James Harden’s grueling tenure is over as his role has changed, but 1 goal remains: a championship

DETROIT – Maybe James Harden was playfully annoyed that Doc Rivers compared his current game to Magic Johnson. The Philadelphia 76ers coach called Harden a “scoring Magic Johnson” in reference to balancing scoring and facilitating.

But even with the context, Harden wanted to make it clear that he was his own player.

“I’m James Harden,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “And I’ll catch Doc. But I’m James Harden. Magic Johnson was an amazing basketball player, he did so many things for this league. But I’m James Harden.”

All right then.

For the record, Rivers said he hated the comparison — but made it anyway. He couldn’t think of a better way for his player to control the game by doing it both ways offensively, especially with Joel Embiid missing games due to injury.

The days of Harden posting grueling, exhaustive usage rates bordering or exceeding 40% are over; he leaves that arduous task to Luka Dončić. He shrugs off the idea that his production is not underrated, especially in the days of numerous video games.

“I don’t really care,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t pay attention — underrated, overrated. It doesn’t affect me.”

But even though Harden has settled into the role of co-star of Philly’s one-man human eclipse, he still admits he longs for the days when 35-point, 10-assist games were the norm.

“I’d like it, but not that much — if that makes sense,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “In Houston, I did it every night. It was expected. I often feel like I can have the same impact on games. But you see the bigger picture. I’m just focused on one thing, man. That’s all that matters.”

When he does speak, he sounds less like someone willing to step up behind a losing team in the twilight of his career, even as rumors swirl about his future.

“I wanted to have the opportunity to win at the highest level. When I realized we weren’t going to be able to do that in Houston, I tried to put myself in a situation to win at the highest level,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “The ultimate goal for me is the championship.”

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden holds the ball against Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on January 8, 2023. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden holds the ball against Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on January 8, 2023. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

The offense in Houston seemed simple enough, as long as Harden possessed the physical and mental stamina to execute it. The formula was spread with shooters combined with one big running threat at the rim and a screener to give Harden some space.

It was predictable, but it was largely effective, even if it wore Harden down in the process. So when he says he wouldn’t mind going back to those days, though sometimes more than a habit, it’s probably because the physical price paid was very high.

He was asked if he was waging an internal battle over what approach was the best course of action for the 76ers to reach the upper reaches of the East, since most agree they are a rung below Milwaukee and Boston — and maybe even the surging Brooklyn Nets.

“I did. I did a lot more, I still do sometimes,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “It’s the bigger picture, constant communication about the style of play and how we want to play and what’s best for this team. I still have a lot more in the tank.”

Can he step it up? Aside from Embiid, all of the 76ers’ supporting stars seem to have the skills to do more if called upon. But it is Harden who will likely bear the responsibility for such a task.

The grueling minutes he played over one season seem to have had a wear-and-tear effect in micro, some scattered finishes in the final playoff games.

In the 2015 Western Conference Finals against Golden State, Game 5 ended with 12 turnovers. In 2017, the Spurs outscored Harden’s Rockets by 39 points in the West semifinals, where Harden committed six turnovers and went 2 for 11 from the field. There was a poo poo platter for the entire team in the Game 7 West final loss to the Warriors in 2018.

And last season, Harden mustered just nine shots in Philadelphia’s Game 6 East semifinal loss to Miami — a loss that left many wondering about everyone’s future without Embiid.

The illustrations are less about his individual performances, mostly because there were 30 points and some games where his team didn’t have them, and more about how much energy he had at the end of a grinding season.

So it wouldn’t be shocking to see all those minutes and games have a cumulative effect over multiple years, especially since he’ll turn 34 in August.

Embiid makes any defender playing center look like lunch meat in the Eastern Conference. Even defensive wizard Bam Adebayo can’t control the game the way he’d like because of Embiid’s presence.

So if he can’t do more, that would leave Harden to pick up the slack in the postseason — or any night he needs to score. His 26.1 usage this season is higher than last season’s trying 21 games, but lower than anything he’s accomplished since his first three years as a super-sub in Oklahoma City.

“It takes a toll on your body. But if you prepare for it, then obviously you’d be better off,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “If a player has a high usage rate, first of all, the player has to be built for it. Like playing X minutes a game and producing them, you have to score and make plays, do all those things night in and night out.”

He felt like he was ready for those years in Houston, and he feels the same now. After saying he’s playing a lot of minutes now, he said “having Joel and Tyrese [Maxey] and Tobias [Harris]” diminishes the general need to be an insult to oneself.

The Harden system is not needed, but Harden is.

And he knows it and wants to be more than a passer, a secondary option.

“I want to score. I want to score,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “My scoring makes my facilitating a lot better. Don’t get it twisted. I want to score.”

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