James Harden was willing to sacrifice for the greater good when he lined up his return to the Philadelphia 76ers this summer.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, the 10-time All-Star said he wanted the Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to focus on strengthening the roster while factoring him into the equation:
“I had conversations with Daryl, and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players. I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over. This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
Harden is still getting $34 million annually from his two-year pact with Philadelphia, so it is not as if he is making the veteran minimum. He did leave some money on the table in the short term by declining his player option for 2022-23.
The Sixers, in turn, used the savings to sign P.J. Tucker for three years and $33 million after star center Joel Embiid identified the need for a Tucker-type player on the roster.
As much as Harden can frame his contract as a magnanimous act, the deal is also likely a reflection of the fact neither the Sixers nor any other contender was prepared to table a max offer his way. In May, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the prevailing wisdom around the league was that Philly did not want to go down that route.
The 32-year-old has seen his stock slide in recent seasons. Between his spells with the Sixers and Brooklyn Nets in 2021-22, he averaged 22.0 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds. His shooting (41.0 percent overall and 33.0 percent on three-pointers) was cause for concern.
Then came another disappearing act in a must-win playoff game as Harden went 4-of-9 for 11 points in a loss to the Miami Heat. He chalked his struggles partially up to the team’s offense and ball movement.
The game was so bad it looked like a separation between Harden and Philadelphia was at least plausible.
It appears as though Harden is working to reverse the narrative. Prior to the Haynes interview, a report from Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium laid out how “everyone around Harden has understood the focus on his workout regimen this offseason and a championship goal for 2022-23.”
Harden told Haynes he is in a “good space physically and mentally right now.”
The 2017-18 MVP is certainly saying all of the right things for now, and it’s not difficult to get behind the idea he can enjoy a return to form with the benefit of a full offseason in Philadelphia. He will not have to deal with the off-court drama that plagued his final year in Brooklyn, too.
If Harden gets off to a sluggish start in 2022-23, though, then the sense of optimism may begin to fade quickly.