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What’s Next for James Harden and the 76ers?

For the last two years, James Harden has grown tired of being James Harden. In Houston, he didn’t merely drive the bus; he was the bus. With the ball in his hands, he practically turned basketball into an individual sport, distilling all the ball and body movement that you would ordinarily expect into a single one-on-one matchup against his defender. Despite all the mewling that he was a flopping eyesore, he was great at this—his 2015-2021 stretch ranks as one of the single greatest offensive runs in basketball history. Sizing up his guy for eight seconds, watching the help defenders gird themselves to help at the rim, somehow creating a coherent offensive attack from nothing more than his own savvy and talent like Zeus sprouting Athena from his forehead: James Harden is so sick of that shit. 

Since his radical micro-ball Rockets team was bounced from the Bubble, basketball’s preeminent soloist has been in search of a band. Once spend-thrift owner Tilman Fertita axed just about every smart person in the organization to raid the franchise’s coffers to pay off his Rainforest Cafe debts, Harden strong-armed his way into a trade to Brooklyn. There, he imagined, he’d be able to play a less taxing style of basketball alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He was right, kind of: during Harden’s 16 games alongside Durant and Irving, the Nets went 13-3 and scored 129.1 points per possession. And then Kyrie Irving did his own research. And then Kevin Durant got hurt. Once again, Harden was tasked with single-handedly hauling a threadbare supporting cast towards respectability and demanded a trade to Philadelphia, where MVP candidate Joel Embiid would presumably allow Harden to kick his feet up a little.

Now, Embiid is hurt and Harden is the begrudging lodestar for the Sixers. This is objectively funny—Harden has morphed into basketball’s Karl Havoc, gleefully creating situations for himself only to later realize he doesn’t want to be around anymore. Still, the problem isn’t so much that Harden has to temporarily revert to a previous super ball-dominant version of himself; it’s that he can’t. 

Whereas Harden was a bursty, untamable ball-handler as recently as last season, he now moves with the urgency and speed of a dad playing Marco Polo with his kids. He can’t beat defenders off the dribble; he can’t jump high or far enough to earn clean looks at the rim. The thing that made Harden such a singularly dominant scorer wasn’t just that he was a tricky player who could outsmart refs and defenses alike, but that he was able to combine that guile with the strength and athleticism of a more traditional two-guard. In this sense, Harden has reached the current-day Rudy Giuliani stage of his career, having lost the power that made people care about him in the first place; there’s nothing left for him besides the grift. 

To be sure, Harden is still a great player. He exists within that special stratosphere of stars where averaging 20ish points and 10ish assists per game is disappointing. In Game One against the Miami Heat, Harden was completely unable to assert himself, putting up a quiet 16 points and five assists. Worse, Harden managed a meager four points and two assists in the second half, thoroughly stumped by the Heat’s army of long, physical wings.

He couldn’t glide backwards into a step–back three because his defender was sitting on that move and denying him a clean release; he couldn’t punish overaggressive perimeter defense by exploding to the rim because his legs don’t work that way anymore.  A basketball genius, Harden consistently made the right play in response to Miami’s defensive tactics; it was just that the right play was often to passively cycle the ball to a teammate rather than do stuff himself.

The playoffs have always been cruel and revealing for Harden, but his struggles feel distinctly different than his previous flameouts. Previously, Harden has lost in the playoffs because he’s unable to seize on the same marginal advantages that he could reap in the regular season—the defenders contest his jumpers just a little more tightly, the refs become ever more reluctant to give Harden a friendly whistle. Now, though, it feels like the end—or, alternately, the beginning—of something.

The defining tension of his next few years will be how gracefully he handles the transition from being the guy to simply being a guy. As part of a larger constellation of talent, Harden is the kind of passer who can have a multiplicative effect on the talents of his teammates; despite his individual shortcomings as a scorer, Harden still boosts Philly’s offense by more than 12 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. In particular, he’s empowered Joel Embiid to become a serious pick-and-roll threat for the first time in his career. 

There’s no doubt that Harden will continue to be a very good player for a long time, but there’s uncertainty of what shape or valence that goodness will assume. It’s not possible anymore for him to Norman Bombardini his way through games, consuming so many possessions that he eventually transforms into an offensive universe unto himself. But it’s also probably a waste for him to recede into the background and take a backseat to Tobias Harris. Philly won’t lose their series because of Harden’s awkward fit—they’ll probably lose no matter what if Embiid is out. But the fate of the franchise and all the outsized narrative importance that accompanies it will be determined by James Harden’s ability to reconcile no longer being James Harden.

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Sports Strength

Winners and Losers of the NBA Trade Deadline

The NBA trade deadline has become an unofficial holy day on basketball’s calendar, representing the ultimately establishment of a team’s identity. This is where months-long storylines come to a head and the drama-filled first half of the season gives way to the intensity and focus that defines the back-half. Amongst the chaos of this year’s especially chaotic edition, here are our winners and losers of the NBA’s trade deadline.

Winner: Complaining

For the umpteenth year in a row, complaining has continued to run up the score against silently enduring. Across the NBA, basketball’s squeakiest wheels were greased—Brooklyn and Philly swapped world-historic malcontents James Harden and Ben Simmons; Goran Dragic was liberated from Toronto. Trade demands are certainly not a new development, but never have they been so protracted and, ultimately, all-around beneficial. Harden, Simmons, Dragic and the teams that dealt them are all better off today than they were on Wednesday. “Player empowerment” is often unfairly sneered as an euphemism for “teams getting screwed over,” but Thursday presented a vision of how players and teams can mutually advance their seemingly conflicting interests. 

Loser: The Therapy Industrial Complex

Tired: months of grueling work with psychiatrists and therapy to resolve mental health issues. Wired: being cured because you no longer have to live in Philadelphia.

Winner: The Eastern Conference Playoffs

Long considered the NBA’s kids’ table compared to the perennially loaded Western Conference, the East is now home to the NBA’s most intriguing teams. Between the Nets, Sixers, Bulls, Cavs, Heat and Bucks, there are six teams who can credibly hope to win the conference. And, over the last few days, nearly all of them significantly and materially improved. April and May will be a bloodbath. 

The Cavs kicked off the week by trading for Caris Levert, crucially adding a second guy who can, like, dribble and shoot to their surprisingly potent gumbo. The Bucks acquired Serge Ibaka, giving them a drop-coverage friendly stretch-five who provides them with insurance for the injured Brook Lopez. 

Most significantly, the Sixers and Nets helped each other heal. In their abbreviated Big Three flop era, the Nets tried to live on buckets alone—Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were such transcendent offensive players that nothing else really mattered. This year, though, Durant’s injuries, Harden’s apathy and Irving’s terrible taste in Youtube videos revealed the precarity of the Nets’ success—heading into the deadline, the team had lost nine consecutive games and plummeted from the top of the conference down into play-in range. In Simmons, the Nets have seemingly acquired the tonic for their ails; on a team that’s been unable to scrounge up enough defense, playmaking, size or athleticism, Simmons provides all four in spades. 

Similarly, Harden legitimizes the Sixers’ championship aspirations. For the first half of the season, Philly’s relative success has been entirely tied to Joel Embiid’s greatness; his 37 percent usage rate is the highest mark that any center has ever posted. But beyond Embiid, the Sixers haven’t really had any other way to conjure productive offense. Tyrese Maxey is a spunky shot-maker, but is more of a sidekick than a co-star; Tobias Harris is the least inspiring efficient volume scorer in the NBA. With Harden, the Sixers have a perimeter counterweight to Embiid’s interior stylings, giving them two of the best isolation scorers in recent history. Even if there are questions of whether the team will able to accommodate two of the most profligate ball-stoppers in the league (will this be the least frequent passing team ever? Will Danny Green ever know the warmth of a basketball’s touch ever again?), the combined talent of Harden and Embiid could prove to be overwhelming. 

Losers: Dallas Mavericks

In perhaps the most shocking move of the deadline, the Mavs shipped Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards for, uh, Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Porzingis may not be the All-NBA center that the Mavericks forecasted him to become when they traded for him back in 2019, but he’s still a very good—albeit overpaid—player when he’s available. Conversely, Bertans and Dinwiddie are both mired in the worst stretches of their career. Bertans is a reputed shooter who can no longer make shots. Dinwiddie has struggled to regain his explosiveness after tearing his ACL last year and is shooting 37.6 percent from the floor this year. Unless the two of them can recapture their form from two or three years ago, the value that they bring to the Mavs is dubious. 

Winner: Sacramento Kings

Although the Kings don’t necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt on account of their Kings-iness, their early trade deadline returns don’t seem unpromising. The decision to move on from Tyrese Haliburton was widely pilloried, but the newly-acquired Domantas Sabonis has already shown an intriguing chemistry with star point guard De’Aaron Fox; in their first game together, Sacramento’s star duo demonstrated a nascent, zippy chemistry as a pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff battery that should serve as the foundation of the team’s offense. In a smaller move, the Kings also added Donte Divencenzo from the Milwaukee Bucks, giving them a gritty defensive wing who, theoretically, could help space the floor. Even if the team’s ceiling isn’t necessarily high, this is just about the first time in nearly two decades that their floor has ever crept above ground-level. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From January 3rd-9th

With the holiday season and the wave of Covid disruptions (hopefully) behind us, the first week of 2022 delivered some thrilling NBA action, Klay Thompson played in his first game in two and a half years and looked as if he never left. The Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant and bulldozed their competition, stretching their win streak to nine consecutive games. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Thompson’s return elevates a already-great Warriors team

For the first time in 941 days, Steph Curry’s fellow Splash Brother returned to action, and it seemed like the old times again. In his first game since the 2019 Finals, Klay Thompson rediscovered his rhythm and scored 17 points in 20 minutes as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 96-82.

As previously mentioned when discussing what to expect from Thompson in his return, the All-Star shooting guard the Warriors’ offense a new dimension. He was fluid in his movement without the ball, successfully drove to the basket (even punctuating his return with an uncharacteristic dunk in traffic), and was sound on defense.

The Grizzlies are entering the conversation of title contenders

It’s becoming a distant memory when some people thought of the Memphis Grizzlies as a playoff team, who would be fodder for an exciting yet predictable first-round exit. Instead, the Grizzlies, who are three and a half games out of first place in the Western Conference, are forcing their way into the conversation about the league’s title contenders.

Led by rising MVP candidate Ja Morant, the Grizz succeed because their depth and athleticism have produced the league’s No. 1 defense over the past six weeks (Allowing 101.8 per 100 possessions).

Don’t count out the Heat to lead the East

Despite experiencing many injuries and a schedule that had them play 25 of their first 41 games on the road, the Heat are the third seed in the Eastern Conference– only two and a half games out of first. So what can happen next? A realistic run to the NBA Finals.

With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo eventually making their return to the starting lineup, the Heat have all the necessary talents and coaching to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, just as they did in the Bubble over a year and a half ago.

The Nets get Kyrie back but are still struggling

Even if the season debut of Kyrie Irving (who will only play road games because of NYC’s vaccination mandate) reignites the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets, it doesn’t fully erase their struggles over the last two-plus weeks. their struggles over the past two-plus weeks. Besides a rousing fourth-quarter comeback against the Pacers or rookie Cam Thomas’s game-winning floater against the Spurs on Sunday, the Nets have been fairly listless, losing four out of their previous six games.

And although every team has stretches where they play below their standard, it still feels as if we haven’t watched the Nets play their best basketball yet. But, with Irving now in tow and Durant still in MVP form, maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From December 20th-26th

Even though daily news of NBA players and coaches having to enter health protocols have become common, it was nice to go through a week where the focus was on the games. Alongside the league’s annual slate of Christmas Day matchups, there was plenty to watch and learn from an assortment of players and teams who made one last statement before this year ended. Down below are my four takeaways from the league’s latest week in action.

Harden and Westbrook represent the line between success and failure

Besides being teammates twice throughout their illustrious careers (First in Oklahoma City and then Houston), James Harden and Russell Westbrook have a lot in common as arguably two of social media’s most criticized yet accomplished superstars. But last Saturday, we discovered what makes the two players different and ultimately favors one of them to win their elusive first championship.

As the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers competed in a 122-115 thriller that was won by the Nets, Harden’s combination of efficient and timely playmaking and scoring (36 points, ten rebounds, and ten assists) outlasted Westbrook’s inconsistent and ugly performance (13 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists). Despite struggling for most of this season, Harden has found ways to ultize his strengths to benefit his team; an action Westbrook has not discovered yet in LA.

When will help arrive for the Joker?

As much as NBA Twitter loves to proclaim their favorite player should be “freed” or given additional help, no one is more deserving of either claim than Nikola Jokic. “The Joker” is having an all-time season (he’s on pace to break the record for highest player efficiency rating at 33.33) and could win league MVP again if reinforcements arrive by his side in Denver.

With dynamic guard Jamal Murray’s return from his torn ACL injury still unknown and forward Michael Porter Jr being out because of his back injury, one has to wonder if the Nuggets could make a trade or two for additional scoring and playmaking that lessens Jokic’s load.

Keldon Johnson is worthy of your attention

Regardless of how you’re watching the NBA on a nightly basis, there’s one player who is worthy of your time: Keldon Johnson. The third-year San Antonio Spur, who you may remember as a late-minute addition to the US Men’s gold-medal-winning basketball team last summer, is quickly becoming one of the team’s best players, and rightfully so.

Johnson is averaging a career-high in points and rebounds per game (15 and 6.6) while also shooting a remarkable 47% from the three-point line. The Kentucky product’s development is a more than welcomed sign for the Spurs, who already have a promising talent in Dejounte Murray.

Houston is balancing Jalen Green’s development and their desire to compete

While some teams love to have dynamic, young talent and still collect high lottery picks, others are fine with having young talent who could help them win right away (Think Evan Mobley and Cleveland). Even though the Houston Rockets, and their 2021 No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green, aren’t in a position to compete for the playoffs, they’re happy with being competitive and making each other better.

Despite the team’s seven-game winning streak earlier this month without Green because of his injury, the Rockets would rather have him on the court. Out of 19 games played, Green has scored 20 points five times and proves to be a viable offensive threat with his athleticism and, at times-solid shooting. It’s just a matter of making him more effective while also eliminating their tendency for extensive losing streaks.

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From November 8th-14th

While we’re at that time of the NBA season where everyone prematurely claims a specific player or team to be “back,” the Golden State Warriors indeed appear to be the team they once were a couple of years ago. And in the spirit of confirming one’s return or new status solidified across the league, there is much to discuss between the likes of the Washington Wizards and Paul George. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

Yeah, the Warriors found their swagger back

Even though various fans, media members, and even the rest of the NBA enjoyed Golden State’s struggles over the previous two seasons (59-83 in the regular season and no playoff appearances), an organization of the Warriors’ caliber wasn’t going to struggle for much longer. As we’re approaching the end of the NBA’s opening month, the Warriors aren’t only good; they’re potentially the best team in the league.

Whether it’s because of Stephen Curry leading the way and producing another all-time MVP-caliber season in the process or because of their deep collection of depth and youth, the Warriors’ 11-2 start is legitimate. And amid the Warriors’ hot start, you should remember that they’re doing this without All-Star guard Klay Thompson, who is inching his way back to the court following two consecutive season-ending injuries.

Put some respect on Paul George’s name!

As easy as it has been for NBA Twitter and other viewers to criticize and make fun of Paul George’s failures consistently, it’s only right his success gets highlighted the same way! PG13 has elevated his game to begin this season following his redemptive postseason performance this summer, and the Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t be more grateful about it.

Alongside averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists per game while also providing two-plus steals per game, George’s leadership and clutch play have lifted the Clippers into early postseason contention at 9-5, which included a seven-game winning streak. With fellow star teammate Kawhi Leonard still out with a torn ACL, George has and will accept the responsibility of leading the Clippers until further notice.

James Harden is slowly but surely regaining his rhythm

In recent weeks, one of the more common things to watch and react to as NBA fans is players getting used to these new foul rules. The league’s greater focus on not calling fouls created by unusual moves by ballhandlers has impacted various stars, most notably James Harden. But despite his slow start to this season, the Brooklyn Nets superstar might be heading in the right direction.

Harden had his best game of this young season by producing a 39-point and 12-assist performance against the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday night (yes, we know it’s the Pelicans) while also maintaining a solid mini-stretch of basketball. Since Nov. 7th, Harden has averaged 23/8/9 while shooting 47% from the field. And as for the free throws? The “Beard” did attempt 15 freebies against the Pelicans.

The Suns are playing like the team who made the NBA Finals

For any of the teams that made the NBA Finals and lost, it was customary for them to have a slow start the following season, and the Phoenix Suns joined that group because of their 1-3 start. But unlike their counterparts, the Suns have flipped the switch, and as winners of seven consecutive games, they’ve looked every bit of the team that not only made last year’s NBA Finals but was two games away from winning it all.

In between obtaining notable wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies, the Suns currently have six players averaging double-digit points per game, and that number could reach eight if Cameron Payne and JaVale McGee round out their scoring production to double digits too.