James Harden’s underwhelming stint with 76ers headed for unsurprising ending
Things could change. Perhaps James Harden will do a complete 180, rescind his request to be traded away from the 76ers and finish out the season in Philadelphia. Maybe the season will then go so well that the two sides decide to continue their partnership when Harden hits free agency next summer.
While technically possible, that outcome seems unbelievably unlikely. The [much] more likely outcome is that the Sixers will indeed trade Harden sometime between the writing of this article and the NBA's annual trade deadline in February. The move will close the curtain on what will be remembered as a brief, and ultimately underwhelming stint with the Sixers for Harden, the future Hall-of-Famer.
It's ironic that Harden and the Sixers appear headed for an inevitably messy divorce less than two years after he was the resolution to another failed relationship between the organization and then-All-Star guard Ben Simmons. After requesting a trade out of Brooklyn, Harden was flipped to a Sixers squad that had lost in the second round of the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons, and the internal hope was that Harden's skill and experience -- combined with Joel Embiid's burgeoning game -- would be enough to get the team to the conference finals, at least.
That didn't happen, though. The Sixers lost in the second round in 2022, and then again in 2023, despite the fact that they held a 3-2 lead over the Boston Celtics in the series. Shortly thereafter, Harden and Philadelphia's front office had a falling out, and now it looks like there won't be a third playoff run for Harden in Philadelphia. Two years, two second round exits.
Harden had his moments in Sixers threads, highlighted by a pair of 40-plus point performances against the Celtics in the conference semifinals last season. Had he not dropped 45 points in Game 1 with Embiid on the sideline, and then 42 in Game 4, the series likely wouldn't even have been as close as it was.
He also led the NBA in assists per game last season, becoming the first 76er to do so since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967-68. He generated an endless array of open opportunities for Embiid, and in turn is a big part of the reason the big fella was finally able to secure himself that elusive MVP Award. Embiid has said so himself.
Ultimately though, Harden will be remembered in Philly for being unable to propel the Sixers over that second round hurdle, and now for the unceremonious way he forced himself out of town as well.
After requesting trades out of Houston and then Brooklyn, Harden had already developed a reputation as a bit of a malcontent prior to his time in Philly, so the fact that the situation soured isn't super surprising. It's become par for the course for Harden at this point in his career, as he continues his late career soul-searching while staring down his basketball mortality. He thought he was going to find what he was looking for in Philadelphia. Now he's certain that it resides in L.A. with the Clippers. Who knows where it might relocate to next summer.
Philadelphia's front office gambled by bringing Harden to town. It was a high-risk, high-reward maneuver, and it appears as though it's now the latest in a long line of recent moves that didn't work out quite the way the Sixers had hoped. Given the recent track record of both parties, the outcome isn't shocking.
Follow Michael Kaskey-Blomain on X @therealmikekb.