James Harden contract situation

How Did James Find Himself in a Tumultuous Contract Predicament?

04 July, 2023

In the depths of Barclays Center, the Philadelphia 76ers players took their seats one by one at the table in the visitors’ interview room to discuss completing a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets in the initial round of the 2023 NBA playoffs. Coach Doc Rivers, rookie guard Tyrese Maxey, seasoned forward Tobias Harris, and explosive big man Paul Reed entered the room, sat down, and complimented Brooklyn’s effort while emphasizing the necessity of resting up before Round 2, particularly with league MVP Joel Embiid dealing with a sprained right knee.

James Harden also said all of that when it was his turn to speak. But that wasn’t all he said. Harden spoke at length when asked what inspires him to keep moving ahead and developing in his career after 14 years.

This year, I made a promise to myself that I would go out there and make a lot of sacrifices, he stated. “I just have to let everything go and simply sacrifice, and then I’ll see what it provides me, whether it’s the money or my career.

“I’m not the naive kind of person. I am a sponge. I hear. And I can just be there for the team’s benefit when I go out there. People anticipate me to be the James Harden who scores frequently throughout the entire season, the James Harden who goes out and scores 40 or 50 points. People start saying, “Oh, you can’t win like that,” after that. Then, “Well, I’ll go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists,” comes to mind. He’s not the same James Harden we knew, it seems. You realize? Therefore, there will always be something to say.

Two and a half months later, there is still something to say about Harden, even though it isn’t really novel. He wants out for the third time in three years.

During the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, May 9, 2023 in Boston, Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) yells to teammates. James Harden may have side-eyed inquiries regarding his future with the Philadelphia 76ers, much like he did in a lighthearted response to a query during his time with Houston. Will Harden play a third season with the 76ers?

James Harden’s league standing has declined over the past few seasons for a number of reasons.

In the end, giving up $15 million and Harden’s offensive dominance didn’t advance Philly any further than he had in the previous four postseasons as they lost Game 7 after giving up a 3-2 lead to the Boston Celtics. As it turned out, Philly entered the NBA’s 2023 free agency period apparently uninterested in ponying up that kind of long-term money, which put the 10-time All-Star in something of a sticky situation. Many pundits had anticipated that Sixers team president and longtime Harden supporter Daryl Morey would offer the former league MVP a make-you-whole multi-year deal as the wink-wink back end of Harden’s initial pay cut.

After months of rumors that Harden might return to Houston, the Rockets ended up giving another point guard more than $40 million annually. It appears that none of the other clubs with big cap space even raised an eyebrow in Harden’s direction. The greener pastures that had always merely stretched out in front of him previously suddenly required a player to squint in order to see them after being able to move from monster deal to monster deal with ease for a decade.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, “I think he looked out at the landscape and didn’t like what he imagined” might be out there for him.

Harden must have experienced a severe rude awakening when the scenery changed, and that makes sense. A few weeks ago, it seemed very certain that he would choose to forego exercising his $35.6 million player option for the 2023–24 season in favor of being an unrestricted free agent. He found himself opting in all of a sudden because it appeared that no lucrative new business north of that level was going to materialize. Since when does a point guard who recently finished first in the league in assists, who was one of only three players in the entire NBA to average 20 points and 10 assists per game last season, who continues to rank in the top 15 to 20 players, and who just scored 40 points twice in the second round of the playoffs, not have a real market to speak of?

Most likely because the point guard had a combined 16-of-63 (25.4%) performance in the other five games of that series, including whisper-quiet performances in Games 6 and 7, which left many Sixers fans with an aftertaste that went beyond “bad” to “you simply cannot bring this guy back next season at any price.” When that point guard has a history of such whisper-quiet performances in crucial situations that has grown longer than a CVS receipt, despite all the individual honors he has received throughout a career that has landed him a spot on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team and will result in first-ballot entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

That point guard, who is about to be 34 and has played more minutes in the NBA over the past 11 seasons than any other player, has lost a sizable amount of time due to injury in each of the previous three seasons owing to hamstring and foot problems. And maybe most significantly, when it’s unclear at this moment what the point guard is searching for.

What does Harden want out of his last NBA seasons? questioned Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman last week. “Is it a title and a chance to enhance his reputation in history? Is it cash? Is it the ability to play in the manner he chooses? Another thing?”

The answer is probably “all of the above,” although the first option appears the most likely in terms of likelihood. Last October, Harden said to Weitzman, “Honestly, the only thing that I’m missing is a championship.”

The final stages of Harden’s career have been driven by the hunt for that missing piece of equipment and the validation it would offer. From Houston’s misguided trade of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook to the team’s subsequent obligation to doubling down on small ball, the move failed when it faced the dominant Lakers in the playoff playoff round. From his description of the Rockets in 2020–21 as a “situation [that] is crazy [and] something that I don’t think can be fixed,” to his ultimate departure to Brooklyn to form a new superteam with the Nets. From his evaluation of the Nets in the years 2021–2022, when he thought they were a brand-new, hopeless position from which he would need to escape, to the blockbuster trade that brought him to Philadelphia and left the Nets clutching Ben Simmons’ purse.

And now, it appears, after yet another second-round seizure, he is looking west. Harden reportedly wants to play for the Los Angeles Clippers, who are in the midst of their own existential crisis due to impending extension talks with franchise wingers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard and George have played together just 142 times out of a possible 345 regular- and postseason games since joining forces in 2019 and each have $48.8 million player options.

The Clippers reportedly considered significant adjustments this summer after another dismal early exit in which they could not reliably get all of their best players on the court at once when it mattered most. According to Marc Stein, this included determining George’s trade value. George, who just turned 33 and hasn’t played more than 55 games in a season since he was in Oklahoma City, is one of the best two-way wings in the league when healthy. According to Stein, such efforts to evaluate Paul George’s trade value failed to yield many bites: “The Clippers’ recent attempts to gauge Paul George’s trade value clearly conveyed to the team that the return on trading George and initiating a roster teardown wouldn’t be very appetizing.”

In order to maximize its window of opportunity and put an end to its lengthy hunt for an upgrade at the point by bringing in Harden, Los Angeles may decide to go the opposite way. The idea of the team that can never seem to get and keep its act together when the money is on the table turning to the player who, despite his shining and soaring skills, keeps that same enthusiasm has a certain ramshackle “island of misfit toys” charm.

It might also succeed. It’s important to keep in mind that the “not the old James Harden” version of the hirsute facilitator from last season assisted in Embiid’s ascent to MVP status by creating arguably the most effective two-man game in the league — well, outside of Denver, at least. He also served as the steady leader of the NBA’s third-ranked regular-season offense.

The Clippers haven’t experienced anything like Harden’s combination of shooting efficiency, assist production, turnover avoidance, and usage since Chris Paul’s prime. A pick-and-roll between Harden and Leonard would be unstoppable against rival defenses. With Harden ready to set him up, George would receive some of the easiest shots of his career while racing off pindown screens on the weak side. Additionally, Tyronn Lue, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, has access to a phalanx of long perimeter defenders who can come off the bench to help cover for Harden in a way that few other teams could.

Harden therefore has the kind of upside that might help the Clippers maintain up with the top of the West in a market full with subpar choices on the court. nonetheless, with a focus on “could.”

Any evaluation of what Harden still offers must take into account the step(s) he has lost off the dribble ever since he sustained his hamstring injury in Brooklyn. Last season, Harden made 13.5 drives to the basket on average per game, which is 10 fewer than he made five seasons prior. Off those drives, he scored fewer points than he had since 2013–2014. He attempted 25 percent fewer shots than usual near the rim.

The “blow-by rate” statistic, which is tracked by Second Spectrum, measures how frequently a ball-handler brushes his defender off the dribble. Harden missed his defender 10.1 times for every 100 drives in his final full season in Houston. In Philadelphia, the rate dropped to 3.7 per 100 last season.

Harden explained to Weitzman last autumn that “every game, guys who I could normally get by or certain moves that I’d always hit, it just wasn’t happening.”

In the postseason, when the Nets and Celtics frequently played Harden to drive and daring him to finish over length near the rim, his lack of explosion and lift was most obvious. The outcomes were horrific: Harden only shot 15 for 39 (38.5%) within the restricted area and 15 for 40 (37.5%) on other tries in the paint, and he had 15 shots blocked against him, which is the 10th-highest number of any player in the 2023 playoffs. (The nine players who received more swatts all participated in at least five more contests than Harden did.)

He still has options for increasing his output, including laying the table in the pick-and-roll, pausing and popping more frequently than he ever did in Houston, and occasionally going back in time to cook alone. He remains one of the hardest covers in the game when his stepback extends beyond the arc, as it did in Games 1 and 4 against Boston. But if he doesn’t, perimeter defenders of playoff caliber find it much harder to contain him.

Harden may become a liability in games with the most pressure because of his well-known shortcomings on the other end of the court, where he has struggled repeatedly over the years. You could be excused for having doubts that this will ultimately turn out to be the best situation for everyone concerned, especially because those are the games that the Clippers need to win to make a breakthrough and turn this Kawhi-PG pairing into their long-awaited golden period.

However, there may come a time when neither the player nor the club can afford to worry about fit. The Clippers require a point guard, a strategy to increase variation, and an additional shot-creating source. Harden needs a safety net, a place to start regaining the league’s trust, and another shot at a championship. How much you’re willing to give up when you can’t have everything you want can affect how far you can go. What concerns still are: How much is Harden prepared to give up right now? What are the Clippers prepared to give up to get him? How tenaciously will Morey bargain in order to achieve what he wants in return?

125% Sign On Bonus

MLB Dime Lines

Best Contests Online

Choose Your Bonus

27 Years Online