What’s Next for James Harden?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, James Harden’s season has ended early. The Philadelphia 76ers season came to an end in the second round of the NBA playoffs after falling to the top seeded Miami Heat 4-2 in the best-of-seven series. Adding insult to injury is that in the closeout game James Harden scored only 11 points, all in the first half, and finished 4-9 shooting with four turnovers. Harden attempted only two shots in the second half of a game Philadelphia had to have to stay alive in the series. This is the NBA; the competition is fierce; anyone can have a bad game from time to time. The problem, according to his detractors, for the 76ers and James Harden specifically is that this is a trend rather than an aberration. James Harden has been an absolute offensive juggernaut throughout his career from a statistical standpoint and yet for all his individual accolades he has only 1 finals appearance and no championships. While this is true it is not the whole story. Harden has, throughout his career, elevated the play of his teammates and delivered throughout the playoffs advancing to the conference finals four times and the NBA championship once.  

James Harden was drafted in 2009 with the third overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder joining Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The trio would go on to lead the Thunder to a playoff berth in his first year in 2010, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. The playoff berth was the first for the team since relocating from Seattle in 2008. The Thunder would follow up their first ever playoff berth in Oklahoma with a trip to the Western conference finals in 2011 falling to the Dallas Mavericks in five games. The following year the Thunder would reach the NBA finals in a match up featuring the league’s most talented players as the big three of OKC, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden took on Lebron, Bosch, and Wade. The Heat would clinch the series in five games claiming their first of two back-to-back NBA championships.  

Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets prior to the 2012-13 season where he would spend the next nine seasons trying to win his first ever NBA championship. In Harden’s first two seasons with Houston the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. In 2015 the Rockets advanced to the Western conference finals before being ousted by the Golden State Warriors in five games. The Rockets would once again reach the Western conference finals in 2018 before being eliminated in game 7 by the Golden State Warriors yet again. James Harden led the Houston Rockets to the post season every year he played in Houston including two trips to the Western conference finals.  

On January 14, 2021, James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets joining superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as part of a four-team trade. The Brooklyn Nets made it to the second round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in seven games. Just over a year after being traded to Brooklyn, Harden was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden and company defeated the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs before getting bounced by the number one seeded Miami Heat in six games leading to all kinds of speculation regarding James Harden as well as head coach Doc Rivers. Joel Embiid had the following to say regarding Harden’s subpar performance “I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore.” Not exactly a glowing endorsement from a teammate.  

So, what comes next for 32-year-old James Harden? For his part Harden has stated that he intends to return to Philadelphia next season. Following the loss to the Heat, Harden declared “I’ll be here … whatever allows this team to grow and get better and do the necessary things to win and compete at the highest level.” What are Harden’s options given his contract? He can exercise his player option which is a 47-million-dollar player option for next season. He has until July 1st to sign the player option, or he will become an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team. The most lucrative option would be for him to sign his player option and sign a max extension with the 76ers. This would give him a five-year 275-million-dollar contract. This option only works if Philadelphia is willing to pay him the max contract which as of now is questionable.  

Team president Daryl Morey has indicated that he wants both head coach Doc Rivers and James Harden to return to the team next season. In an article in The Athletic Morey confirmed that Doc Rivers will return to the sidelines next year. Morey also addressed the status of James Harden “The plan is to have him back. That’s been the plan since the trade. Obviously, we have to work with his representation, and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works.” 

James Harden is a first ballot hall-of-famer who has had an incredible career. He is shouldering more than his fair share of the blame for the 76ers departure from the playoffs at the hands of the number one seeded Miami Heat. Harden did not play up to his capabilities in game six of the series to be sure however, his career should not be judged by one half of one game. We can all agree he is no longer the player he once was, but he is still a top 25 player in the league. What would make the most sense given the current circumstances would be for the 76ers and Harden to agree to an extension. That would allow the team to have a legitimate scoring threat to go along with Embiid while he is still in his prime. It is unlikely that the 76ers could get equal value for him in a sign and trade and they certainly do not want him to walk, and the team gets nothing in return.  James Harden has taken a beating in the media due to his 2nd half performance in game six against the Heat. When you look at the body of work it is clear that he is a dangerous weapon offensively and he still has more to offer going forward. James Harden ranks 33rd all time in points scored with 23,477 and ranks 3rd behind only Ray Allen and Stephen Curry for 3-pointers made all time with 2,561. I expect Harden to come back next year with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove to the naysayers and doubters that have been grilling him since the team’s ouster in game 6. If Harden does not win a championship in his illustrious career, he will be in good company. Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone are a few of the all-time great NBA players that have never won a championship. Let’s see what this off season holds for James Harden and view him through the totality of his career rather than the second half of game six.


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