When Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers traded for James Harden last February, it seemed like it was a steal. Not only did the Sixers get rid of Ben Simmons (and the baggage he brings), but they also received another All-Star to pair up with MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who's been on a tear this season.
But as the season progressed, little did the Sixers know that they acquired a different version of Harden. Not the Harden who won the MVP in 2018 by averaging 30.4 points a game but a completely different player who seems to have lost his burst, ability to drive relentlessly on the paint, and dominate the perimeter.
This season, Harden is averaging his lowest point per game (21.0) since 2012, lowest 3-point (32.6%), and field goal average (40.2%) average in his career.
And there's always that thing where The Beard disappears when his team needs him most. In the ongoing playoffs, Harden has barely been a difference-maker for his team — averaging just 18.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 5.4 rebounds a game in just 34.8% 3-point shooting in the post-season.
That said, the critical question that looms for the Sixers moving forward is whether or not Harden is worth giving another supermax extension to. According to ESPN'S Brian Windhorst, Harden is likely opting in his $47.4 million contract for next season and will reportedly negotiate with the Sixers on his next contract.
The pros of extending Harden's contract
If you want to look at this positively, extending Harden next season would mean that the Sixers could be a contending team for a while. The 28-year-old Embiid isn't getting any younger and needs all the perimeter help he can get.
Yes, there are enough sample games to conclude that Harden is no longer the player he once was. Still, it would be disingenuous for the Sixers to let an asset walk away from them if they don't prioritize Harden's supermax extension. Remember, the Sixers also gave up Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks when they traded for Harden, which means if they let the All-Star walk, they won't be getting anything back in return.
The Sixers must do everything they can to get the best out of Harden. After all, it's only been two and a half months since the trade, and maybe Harden will eventually find his stride under Doc Rivers' system. (Or whoever coaches the Sixers next year.)
Another reason for optimism is that Embiid and Harden will get one whole offseason to work together this year and allow the Sixers to build a more competent roster around them.
The cons of extending Harden's contract
Harden's performance as of late certainly doesn't merit the kind of money he'll be receiving, so his impending contract is going to be a massive gamble on the Sixers' end. Everyone predicted his lifestyle and lack of dedication to conditioning would negatively impact Harden's aging. Paying such a player $61 million at age 37 could destroy the Sixers for this decade.
Will Philadelphia be patient enough to believe that Harden can still turn his performance around? Or will they consider trading their newly acquired superstar to avoid losing an asset? Harden is an aging superstar who's now showing signs of his decline. He has to be better for his team and his reputation.
Would you make a quarter of a billion-dollar bet that Harden will pull a Chris Paul, go on a plant-based diet, workout all summer and impose a curfew for himself and his teammates in the playoffs?