James Harden can no longer build his own world

On Thursday night, when the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out by the Miami Heat, James Harden was the team’s fifth top scorer. He only managed to shoot nine shots and, with seven of them three pointers, failed to attack painted. Therefore, he did not take a free throw. In a vacuum, that’s weird. Why would one of the greatest scorers in NBA history be willing to take a step back and not be more aggressive in a knockout? Of course, if you’ve followed Harden throughout his career, that’s less than strange. We have seen this before.

For years, Harden has been free to control offense as he sees fit, but he has repeatedly plunged headlong into the limits of his own style in the post-season period. After all, there’s a reason most teams don’t rely so heavily on a single player’s skill set. Opponents focus on that player, finding ways to stop him during a protracted run of games that can’t be done when a team is more focused on establishing an individual style that can perform over the course of 82 games. Season. This isn’t news, however, we find ourselves having similar conversations anyway.

What does James Harden need? Over the course of his career, he has played with many of the greatest players of this era, having collaborated with Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and now Joel Embiid. However, none of these pairs is enough to win them all. One could say that none of Harden’s teams have ever won championships, for example, those Rockets teams were never better than the Warriors teams they repeatedly faced – either that the 2012 Thunder wasn’t as good as the Heat or that the 2021 Bucks are just better than the Nets. I think all of those statements are true, but at what point do they become a methodology?

There is a new urgency to these questions about Harden and what happens next. He finished his 13th NBA season. He is no longer a young man, and an army of new stars is taking the place of the forebears. Now, it seems clear that if he wants to win the championship, then he won’t be the center of the team. I remember watching Harden not too long ago, watching him score an easy goal after swerving a defender, past him and past a flustered assist defender on his way to the circle. . It’s something I’ve seen him do countless times before, and I recall thinking to myself it felt like he could do this forever. But this was before the hamstring and a number of other minor injuries started to bother him, and he clearly couldn’t.

While Harden was never the stereotypical sports player the word often implies, his ability to start and stop at random, change pace and control his body has always been incredible. . Now, those abilities seem to be waning. There are still nights when his back is down and he can create separation from the dribble while also finding open-minded teammates, but they are becoming less frequent.

Thankfully for the Sixers, with Joel Embiid on the roster, they don’t need Harden to be the focus of the team’s attention. Indeed, even as Harden continues to fall, it is easy to envision the Sixers improving next year. Daryl Morey could work to add some depth to this season; Tyrese Maxey can continue his journey to stardom; the coaching staff could find more creative ways to help Embiid and Harden bring out the best in each other. Even better if they have a whole new coaching staff. There are ways to maximize the talent of the Joel Embiid generation, become a real contender and make it out of the second round for the first time in more than two decades, but if Harden remains at the center of it all, Are such changes important?

There comes a point when, after enough failure in enough unique situations, one can no longer blame the context entirely. Looking back, it’s clear that while the fault may not have been solely his, he still played a role in these frustrations. I don’t want to say that these downfalls are what defined Harden’s career, but at least they have to say anything else about him. They may not be the only prism from which to view his achievements. Despite that, they lend a distinctive color to everything else.

For nearly a decade, James Harden operated as a one-man hitman, defining the shape of any game he played. While he can still be, as his superb 4th inning in Game 4 of the convention semifinals showed, such performances have been bound. become rarer in future seasons. Maybe not by choice, but eventually he will be forced to face the limits of building his own world and try to do something else. Harden has long since become its own universe. What would he look like as just another individual inhabiting a world he couldn’t fully shape?

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