Gotta Let Him Go
The Sixers don't have a lot of good options to replace James Harden this summer. All of them are still better than re-signing him.
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It won't be the only thing I remember about James Harden as a Sixer, or even the main thing. But one thing I will always remember about his Philly tenure is how halfway through Game Seven against the Celtics, it became clear that to win the game, we were going to have to do so with him being terrible the whole way. He had been quite bad for the first two quarters, and there was no doubt at all he was going to stay as such for the remaining two. The Sixers were going to have to figure out how to succeed with that particular arm tied behind their back.
As it turned out, both he and Joel Embiid were miserable for all 48 of that one. But while Embiid's continued decrepitude was concerning, upsetting, angering and (most importantly) surprising, Harden's crappiness was just Another One of Those Harden Games. There was no chance of him shaking it off, turning it around or even toughing his way through it; this was who Uno was going to be for the remainder of the contest and we just had to deal with it. There was no point in being concerned, upset, angry or surprised about it.
That Game Seven may be the last that James Harden ever plays in a Sixers uniform, but it very likely won't be. While Harden's extended flirtation with his exes in Houston remains ongoing, the Sixers still seem motivated to keep him from straying -- going as far as, if the implications of certain reports are to be believed, firing Doc Rivers in part to help tip the balances towards him staying home in Philly. With his old buddy Dary Morey overseeing the team's ledger, chances are still good that he'll opt out and get the four-year deal here he's reportedly seeking.
I do hope it is his Sixers swansong though. Which isn't to say that I think he was a bad Sixer, or that I regret the trade for him, or that I question his ability to be very productive next year or beyond. It's just that we've seen the best that James Harden has to offer, and while it was usually helpful and occasionally spellbinding it ultimately wasn't good enough -- and it's only going to get worse from here. We can't trust a team built around him, and as long as he's here, we can't trust our GM to not build the team around him. We gotta try something else.
That's a jagged little pill to swallow, given how much we gave up for him and how little we have to work with in replacing him. But to recap: James Harden just played two of the all-time best games we've ever seen a Sixer deliver in the playoffs, and at least three, maybe four of the absolute worst. He saved the series only to lose it over again; he's practically the only reason that we won Game One and Game Four but also the biggest reason by far that we lost all four games that we lost. On the whole his stats for the series average out to a decent-enough 22 and 8 on 42% shooting, numbers we probably would've been OK with going into the series without hearing the larger context behind them. But that's also probably as good as Harden is ever going to be for us in the playoffs again -- in all likelihood, he'll be worse -- and it still wasn't enough to win us the series. Hell, it still wasn't enough to not lose us the series.
How do I know that this was his best shot? Well, I don't actually, I suppose, but the signs can't exactly be considered encouraging. Harden has finished his last three postseasons absolutely flailing, progressively worse each time -- 11-36 and a -19 in his last three games against Milwaukee for Brooklyn in 2021, 9-22 and a -45 in his last two games against Miami for us in 2022, and now 7-27 and -40 across Games Six and Seven against Boston. Some of that, particularly in 2021, is health-influenced, but that's not too likely to disappear as a factor heading into his age-34 season. And for a player whose internal drive doesn't always seem to be what we want it to be, and whose physical fitness has hardly been maxed out in recent years... let's just say you usually feel better about that guy before they get that Final Big Contract, not after. Harden hasn't to our knowledge ever been an "I'll show you" type performer; in fact, I don't know if I've ever rooted for a player who seems more OK with playing into the hands of critics and giving them every reason under the sun to discount the things he does well.
Put it this way: Let's ignore the reasons why Harden might be even worse in the playoffs next year. What reason, if any, do we have to believe that Harden will be better? Are we still expecting him to regain some of that fabled burst of his in his 15th season, literally 1,000 regular-season games into his career? Or are we expecting him to further adapt his game to adjust for his physical decline -- a decline, btw, that while strikingly obvious to those watching, Harden himself has never copped to or even humored in his own public statements? Do we really still believe that shot variance simply owes Harden a better series-ending performance than he's had in his last three? None of these possibilities seem particularly convincing to me.
Maybe you think a new coach will be the answer there -- perhaps more specifically, a 72-year-old coach who's had a decent amount of previous success with Harden and has been chilling on the NBA's sidelines since being divested of their former partnership three years ago. But that leads us to the other biggest part of the problem here: Are we really gonna hire a coach primarily to cater to a declining 34-year-old second option who just refused to shoot or go to the basket in the second half of one of the biggest games of his career -- not something unique to this game or even this postseason for Harden, for the record -- when he's not even definitely going to be on this team next year? And does that mean we're also gonna acquiesce to his other reported wishes for an offense catered more to his skills (which, again, he showcased almost none of in the two games that just ended the Sixers' season)?
To me that sounds absolutely ridiculous. Unfortunately, it also might sound like the most logical thing in the world to the man in charge of making these decisions: Daryl Morey, who both traded for Harden and hired Mike D'Antoni in Houston, and for whom re-hiring MDA would essentially represent the final step in rebuilding the team he had that got within spitting distance of the finals five years ago. But here's the thing about five years ago: It was five years ago. I don't know if D'Antoni is still the same coach he was in 2018, but I do know for a fact that Harden is not the same player he was then. While some of the men involved may be delusional enough to believe that reuniting player with coach is the key to unlocking that vintage of his play, I can trust my eyes well enough to say that 2018 Harden is not returning regardless of who is on the sideline hollering for fouls on his behalf.
And this is the main reason why we need to let Harden go, almost regardless of how long or for how much he asks to return: We need to break this goddamn cycle. This is a franchise already fucking bathing in close-but-not-quite loser energy, a long-simmering braise of Shouldn't They Have by Now. Adding D'Antoni, who is also bringing a melange of "ah man but if this then that" near-championship spices from Houston and Phoenix to the table, is not exactly a move in the right spiritual direction for this team. And regardless, Daryl just really needs to be forced to try a new gameplan: If his grand design for the second straight offseason is just to further recreate the team he had a half-decade earlier -- a team that never even got to the finals in their prime -- then don't we have to question whether this guy is the innovative artist we thought we were getting as GM or more of a play-the-hits act currently on a casinos-and-amphitheaters nostalgia tour? Doesn't he want the chance to play something new? Doesn't he want to prove that he can?
Harden certainly seems to be Morey's biggest blindspot and his greatest vice. It's understandable: He landed Harden when the latter was still widely undervalued and underestimated, built a winner around him that defied NBA conventional wisdom and validated most of his core tenets, and got close enough to the finish line with him that he could probably already taste the gold medal between his teeth. But now here we are at this pivotal summer, and we've essentially left Daryl alone on a shady street corner with a suitcase full of cash -- and no matter how many hard crashes this particular addiction has led him to before, you have to figure he's going to chase that fix one more time, and likely just keep chasing from there. With a different GM, I might advocate for re-signing Harden just not to lose the asset and immediately looking to trade him for other useful stuff; if Morey gets him back this offseason he's gonna hold onto him as tight as he did at the airport 15 months ago.
It's all gotta stop. What we saw in Game Seven was not something we're an offensive tweak or gameplanning adjustment away from fixing. They don't need an offensive genius or a defensive specialist as a head coach, they need a fucking exorcist. At the very least, they need a material change to the character of this team -- and as Spike said on Wednesday's pod, that's near-impossible to do when you have a core of Embiid and Harden, two guys who historically both tend to wilt under the brightest spotlights and don't seem able to hold one another accountable in such situations. I hate to be this guy -- hate -- but at this point, the evidence before the court is incontrovertible: Joel needs a co-star with a little more internal fortitude, a little more of that fabled Dog In Him, and one who can pull whatever there is there to get out of Jo as well. Yes, we had that guy four years ago and let him go to Miami; that sucks, but we don't get a do-over on it. The answer is not to spend the rest of Jo's prime strapped to someone who we now have over a decade's evidence of emphatically not being that guy.
What *is* the answer? I don't know, and likely neither does Morey or anyone else -- which is unfortunate, because we don't have a ton of time to figure it out. But while the Sixers don't have a lot of good options, they do have options. They can go all in on Maxey, hope that the line graph of his career keeps going up at the rate it has for the first three years of his insanely overachieving NBA career so far. They can cash in on Maxey, use him as the primary trade asset to land a more veteran offensive co-star. Or they can kinda hold the line, maintain whatever remaining flexibility they have, sign and re-sign guys on tradeable contracts, hope guys on the roster continue to improve and take advantage of whatever shakes loose on the open market over the next year or so. We’ll discuss this a whole lot more as this offseason goes on, but these asset-strapped situations are never quite as hopeless as they seem for squads that are already pretty close. Plenty of teams have seemed deader in the water than the Sixers and figured out a way to regroup on the fly. Two of them are in the conference finals right now.
And for the record, I still think this was all worth a try. Harden remains the best offensive guard Joel has ever played with, and his acquisition was arguably the biggest reason Jo was able to get over the hump to his first-ever MVP award -- while Embiid was the best big man Harden had ever played with, and probably the biggest reason he was able to reinvent himself as a pass-first point guard so successfully. It was a good on-court partnership, and they both deserved a good-faith attempt to show that they could pull one another up and take each other to heights they were never able to achieve separately. We'd be better off now with Tyrese Haliburton, of course, but few if any Sixers fans would've considered the latter a more desirable trade target than Harden in real time. We needed to win now. We almost did. Meanwhile, Ben Simmons may never be a consequential basketball player again, and the stuff we attached with him on the way to Brooklyn is probably less than they would need to send out just to be rid of him this offseason. It didn't totally work, but it was still a good trade.
But it's over now. The team had its chance -- two of them, really. Yes, they could have gotten luckier with health each time, but betting against any kind of injuries with Harden and Embiid at this point in their careers is like betting against rush hour traffic. Yes, things could have been different if De'Anthony Melton and Tyrese Maxey had hit some shots in the fourth quarter of Game Six, but your entire franchise's gameplan just can't revolve around hoping your two best players never have to close out a close playoff series. Harden was mostly very good, occasionally great, and often downright terrible for this team, but on the whole he just isn't what they need. If the Sixers have to suffer in the short-term for his absence, then they have to suffer. If they never figure out a better long-term play to replace him, then they never replace him. If Joel gets impatient and frustrated and demands a trade in the meantime... well, that's the end of the world, but it was an apocalypse coming sooner than later with Harden in tow anyway.
All of that might happen, and you just kinda have to let it. But what you can't let happen is to have all your chips put in the middle on the guy you just busted out with in such spectacular fashion -- not when that's the kind of bet he's been for more or less his entire NBA career, and not when he's probably going to be an even worse bet every year from here. Letting him go is gonna be the hardest thing Daryl Morey has ever had to do as GM, something counterintuitive to his entire mode of being. But it's what he's going to have to do for this team to have any real chance of moving on from a potentially franchise-crippling loss like Game Seven. Otherwise, we're just going to end up right back here again next year. And there won't be any point at all in getting concerned, angry, upset or surprised about it.