James Harden Seeming to Giving a Shit Is Good Enough For Now
James Harden at least wants us to buy that he can still be more than we saw last season. It's not much, but it's a start.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
Andrew's writing is brought to you by Kinetic Skateboarding! Not only the Ricky's approved skate shop, but the best place to get Chucks, Vans, any apparel. Use code "DAVESILVER" for 9.1% off your order.
The common refrain among Philly sports fans in defense of our oft-maligned predilection for booing has long -- maybe always -- been that we only really give players the Broad Street Cheer if we sense that they're not trying their hardest. Our guys may not always be the highest-achievers, but long as they're willing to run through a wall for our team (or at least run into a wall, in the contrasting cases of Aaron Rowand and Bobby Abreu), we'll have their backs. It's a philosophy with some real selective memory behind it; in fact, players will get and have gotten booed for cold streaks, for not living up to their prospect hope, sometimes just for having the temerity to get traded to another team. And that's fine; booing is too much in the bloodstream here for fans to narrow their reasons for doing it to just the one.
But it is certainly true that an obvious lack of effort -- or worse, a perceived lack of caring -- can be an absolute death sentence for a player in Philadelphia. That's what really made fans and media (nationally as well as locally, but particularly locally) so aghast about James Harden's second-half no-show in Game Six against the Heat last playoffs: We were mad that he went scoreless, but we were absolutely furious that he only attempted two shots, and didn't get a single free throws. It's the same reason Ben Simmons' miserable free-throw percentage became a footnote in the Hawks series, but every Sixers fan could still storyboard with pinpoint accuracy the dunk he passed up against Trae Young. Failing to score is embarrassing. Failing to shoot is disgraceful.
A Harden performance like that, combined with a general physical and emotional lethargy towards the end of his first run here, could've been the final word on him as a Sixer. It still might be. But his attitude and behavior this offseason at least strongly suggest a man who doesn't want that to be the ultimate impression he leaves on Sixers fans -- and one who wants us to buy that he can still be more. It's not much, but it's a start.
I don't really want to argue about the contract thing, even though I guess I sort of have to here. No, he certainly wasn't being the Ned Stark of Philly sports by taking less money -- and we'll assume for this article's sake that this contract is going to be signed as reported, though of course the fact that it still technically hasn't could make this all look quite foolish in short order -- simply because it was the Right and Honorable thing to do. Indeed, he's not really taking "less" at all: As plenty (including on the Ricky) have pointed out, if the reports are accurate, he is in fact signing on for more money (albeit at a lower annual average value) than he was previously guaranteed had he opted into the final year of his deal. If all works out for player and team, he should have plenty of opportunity to make up whatever money is "lost" on this deal next summer, not just with the Sixers but perhaps with more other bidders than are currently interested in purchasing the Plastic Fantastic secondhand CD version of James Harden.
But even if his motives weren't entirely altruistic, he still made things easy on the Sixers. And he could have made them hard: There could've been squeezing on dollar amounts or years or promises, knowing the Sixers had little choice but to bring him back. No, there might not likely have been anyone swooping in to steal him away from Philly, but there still could've been unpleasantness -- standoffs, holdouts, media wars, general humiliation for a franchise who just came off an offseason spent in a degrading no-win showdown with their prior star point guard-not-point guard. He could've made this summer excruciating. I half expected him to. Instead, he made it simple enough that most of our important business for the offseason was done by the time I took the train home from work on the first day of free agency.
Is that proof that -- as he told Yahoo Sports in what essentially amounted to an exclusive press release -- winning a championship in Philly is "all that matters" to him at this stage in his career? Certainly not; such a claim is usually true for maybe 5% of the players who make it, and the fact that the quote appears in a feature to promote his new brand of wine does not particularly lend confidence to the idea that Harden is among that percentage. More likely, perception matters to him -- perception of him as a fraud and a failure, both from his new fanbase and from the NBA at large -- and he cares enough to at least try to counteract that.
That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's not something we can really take as a given, particularly after our experiences with No. 25. Some NBA stars just lack the self-awareness (or the outside counsel) to recognize when their stock as a player has taken an enormous hit and needs reviving. The fact that Harden recognizes this and is willing to take proactive measures about it -- the contract, the media tour, the workout videos we're sure to only see more of over the next two months -- is encouraging. Maybe it's because he Just Wants to Win, maybe it's because he wants to really cash out on his next paycheck; either way, he recognizes that where he was last year wasn't good enough and that getting back to where he wants to be is gonna take some degree of actual work.
Can he get there? I don't know. I'd like to believe an offseason of getting right is really the cure for what ailed James Harden in his first few months in Philly, that the Chris Paul precedent is a real and fair comparison for a 30-something star bouncing back in the second season following a hamstring injury, and that he's really going to do what he has to for the rest of the summer to get himself in the right place physically and mentally to kick ass next season. I'm not sure if I actually do; a large part of me believes that once it goes for a player like Harden it's gone for good, that he's got too many other priorities to put enough focus on his fitness this summer, that his level of want to win will ever be enough to make him a worthy running mate for Joel when the shit gets thick in May and June.
He's asking us to believe, though -- and giving us something vaguely resembling reason to -- and that does mean something to me. Harden's pandering to us now, but that's what you should be doing as a star player in the offseason; honestly, we had no real reason previously to believe he cared enough to even do that much. It's largely spin, and that's fine: Given where we ended the season, it's hard not to be grateful for being rotated to a new perspective. We still have a lot of offseason left, and Harden saying and doing all the right things at this point is going to make getting through the rest of it a lot more bearable than it would've been otherwise. It won't mean much if he shows up next year as the same player as the guy we saw at the end of the playoffs, but for now, it's all we could really ask for from Harden. There'll be plenty of walls for him to run into (or not) soon enough.