinks Harden’s explosiveness and isolation scoring ability can still improve. If so, the coach will need to use this week of practices to figure out a way to make it happen.
“This is a big week for us,” Rivers said on Sunday.
That’s true in more ways than one. Ever since Kawhi Leonard’s shot bounced in and sent the Sixers home in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals, the front office has tried a variety of different talent combinations to get over the top.
The acquisition of Harden at February’s trade deadline was supposed to mark the end of that process. Finally, the Sixers had found their second superstar. They had the NBA’s best two-way center, and one of its greatest isolation scorers. Harden had reportedly agreed to opt in to the final year of his contract, meaning the Sixers would have at least two shots at a championship before either party needed to decide on a longer-term future.
Now, the short term and the long term feel even more intertwined. Harden has yet to opt in for the final year of his deal, leaving a number of different scenarios in play for the offseason. Given the self-awareness he has exhibited on the court for the Sixers, it’s fair to entertain the possibility that he believes he is in the final act of his career and is willing to help the Sixers achieve the financial flexibility that would maximize their ability to surround him with the complementary pieces he needs.
But if he decides to leverage his position for maximum economic gain, the Sixers could face a no-win decision. Given the signs of physical decline, could they possibly justify re-signing him for four years?
It’s impossible to predict how the upcoming postseason will impact the calculus. The Sixers can certainly build a legitimate contender around Embiid and Harden in their current form. They’d need to replace Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle with a couple of starters who can play defense and consistently knock down catch-and-shoot threes. They’d need to add at least one athletic big man. They’d need to take a hard look at Rivers’ ability to make all of those pieces work.
Right now, though, they have to hope that Harden has more in his tank than he has shown the last few months. They have to hope that a week’s worth of practice can unlock the scoring ability that they will need to beat the Heat in the second round and the Bucks or Nets after that.
Like Rivers said last month, the Sixers need Harden to look like the old version of himself, instead of the version that looks old.