James Harden can’t win for losing. The basketball gods won’t allow him to have it easy. He certainly carries the burden of a superstar and he’s never been able to hide his deficiencies or dynamic ability behind other great players. Harden was a face of the NBA for years. Praised and criticized. He had finally gotten to the point where he was comfortable being a team player.
Now everybody is criticizing him for not being the wagon he once was.
"James Harden is officially washed."
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) May 3, 2022
The Miami Heat trounced the Philadelphia 76ers 106-92 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, which was expected due to the absence of center Joel Embiid, the league’s front-runner for MVP. Embiid is out with an orbital fracture suffered in the closing moments of the first-round playoff clincher against Toronto.
Harden only scored 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting. For weeks, there have been rumblings of Harden’s inability to blow by defenders as he once has. Some analysts, such as ESPN’s Tim Legler, have even hinted that he’s washed up.
Others, like Cleveland Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff, think Harden can regain that fountain of youth but Doc has to redesign a scheme that plays to Harden’s strengths on the fly.
“You have to make him quickly as comfortable as you possibly can,” said Bickerstaff, who led the young Cavs to the play-in tournament this season, the closest they’ve gotten to the playoffs since LeBron left.
“You have to go back to when he was most successful. And you go back, you watch the film of when he was in Houston. And you’ve got to figure out how you can put him in those positions, and I’m sure Doc is. That team was full of shooters so they gave him plenty of space and they played quickly and early in the shot clock. So you have to see how quickly you can get to that and make him comfortable.”
Bickerstaff seems to imply that Harden can still be “The Beard” under the right circumstances. Why wouldn’t he have confidence in a guy who has mastered the art of scoring and influenced the way the game is played?
Sure, Harden has fallen short in the playoffs during his career. But his historical contributions have always helped position his teams to win big, even if they didn’t reach titletown.
There was a time when Harden was considered one of the greatest offensive weapons in league history. His MVP, scoring prowess and 60-point triple doubles and deep playoff runs secured his place on the NBA’s 75 greatest players ever.
After leaving OKC as a sixth man, he emerged from the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and became an iconic player in Houston, pushing the dynasty Golden State Warriors to the brink of elimination. Just a Chris Paul injury away from advancing to his first NBA Finals as the No. 1 stunner.
Suspect performances in clutch games have been a stain on Harden’s legacy, but people don’t take into account the burden he often has to carry when his No. 2 guy goes down. Bad luck has truly been his middle name.
Harden was flourishing with the Brooklyn Nets. He had reinvented himself and was no longer the ball-dominating offensive black hole that was expected to drop 35-40 nightly.
The Beard was finally joining his own veteran super team, and he clearly made an effort to defer to KD and Kyrie. When they were able to take the floor together the results were undeniable. Unfortunately, they would play less than 20 games together, and Harden never got the opportunity to make a playoff run with a BK team that surely had championship talent.
Again, that wasn’t his fault, but people threw lots of shots at him because he wasn’t the kind of player he was in Houston — never acknowledging that he purposely altered his game because he was totally invested in winning a championship.
Kyrie’s vaccination status plummeted that entire situation, and it forced Harden to seek other opportunities as the 32-year-old’s championship hourglass continues to dissipate. Harden goes to Philly, again embracing his No. 2 to 3 status.
The Sixers advance past the first round and terrible misfortune strikes again for Harden. Embiid gets injured, and Harden has to enter a series against No. 1 seed Miami without the NBA MVP candidate. That’s almost an impossible task. Embiid not being there changes the entire culture of the team. Naturally, fans and media alike expect Harden to go into the phone booth, put on the cape and the suit and be The Beard of six seasons ago. It doesn’t work like that.
“We’ve got to man up.”
Yes, Harden can still be effective and even superstar status at times. However, the bulldog with the youth and playing at peak performance is Embiid. Big man doesn’t have the playoff mileage and years of carrying teams that Harden has experienced.
When Shaq joined D Wade in Miami, Shaq admits that he was a “passenger” on Wade’s bus. That’s what Harden is. He’s no slouch, but to expect him to be a player he hasn’t been in some time is unfair to his legacy.
It seems that Harden can’t catch a break, but following that Game 1 Eastern Conference semifinals loss he expressed confidence that his team can hold on until Embiid returns, hopefully by Game 4, saying they just have to “man up.”
Some game-changing performances from his supporting cast would be helpful as well.