James Harden’s new contract with the Philadelphia 76ers isn’t finalized yet, but it will feature a substantial pay cut for the 2022-23 NBA season so the Sixers have additional cap space to fill out the rest of the roster. They’ve used that space to sign P.J. Tucker and Danuel House (both Harden’s former teammates in Houston), along with Trevelin Queen. Plus, there still could be more moves to come. In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Harden explained his motivation behind signing a team-friendly deal.
“I had conversations with [Sixers president of basketball operations] Daryl [Morey], and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players,” Harden said. “I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over. This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
Cynics will probably point out the fact that it’s relatively easy to take a pay cut when you’ve already banked as much money as Harden has over the course of his career. But it’s still nice to see him putting his team first, especially in an era in which loyalty is often an afterthought, and so far Harden is happy with the moves that the team was able to make as a result of him leaving some money on the table.
“I think we have a much deeper team,” he said. “That’s something we wanted to address. If you look at our team now, we’re positioned to go a lot further. I like how we stack up with the rest of the top teams.”
After the way Harden played during his time with the Sixers last season, there are some who have (loudly) questioned just how effective the former league MVP will be moving forward. He’s clearly still extremely effective as a playmaker and floor spacer, and his presence on the floor alone commands the attention of defenses in a way none of Joel Embiid’s previous teammates has.
In 21 regular-season games with the Sixers last season, Harden averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds. The stats are solid. However, since joining Philadelphia, Harden has yet to look like the same lethal scorer that he once was, and at times last season it looked like he had a lack of burst. He had a tough time blowing past defenders on the perimeter and a similarly tough time finishing over defenders around the rim.
Without that burst as an offensive attacker that he displayed for a decade in Houston, Harden was forced to rely heavily on 3-pointers and free throws for his point production. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he spent the previous offseason rehabbing a hamstring injury, or maybe it was because he had to learn a new system on the fly. Whatever the reason(s) for his relative struggles last season, Harden seems to be ready — and eager — to bounce back and remind the masses of how elite he is.
“I wasn’t right last season and I still almost averaged a triple-double,” Harden said. “If anybody else had those numbers, we’d be talking about them getting the max. People were used to seeing me averaging 40, 30 points, and so they viewed it as a down year. I was in Philadelphia for a couple of months and I had to learn on the fly. That’s just what it was. I’m in a good space physically and mentally right now, and I’m just looking forward to next season.”
Harden is working to get himself right physically over the offseason, and he’s also focusing on building chemistry with his new star teammate.
“I talk with Joel frequently and we have meetings about how we’re going to play and what we need to do to help our team win a championship,” Harden said. “When you have two of the top players at their positions on the same team, that’s a great building block. We’re going to grow together and try to lead this team to the top. I believe we can do it together.”
Harden has said — and done — all the right things since he got traded to Philadelphia, but ultimately the on-court results are what count the most. The Sixers are hoping that a revamped roster and a healthy Harden will be enough to get them out of the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. Anything short of that will be deemed unsuccessful for Philly.