NBA Fact or Fiction: The James Harden conundrum

Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.

[ Last time on Fact or Fiction: The Phoenix Suns are championship favorites ]

We are approaching the two-month mark since the Philadelphia 76ers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks to the Brooklyn Nets for James Harden. Simmons has not yet played for the Nets, and somehow we are left wondering if the Sixers would take a mulligan on the trade.

Harden is not the same top-three MVP candidate he was for four straight seasons from 2016-20, when his general manager informed us, “It’s just factual that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan.

That same executive, Daryl Morey, left Houston for Philadelphia in 2020, spent his first two seasons with the 76ers trying to reunite with Harden and succeeded at this year’s trade deadline. Morey either ignored Harden’s production in the meantime or felt confident the 10-time All-Star was sandbagging the rest of us.

From 2016-20, 28.4 of Harden’s league-leading 32.4 points per game (55.4 effective field-goal percentage) came inside of 8 feet, on pull-up 3-pointers or at the free-throw line. He was a one-man offense, spending possessions breaking down his defender off the dribble, looking for a step into a layup or out to a jumper.

Losing a step is a bigger deal when one in either direction was your signature.

Harden’s points from inside of 8 feet, pull-up 3s and free throws are down to 19.5 per game (49.6 eFG%) this season. Of the 294 players who have attempted at least 200 shots inside of 8 feet, Harden’s 48.8% success rate ranks 273rd, right between Devonte’ Graham and Dennis Smith Jr. Among the 72 players who have attempted at least 100 pull-up 3s, Harden’s 33.7% shooting ranks 39th. His free throws from him, which had risen to 11.8 per game in 2019-20 — the most by a guard since Jordan’s 11.9 in 1986-87, are down to 8.3.

Where once Harden was a historic foul-drawing machine and an exceptional scoring guard at high volume from both beyond the arc and at the rim, he is now a mere mortal at getting to the free-throw line, a below-average shooter from distance and a poor finisher around the basket. That combination is a slippery slope.

One-time NBA MVP James Harden is limping into a pivotal postseason. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Harden’s first three games with the Sixers were encouraging, if you were one who held out hope his statistical decline was the result of his disinterest in playing for the Rockets and Nets. He averaged 26.7 points (on 60/41/91 shooting splits), 7.3 rebounds and 12 assists in a trio of wins. Since then, his averages have dipped to 20-7-10 on 36/30/89 splits over his last 16 games. Philadelphia’s only victory against a top-five seed in the Eastern Conference during that span came when Harden rested against the Miami Heat.

In two recent games against the Toronto Raptors, the Sixers’ first-round opponent if the playoffs started today, Harden combined for 30 points on 8-for-24 shooting from the field (1 for 8 from 3-point range). Philadelphia lost both games when the gap between Peak Harden and this version was all the difference.

First, it was a right hamstring strain at the end of last season that slowed him down at the start of this regular season. Now, it is left hamstring tightness that has slowed down at the end of it. Sixers coach Doc Rivers suggested in late March that Harden still needed three weeks to “be there at 100%.” We will see if he can flip a switch in the playoffs, but history tells us he has had a hard time doing that even when healthy.

There is a chance that Harden is feeling the effects at age 32 of being so durable for the first 11 years of his career. He has twice led the league in minutes and did not miss more than 10 games in a season until last year. Harden’s decline begs the question of why he is averaging 37.2 minutes per game — third in the NBA behind Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — when his performance is said to be injury-related. Harden’s 32,579 career minutes fall in the range of when superstars of years past have called it careers.

Harden’s former Rockets teammate Chris Paul suffered a similar hamstring injury in the 2018 playoffs, limped through the next season and amounted to a salary dump at the end of his tenure in Houston. He has adopted a plant-based diet and has enjoyed a career resurgence ever since, rejoining the All-NBA elite.

Chances of Harden embracing a similar lifestyle change seem slim, given his response to adversity in Houston and Brooklyn. He is a regular on the NBA’s traveling nightlife scene, and he has shown up to his past two training camps out of shape. The party has not stopped as he recovers from his latest injury from him.

It would be fascinating to know what the communication was like between Morey and Harden over the last two years. Did Morey blindly trust that Harden’s late arrival to Houston last season and his two-week hiatus from Brooklyn were just blatant attempts to force breakups and not indicative of a broader issue? Or was Harden in his ear from him, dismissing the mounting injuries, reminding him of what was and what could be again?

Barring a drastic turnaround, the Sixers will not survive the Eastern Conference playoff gauntlet and maybe not even the first round, not with this edition of Harden and the absence of the depth they dealt with to get him.

Whether or not Morey regrets trading for Harden already, the deal is done. He can not reset the clock on a less expensive CJ McCollum deal or wait on better offers for Simmons and significantly more assets in the offseason. Morey must now decide whether Harden is worth the massive contract he will seek this summer.

There are questions about how and why the paperwork to pick up Harden’s $47.4 million was not filed on time. Answers vary, depending on who you ask. Harden has indicated he plans to stay in Philadelphia. There is some speculation that he could decline his option from him, allowing Morey to create cap room for a third star in a shallow free-agency market, and then re-sign for a lower annual salary. That would be a first for Harden and requires an awful lot of trust in a player who reportedly broke his word to re-sign in Brooklyn.

Fool me once and all that.

Harden is eligible for a four-year extension that would pay him more than $60 million at age 37 in 2026-27. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix recently reported that some within the Sixers organization are “wary” of giving Harden that contract, which — if you are not wary of that deal, you have not been paying attention. Tying the remainder of Joel Embiid’s prime to an overindulged Harden could eventually cost them Embiid.

Only, the Sixers have invested significantly in Harden already. Simmons held value, however far it had failed, as did Curry and both first-round picks, the second of which outlasts Embiid’s recent extension. As soon as Harden signs his next contract, he becomes near-impossible to trade, based on the money alone. If his performance this season is any indication of what to expect, his contract from him would easily be the NBA’s worst.

Pay Harden if you believe he can win a title, but there is mounting evidence that Harden cannot achieve in Philadelphia what eluded him in his Houston prime — no matter how extraordinary Embiid has been.

If the end result of trading an All-NBA player, one of the league’s best shooters, a quality backup center and two first-rounders is an albatross contract, you lost the trade, regardless of what becomes of Simmons. The entire point of waiting to deal Simmons was to ensure the Sixers extracted maximum value, and Morey convinced himself Harden was the missing championship piece, only they are still a long shot in the East.

Executives always face an internal battle between analytics and relationships. We will find out how much Morey values ​​both, and the future of the Sixers will hang in the balance of the decision between them.

Determination: fact

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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