James Harden’s first go around in a Philly uniform went, well… displeasing. After the 76ers looked destined to be bounced in the second round, everyone, including the Chuckster, threw shots at Harden right when he is at his lowest.
Sir Charles Unleashed
After trailing 3-2, Charles Barkley stated that Philadelphia’s newest star is on the decline.
“The reason I didn’t like the trade - go back and look, I said 'I don’t like the trade' -because of two things: the Sixers only got a two-year window because James is clearly in decline, but if you don’t win this year, I think he’s got an option for $45 million next year, then he can sign that four-year extension for $200 million,” Barkley said on Sirius XM NBA radio, and then made a very pessimistic prediction if Harden stays in Philadelphia.
Barkley's logic is simple, you build around the best player on the team. He understands championship windows are small, especially for big men. That's why Philly has to be ruthless when deciding if James Harden can be the No.2 guy to help Joel Embiid climb the mountain top.
“The reason I don’t like the trade is I don’t think they’re gonna win the championship in the next two years, and they’re gonna waste two years of Joel Embiid. Now you’ve got the injury which probably screws this season. James got a $45 million option which he’s clearly gonna take and I’m gonna tell you if the Sixers give him that four-year $200 million deal, whoever first of all, I know the owners ain’t gonna let them do that…I just think he’s on a decline and man, the Sixers, they’re gonna regret that trade.”
What now for Harden?
James Harden didn’t attempt a single field goal in the fourth quarter of the series-ending Game 6. Do you know who else didn’t attempt a single field goal in his last game as a 76er? Ben Simmons. So what happened to the admittedly ball-centric but sensational version of prime Harden from only a couple of years ago?
At his apex, Harden was as great offensively or right up there with any player who has ever played the game of basketball, even if the defense was another conversation. So whether he wins a ring or not, which is looking less and less likely as his game is correctly deteriorating before our eyes - he will be one of the greatest players not to win a ring.
But when looking through the scope of any legend’s career that retired without a ring, there are many ugly moments in the playoffs, there are a lot of collections of supporting casts that failed, and it’s a lot of shattered expectations. That exists within the framework of Harden’s career alongside his game-changing step-back and transformational foul-baiting.
One reason for this decline is that from 2013 to 2019, which was his rough prime, Harden played 545 games - logged in over 20,000 minutes - and that’s just in the regular season. That’s more games and minutes than Kawhi Leonard has had throughout his whole career in the regular season.
There are a few players that fit the mold of Harden. That possessed his freakish endurance, on and off the court, which allowed him to get away with a particular lifestyle. There are stories of Wilt Chamberlian traveling from his Harlem nightclub to Philadelphia and putting up 40 and 20. Who was going to tell him differently? Or Allen Iverson playing 40 minutes of grueling basketball on 2 hours of sleep. These were the big party guys whose games fell off the road and fell off the road fast.
Based on these legacies, Harden will never win a ring; he will be remembered as a striking, transformative player who could never get past the line. Someone who maybe got in his way a bit, whether it was playoff chokes, poor choices of maintaining his body during the second half of his career, bad free agent decisions - somehow always leaving the fans a little unsatisfied at the finale of a season.
I hope he doesn’t get as forgotten as someone like George Gervin, who was blocked from a Finals appearance after two forgotten series with the Showtime Lakers in the conference finals. Like Harden, The Iceman always cared about scoring and was a creative scorer, but the lack of team accomplishment washed out his legacy as generations moved on. The casual fan doesn’t know of Gervin - I hope that’s not the case for Harden in 50 years.