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At his peak James Harden was simply unstoppable. Didn't matter what a defense tried. He scored seemingly at will. And he was healthy enough to reel off seven straight seasons playing at least 70 regular-season games.
That player is long gone. And, yet, the Philadelphia 76ers are pinning their championship hopes on a guy who effectively quit on his last two teams. Why should any of us, especially Philly fans, expect that Harden, at age 32, is going to somehow rekindle the red-hot fire he brought to the court regularly, given recent history?
Who's to blame for the debacle that's become the Brooklyn Nets? When Harden walked out on Houston and headed to NYC, joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, it wasn't a matter if the Nets would win a title but how many with that triumvirate. Done deal, many of us said.
It blew up. And I have zero confidence that pairing Harden with the great Joel Embiid will meet such lofty expectations either. Perhaps Harden will rediscover the passion needed to get on all those planes, sleep in all those hotels, chit-chat with all those reporters, take part in all those shootarounds and then show up to all those games fully engaged to putting his most energetic foot forward to help the Sixers win, night in, night out.
And I just don't see that kind of joy in his eyes anymore. The NBA's a grind, which is why we tend to see such lackluster effort during the regular season (some games are unwatchable). Load management. What kind of foolishness is this? In Harden I see a man who's tired, content to keep cashing (fleecing?) jumbo checks while saying the right things about his desire to be a champ.
One doesn't win titles with part-time hustle and commitment, though. Or by constantly pointing fingers about why a situation isn't working out as planned. Just throwing a bunch of high-achievers together and assuming it's a winner has burned many a general manager. It takes time. Patience. Teammates need to learn to play together. Everyone has to be on the same page.
Harden, meantime, has been on a different page lately, solo, and the results have been beyond disappointing.
Maybe he'll surprise. Maybe he'll hit the floor after the All-Star break with more pep in the step than he's had the past couple seasons. Maybe he'll actually be happy about playing basketball again. That type of disposition is infectious, particularly coming from a veteran superstar with his resume. This is what they mean when a player is said to make those around them better. Does Harden still lift a team?
Talent goes far. Attitude goes farther.
Since the 11th hour trade last week that sent him to Philadelphia (along with Paul Millsap) in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two draft picks, Harden has said this was the team he'd hoped to join after his run with the Rockets ended.
Fair enough. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but only if a water-downed version of the old James Harden suits up in red, white and blue, not this relatively new apathetic player who appears unbothered by the noticeable dropoff in his shooting efficiency (.414 in 2021-22, 2nd worst of his career; .332 from 3-pt, worst of career).
Unless he rededicates himself to the pursuit of happiness, first and foremost, Harden's pursuit of a championship trophy is pure folly.
That's my take. What's yours? Fire off your comments!