Pre-Coping With James Harden's Sixers Return
I really shouldn't have to talk myself into the Sixers re-signing their second best player rather than letting him walk for nothing. But here we are.
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"I do think a large amount of the James Harden Has Gotta Get Outta Here sentiment that a lot of people have, myself included, is going to go away the minute he re-signs, as people talk themselves into it. Which I understand, but... I want everyone to just mark down that they said this at this point, when that contract comes through."
That was Spike on last weekend's Ricky, and he's not wrong. I've been a pretty strident James Harden Has Gotta Get Outta Here proponent since Game Seven -- the injuries, the no-shows, the Loser Energy, you know how this song goes -- but I'd be lying if I said I couldn't already feel my internal "OK, but..." pivot moving through its early stages. I'm not an expert-level tea-reader by any stretch, but even the Only Moderately Raven out there can probably predict the future on this one: The "likely"s are turning to "could"s with Harden's long-rumored Houston reunion, and now apparently he's "torn" about the move, which for all the world feels like the set-up to an eventual punchline of him issuing some super-pandery announcement of him taking less money (because no one else offered him more) to give it another try in Philly. The words "unfinished business" will almost certainly be used. I'm already queasy thinking about it.
But it's probably coming, and even though I still would much rather it not -- and even though I am very interested in hearing all of your three-team sign-and-trade proposals getting him to Phoenix and bringing us an influx of random fun stuff instead -- I feel like I'm better off coming terms with it sooner than later. So let me just get the talking myself into it out of the way now.
Jo'll like it (at least at first). I don't really know where Joel Embiid and James Harden are at with their relationship right now, personally or professionally. They seemed to mesh better both on and off the court than Embiid did with Ben Simmons at any point in his career, but it also didn't seem like the kind of relationship that would stand up to any real stress test -- like, say, a critical Game Seven where both failed miserably. Maybe there's some finger-pointing between them now, some subtweeting, some blame-deflecting. Still, it was "Me and James" for Joel in the post-game conference, and that's still probably more where he is than not: He has a co-star -- one who played a significant part in his first MVP season, and one who serves as a fellow scapegoat for when things with the team go terribly wrong -- and he'd much rather get him back than lose him for nothing.
I'm not sure it'll ultimately be a good thing for Jo to be re-paired with Harden -- there are leaps he has to make both on his own and with his other teammates that it's never gonna be easy for him to do with Harden as a ball-dominating crutch. But at least if he comes back, we don't have to automatically start the timer on Joel's "OK, but y'all better figure this shit out soon" clock, which could hit midnight as soon as the offseason (or even the trade deadline) if the team lets Harden walk and the rest of the roster doesn't prove up to snuff in the regular season. And we won't have to completely re-tool the offense or ask Jo to carry even more of the load than he does now, all of which he probably appreciates.
The regular season will probably be fun again. Fans like to act as if the postseason is the only thing that really matters with a team, and that certainly is always the way it feels at this time of year with memories still fresh and nothing else new on the horizon. But the regular season is the part we actually spend a half-year watching, and as much as Process Trusters spent most if not all last year bellyaching about how Not Fun the team was to watch, I dunno, I recall enjoying a pretty good number of those 54 wins. I like watching winning regular-season basketball a lot. Hell, I love watching winning preseason and Summer League basketball a lot. Playoffs matter most, but they don't matter only.
James Harden was great last regular season -- even (most of) his biggest haters won't deny that. He led the league in assists, helped Jo achieve his most actualized offensive form, showed up for some pretty big games against Boston and Milwaukee, and even scored a little better and more efficiently than he had the year before. He was the second-best player on a contending team and it felt like it. He frustrated on occasion, he ran out of legs in the final weeks and he was terrible in seven out of 11 games this postseason, but before that it was an almost entirely joyous thing to have James Harden on our basketball team, carving up defenses in the pick-and-roll, lasering hit-ahead passes, even knocking down the occasional catch-and-shoot three. I won't be minding any of that on a Wednesday night in Orlando, that's for damn sure.
Maybe he'll come back cheap (or at least for not that long). The good news about the crescendoing inevitability of Harden's return to the Sixers is that it seems to be far more due to compromise and/or desperation on his end than the team's. The hiring of Nick Nurse and Joelcentric messaging surrounding that move certainly seemed like a pretty clear message that while Harden's return may or may not be desired in Philly, ensuring it is definitely not their top priority for the summer -- and Houston seems to maybe cooling on the prospect of hooking back up with their ex as well. So while Harden may still have the Sixers over a barrel in terms of their inability to replace him, they've done a good enough job of projecting acceptance at the prospect of just writing next year off as a Barrel Season that it appears Harden may be unable to exploit their agony as he'd likely hoped.
Hopefully that means that the max or near-max deal we all feared was inevitable this summer from the time he Heroically Re-Signed for Less last offseason is basically off the table. What's actually on the table is harder to say -- a long but stretched out deal that allows the Sixers to remain minorly flexible the next couple years? Or a shorter deal that inflicts maximum pain in the immediate future but dissolves in a couple summers? Not sure, but at the very least, Harden's return would be far more palatable at a discount than knowing we'd finally reached the final year of the Tobias Harris contract only to voluntarily sign up for another, even more expensive and destructive long-term contract instantly afterwards.
We can maybe trade him? Phoenix ostensibly showing interest in Harden this summer is a good reminder that no matter how fucked the Sixers' team situation is, there will always be another even fuckeder team out there ther willing to make our problems theirs for the long-shot chance of getting out of their mess. If Harden re-signs on a not-abhorrent deal, and if he plays during the regular season as he did to start last year... yeah, there's probably some franchise who didn't watch the playoffs or go on Twitter this summer that still thinks he can be a franchise savior, or even just a last missing piece. After all, he was an All-NBA Contender, and boy was he sure great in exactly two games last playoffs!
When Bryan Toporek did his repeating Twitter poll during the second round of whether or not we wanted Harden back, this was always my split-the-difference answer: Sign him and trade him. Don't lose him for nothing, but don't let him operate the franchise steering wheel when his predilection for steering us into the ice is now well-documented. It seemed far-fetched at the time and maybe still does, but if Russell Westbrook still has a tradeable enough deal to allow the Lakers to essentially rebuild on the fly last deadline... nothing's impossible, certainly.
He can be better during the playoffs next year? Nah, I'm not ready to talk myself into this part yet. Gotta save some coping for the regular season, I guess.