The only thing better than having a superstar in the NBA is having two of them, and better yet? How about three?
That’s the mindset that has informed so much team building in the last 10-to-15 years in the NBA — though it’s not like it didn’t happen well before that, the examples being almost too many to count.
And the results are hard to argue with. The roll call of league champions is dominated by rosters loaded with MVPs, All-NBA players, and future Hall-of-Famers. Even the Toronto Raptors — who made history in 2019 when they became the first team to win a title with without a lottery pick on the roster — featured three likely Hall-of-Famers in Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol.
But there is a catch: the superstars have to perform like superstars, or the whole thing collapses onto itself, as the Los Angeles Lakers ably demonstrated this season.
Which brings us to James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers, and a pertinent question: is the Sixers star on the verge of coughing up another playoff hairball in a career with more than its fair share?
At the very least, Harden is at what could be a career-defining moment. It’s one thing to have bad games at key moments over a long post-season career. It’s quite another to be part of the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 series lead.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When the Sixers acquired the burly point guard at the trade deadline, he was supposed to be the finishing piece, the perimeter Ying to Joel Embiid’s interior Yang. Teams that over-committed to slow down Embiid — as if there is any other way — would be torched by Harden operating in space. The two would join forces in an unstoppable pick-and-roll pairing and, in those moments Embiid rested, Harden’s presence ensured there would always be another superstar to hold the fort.
The Sixers, with Harden, were supposed to be a championship team.
Well, how’s that working out?
As the Raptors get ready to host the suddenly shaky 76ers in Game 6 of their first round, best-of-seven series on Thursday, Harden is in the spotlight, and not because he’ been delivering what the Sixers were hoping they were getting when they gave up Ben Simmons, Andre Drummond, and Seth Curry along with a couple of first-round picks to get him.
Instead, Harden the 32-year-old is looking old, slow and — in the face of an endless procession of big, long-armed Raptors defenders — a little bit helpless.
He was reasonably good in Game 1, when he put up 22 points and 14 assists, albeit on 6-of-17 shooting. It was the kind of performance that the Sixers see as value added — Harden might not be putting up 40-point nights on the regular as he did during his peak years in Houston, but he could dominate games with his savvy.
“He’s a great passer,” said Sixers head coach Doc Rivers earlier in the series. “People get lost in his scoring numbers, but what James brings to us is what we absolutely needed before we had James. We needed a guy who could run our team that can make plays for our guys. It’s no coincidence that Tyrese [Maxey] is shooting it better, and Tobias [Harris] is shooting it better. They’ve been open before, but James sees them. He’s just smart, high-I.Q. basketball player.”
But now that series has become a series instead of 3-0 cakewalk, the Sixers could use something more from their $44-million-point guard than some crafty ball movement, but they haven’t got it.
In the Raptors’ two wins, Harden is averaging just 18.5 points a game and eight assists while shooting just 32 per cent from the floor. In Game 3 — which the Sixers only won after Embiid’s game-winning turnaround at the buzzer in overtime — Harden fouled out, picking up four of those fouls in seven minutes of floor time in the fourth quarter, which at the very least could be interpreted as poor defence, but could also be looked at as a player subconsciously allowing himself to be removed from the game.
Which sounds a bit far-fetched until you remember that Harden — for all his regular-season accolades and accomplishments — has a list of playoff no-shows long enough that it’s fair to wonder if he’s prone to freezing in the moment.
Harden has played 142 playoff games (and counting), so it’s probably unfair to cherry pick his worst moments — but then again there are a lot to choose from, such as his 2-of-11 clunker with 12 turnovers when facing elimination in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in 2015, or his 2-of-11 night with six turnovers when facing elimination in Game 6 of the conference semi-finals in 2017, or his 2-of-11 game with five turnovers with the series hanging in the balance in the second round in 2020.
In the seven games Harden’s teams have been eliminated from the playoff since he left his sixth-man role with Oklahoma City, The Bearded One is averaging more than seven turnovers a game.
So when he falters in key moments such as his relative no-show on Monday night — and it’s hard to categorize Harden’s 4-of-11 shooting and five turnovers in a home game with a chance to advance to the second round as anything else — it’s only reasonable that red flags get raised.
“I’ve been saying all season since he got here, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to be himself,” Embiid said after Game 5. “That’s not really my job, that’s probably on coach [Doc Rivers] to talk to him and tell him to take more shots — especially if they’re going to guard me the way they’ve been guarding. But that’s really not my job.”
“When I was getting doubled, we were not aggressive attacking the ball,” Embiid added. “We just kept moving the ball around the perimeter, and that gave them time to recover, and that’s why we were not able to get anything out of it.”
Harden’s explanation? “I took 11 shots.”
But the Raptors are part of the problem.
Toronto has used OG Anunoby as their primary defender on Harden so far in the series, giving him someone bigger, quicker, and stronger to try to maneuver around and the results have been telling: The Sixers have scored just 70 points on 104 possessions with Anunoby as the primary defender on Harden and the Sixers guard has scored just 10 points total in five games in the matchup.
The next-most frequent defender has been Scottie Barnes, who presents a similar profile to Anunoby. The Sixers have scored just 61 points on 63.5 possessions with Barnes guarding Harden, with Harden managing just six points on 1-of-8 shooting.
But Harden has his own issues. Anecdotally he seems to have lost a step since suffering a hamstring tear in the playoffs last year with Brooklyn. He’s shooting just 40 per cent on drives so far against the Raptors — he shot 64 per cent in the 2020 playoffs — this after a season when he shot less than 60 per cent from inside three feet for the first times since his rookie season. Harden has shot 63.7 per cent from that distance for his career, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
By any measure, it’s not the kind of superstar production the Sixers were hoping for when they moved mountains to bring The Bearded One to Philadelphia.
And now no player has more pressure on him in Game 6 than Harden. If the Raptors can keep a lid on him one more time they stand an excellent chance of at least forcing a Game 7, and if they can get it that far?
Well, Harden has tapped out of key playoff games before.
What’s one more?