After Offseason to Get Right, Harden Is Geared Up to Help Sixers Compete for Championship

After Offseason to Get Right, Harden Is Geared Up to Help Sixers Compete for Championship Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

May 13. The day after the Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs in six games by the Miami Heat. The team, from top to bottom, strung together lackluster performances throughout the series.

Questions were already beginning to build up around the Sixers, with much of them surrounding James Harden. The 33-year-old showed signs of his age, putting together a poor postseason performance in which he looked worn down physically.

His play since being traded to the Sixers was not up to his usual standards, averaging 21 points, 7.1 rebound and 10.5 assists per game while shooting 40.2% from the field and 32.6% from 3-point range. Speculation abounded about whether Harden had permanently lost a step, and how that would affect his next contract.

Fast forward a few months and you see a completely different picture. Harden declined his player option with the Sixers. He took a pay cut, signing a two-year, $68.6 million contract with a player option for the second season. The pay cut allowed the Sixers to make a slew of free agent moves to help improve the roster.

On the court, he is fully healthy after an offseason to focus on getting right both mentally and physically. Even so, the days of him averaging 30-plus points per game and making mincemeat of opposing defenders are likely over. However, the 33-year-old proved as recently as the 2020-21 season with the Brooklyn Nets he could still produce MVP-level numbers when healthy. ESPN placed him at No. 11 in their top 100 players rankings heading into the 2022-23 season. There is still plenty left in the tank for Harden to undoubtedly make the Sixers a better team with him on the floor.

An offseason to focus on getting right

Harden has not been fully healthy since suffering a Grade 2 hamstring strain midway through the 2020-21 season. He re-aggravated the injury multiple times since then, with the injury often hampering his performance on the court.

The 10-time All-Star getting fully healthy is a crucial step to helping him regain his dominant, game-changing abilities. In his post-game press conference after the Sixers were eliminated from the postseason, he made it clear he was going to spend the offseason attempting to get his health back to 100%.

“I was getting there, man. Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me,” Harden said. “I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”

Harden spent much of the offseason rehabbing and getting into peak physical condition. He was often seen doing full-court scrimmages with other NBA players.

Sixers’ president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has a long, well-known relationship with Harden. Their relationship goes back to their days together in the Houston Rockets organization beginning in the 2012-13 season. Morey hopped onto The Takeoff with John Clark podcast earlier in September. During the interview, he spoke about both Harden’s health heading into the season and his tough mindset throughout his career:

“I’ll say with James — again, more than any player I’ve worked with — he never says something’s wrong. It actually surprised me when he said what he said after the season. For him to say that means there were more issues than he … look, he’s spit on it, get on the floor, whatever cost you can do, go out there and win. He’s been one of the most durable guys in NBA history prior to the hamstring issue. I know he’s worked hard to get it to a great place; it’s in a great place right now. But during our run last year, he’s never going to say, ‘I’m not 100 percent,’ because he doesn’t ever want to give any excuses, especially during the middle of a playoff run. And he’s also never going to want to indicate to his teammates or the other team that there’s an issue. Frankly, throughout my career, we’ve tried to get James to be more open about, ‘Hey, this is hurting’ or whatever, just to protect him. For example, in my years with him (in Houston), he would turn ankles that would send guys out for weeks and just play right away, and then play the next night of a back-to-back. It was impressive. Maybe a little more brave than we needed at times, but you respect that that’s his mindset.”

While Harden looks in great shape heading into training camp, it was not an easy journey to get up to that point. On the team’s media day, he talked about his struggles last season and how that impacted him mentally.

“Mentally it was very, very difficult for me, just because I’m in love with the game of basketball,” Harden said. “It was very difficult. A lot of tough times, a lot of dark moments, which I’ve never really went through [before]. I’m in a really good space right now, and I feel like I’m back to where I needed to be, and where I’m supposed to be. The feeling is great.”

He revamped his workout regimen throughout the offseason. He took advantage of not having to focus on rehabbing his hamstring, instead spending much of the offseason fine-tuning his physique and putting in work on the court.

“At this point it’s dieting, it’s proper rest,” Harden said on media day. “And then for me it’s strengthening my muscles, gaining more muscle mass, which I’ve always had it’s just the last year and a half I really wasn’t healthy enough to put the proper work in like I’m used to. So this summer was huge for me in that aspect.”

Having him be fully healthy heading into the season could help take the Sixers to new heights. After all, he briefly showed some flashes of MVP-level play for the Sixers last season despite battling through a hamstring injury limiting his explosiveness.

Harden stepping into a leadership role this season

Harden’s role on the Sixers is going to be crucial both on and off the floor. He is stepping into more of a leadership role in Philadelphia. It began during the offseason when he organized a team workout for a week in Los Angeles.

“This summer was really great, I think, for our entire team, our entire organization. We had a good week of work in and just hanging around each other, catching their vibe,” Harden said on media day. “For me, I think working out with Tyrese in the summer as well, we’re getting to know each other. I think even this week is gonna be great for us. We’re gonna be on the road, we have a really good training camp, and we get to know each other, play cards, and go to eat, things like that. The faster we can build that chemistry off the court, I think that will a lot better on the court.”

Despite the core of the team remaining the same, the Sixers made a lot of additions along the periphery of the roster. P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Danuel House Jr. headline the list of additions the team made this offseason. It will take some time to build up chemistry on the court. Harden organizing an offseason workout was a great start.

Multiple players raved on media day about the offseason workout Harden organized. Tobias Harris spoke about its success in beginning to develop the team’s chemistry together.

“Obviously, in the summer, being able to get everybody together is a hard task, but everybody’s there and we were able to kind of get up and down and play 5-on-5,” Harris said. “Go out to dinner, but just being able to be around each other and everybody was doing a really good job of putting some great work in the summer. So just being able to be there. Everybody can showcase what they’ve been working on. That’s how you build chemistry is just being around each other, communicate, and talking in those situations. So it was a great time out in LA. So those few days we were there were big for us and as we got back here a couple of weeks before training camp, just to be getting up and down and following up on that was good.”

Harden joined the Sixers mid-season after being traded to Philadelphia at last season’s trade deadline. He only played 21 regular-season games in a Sixers uniform. The nature of coming over mid-season forced him to have to hit the ground running. This offseason, Harden made a concerted effort to work on building up team chemistry. The offseason workout he organized, in addition to having a full training camp with the team, should result in his chemistry with the team being much improved from last season.

How can Harden help elevate the Sixers in the 2022-23 season?

Despite not being fully healthy, Harden still managed to put up solid overall numbers since being traded to Philadelphia. While the counting stats and efficiency might not have been up to his usual standard, he remained a very productive player on the court.

The Sixers finished with a 120.3 offensive rating and a plus-9.5 net rating when Harden was on the floor. The offensive rating was the highest of any season in Harden’s career. He immediately developed chemistry playing alongside superstar Joel Embiid, effectively forming one of the league’s most dominant pick-and-roll combinations. According to NBA Court Optix stats, the Sixers averaged a highly-efficient 1.25 points per play on Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls.

Harden, at this stage of his career, will likely never be a consistent 30 point per game scorer again. He has already begun to adjust his game to being more of a facilitator, and he is excelling in that role. He averaged 10.5 assists per game in the regular season for the Sixers. According to SIS Hoops, Harden was fourth (25.4 opportunities) in the league last season in advantages created. This is a stat that measures when a ball-handler creates an opportunity, either for themselves or others, for a high-quality shot. He is an elite playmaker in addition to still having the ability to occasionally take over games as a scorer.

His impact on his teammates is immense. He quickly developed a chemistry with Tyrese Maxey last season, resulting in Maxey flourishing. On shots following passes from Harden, Maxey shot 58.9% from the field, 61.1% on two-point field goals and 55.6% from beyond the arc.

At one time thought to be a lazy player, Harden has put in the work in recent years to be able to adapt his game to fit who he is surrounded with. He discussed his adaptability, being fully healthy and the importance of having time to work together with his teammates both in the offseason and during training camp in an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio.

He has proven to be an elite facilitator, but his scoring is dipping below what it once was. At 33 years old, he no longer has the same explosiveness he once possessed. As a result, he put in work this offseason to become a better mid-range shooter.

Last season, according to StatMuse, just 13.1% of his shots came from the mid-range and he connected on them at a 42.3% clip. Adding more of a mid-range game into his scoring arsenal will force opposing defenses on his drives to the basket to worry about him driving or pulling up for a mid-range shot.

It is possible Harden, now fully healthy, will have a bounce back season as a scorer. Playing as the facilitator, it will be interesting to see how he balances looking to score versus setting up others. Head coach Doc Rivers, in a fascinating conversation with Harden after Thursday’s training camp practice, told Harden he needs to be both “a scorer and a facilitator.” Rivers also said the team needs “the aggressive James” in addition to saying “when it clicks, we [the team] are going to be unbeatable.”

Harden was able to make a positive impact on the Sixers last season despite not playing to his usual capabilities. Now fully healthy and armed with a role specifically crafted for him, he is equipped in multiple areas to be able to help elevate the Sixers into championship contention this season.

Featured Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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