For James Harden, it all comes down to this season. His NBA career is a success regardless, but this will be the year that makes or breaks his legacy.
Harden arguably consigned himself to that possibility when he inked his new deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. While the contract is for two years, the deal includes a player option for the 2023-24 season, meaning the star guard can do his free agency dance all over again next summer.
Harden could opt into the deal after this season and get his payday. But all the chips are on the table to make something happen now or to end the partnership with the Sixers, which could be his last chance to win a title as a leading man.
When it comes to his legacy, the 2022-23 season is the most critical of a long career for Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden.
The star has started seasons as the second-fiddle (or worse) plenty of times in his career, but the roles feel more clearly defined than ever in Philadelphia. Joel Embiid is the alpha, the MVP candidate. Harden is the prominent sidekick.
Harden has said that this is where he wants to win, and winning takes sacrifice. It was a challenge for all of the stars to make the sacrifice in Brooklyn, leading to the destruction of the trio of Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant.
At this point, Harden is developing a reputation for stuffing stats but not having the team accolades to show for it. He’s a 10-time All-Star, one-time MVP, and three-time scoring champ. He has no titles to show for it. He hasn’t even made the NBA Finals in the last decade.
There’s an opportunity to change that with the Sixers, though. Many of the other contenders in the conference are in a state of flux, which may not change anytime soon, depending on whether or not Durant gets dealt. It’s not hard to envision the Sixers coming out of the East.
Harden will have to play better than he did when Philadelphia’s season ended last year. In Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, he scored only 11 points and had four turnovers. He failed to score in the second half.
His reputation has always been tied to his enormous beard and his off-court activities. There’s nothing wrong with that – he’s earned his money, and he should live as he pleases.
But Harden isn’t going to get many more chances to win an NBA title. The way he plays involves absorbing a lot of contact and he’s already going to be 33 years old at the start of the next season. His time as a star player has a shelf life.
When Harden re-signed with the team, the Sixers released a statement that included the star saying, “This is where I want to be. This is where I want to win, and I think we have the pieces to accomplish that goal.”
Harden might be right about the pieces. Embiid and Tobias Harris are still around, while Tyrese Maxey’s stature is rising in the league. Harden’s pay cut also allowed Philadelphia to bring in a solid veteran presence in PJ Tucker.
The Philadelphia 76ers have fallen short in the postseason time and again. They aren’t necessarily the next Utah Jazz, but one has to wonder if their current core can get over the hump. If not, much of the blame will again fall on Harden, another reputation hit for the star.
The hard truth is here: This is the most important year of James Harden’s career.