It was early March and Daryl Morey, who was wearing a blue blazer over a red shirt that featured a cartoon of James Harden’s face from his famous internet meme, was sitting on-stage inside Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for the start of the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Morey said, “Besides ‘Seize The Data,’ the theme of this conference is reuniting.”
“I was lucky enough to get reunited with my basketball Jesus.”
Morey, the Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations who co-founded the stats symposium nearly 20 years ago, has come to be defined by two things on court. First, his role in popularizing the use of analytics across the NBA. Second, his eight-year partnership with Harden and the Houston Rockets.
A month ago, Morey concluded his year-long journey to reunite with his former MVP. He shared a picture from a tarmac next to a private jet upon Harden’s arrival. A single trophy emoji was the simple caption.
At Harden’s introductory news conference a few days later, Morey said, “Our mission that’s been given to us, [it’s] the whole reason that everyone on the team is really here.”
“It’s unfinished business for all of us. … We knew, from the moment Ben [Simmons] asked out, that if we were gonna do a trade, it had to be for [a player] we thought could allow us to compete at a high level,” he added.
“And, the way this league works, you have to get players of the caliber of a James Harden to pair with a Joel Embiid and Tobias [Harris]. You can’t win without it.”
The way Morey was thinking was him assuming that Harden was still playing at the level that finished first or second in MVP voting four out of five seasons during their time together in Houston.
But later on, it’s becoming clear that this version of Harden is no more.
Harden failed to appear in the biggest game of Philadelphia’s season. He was a non-factor, with everything on the line in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Miami Heat. He finished the game with 11 points, 9 assists and 4 turnovers.
With just under 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Harden’s giveaway led to Bam Adebayo’s fast break bucket. This resulted in boos booming out from the sellout crowd inside the Wells Fargo Center.
Miami eventually won, 99-90, ending Philadelphia’s postseason and sending the 76ers getting booted out of the second round for the fourth time in five seasons.
As the franchise goes into another offseason with loads of uncertainty, the question is begging to be asked: Is there a future for James Harden and the 76ers?
It was also a potentially expensive question. A Western Conference executive said, “This is their bed. They’re making it, they’re gonna sleep in it and it’s not gonna f—ing work.”
When the Harden-Ben Simmons swap was wrapped up, Harden was opt-in to the final year of his contract, which will give Philadelphia a level of protection. However, Harden did not do so. When asked about it in February, his answers were rather circumspect.
“Everything happened so fast. I just wanted to get here and take my time and most importantly focus on the end game, and that’s winning a championship,” he said.
He began this season with expectations of getting a new max contract this summer. In the past few years, veteran point guards such as Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, and Chris Paul got extensions for amounts somewhere between $25 to $30 million per season.
This is far below the worth of Harden’s option year, which was $47 million. This is also way below the $270 million that he could get over five years if he decides to become a free agent instead.
But there’s the problem. Executives see Harden as a type of veteran with a steady presence, but not necessarily a player worthy of max money. Now Harden can try to find the money he wants elsewhere, but there are only a few teams with cap space this summer, since most of them are rebuilding without the use of a pricey guard such as Harden.
Any team would pause at the idea of paying Harden a full max contract. And this includes the 76ers.
“Would he go along with a little less? I don’t know. If there were any logic whatsoever, the answer [to giving him a max deal] would be no,” an Eastern Conference scout said.
It didn’t help that Harden’s career is marred with postseason let-downs. During Game 6 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals, he went 2-for-11 as the Rockets were routed by the San Antonio Spurs on their home court, as Kawhi Leonard watched in his street clothes.
In Game 7 of the 2018 West finals, the Rockets missed 27 straight 3-pointers against the Golden State Warriors, then flamed out against an injury-laden Warriors team the following season.
Harden also clashed with several of his star teammates, including Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving.
So when he arrived in Philadelphia, it was a chance to turn the narrative. Philadelphia was exhausted from the whole Simmons saga and this gave Harden an opportunity to earn plenty of goodwill by simply being on the court.
But the franchise had another failed playoff, which peaked with Harden disappearing in an elimination game. During the second half of Game 6, he was engaged, and he took and missed just two shots. He finished the game with nine points.
A timeout was called and Rivers pulled his starters with 68 seconds remaining after one final bucket by Jimmy Butler. Finally, the clock ran out on the 76ers’ season. Boos emanated from the fans who are still scattered around the bowl of the arena.
At his introductory press conference, Harden said, “I’m in a place where I can be the best James Harden I can be on the court.”
But Harden’s best these days isn’t what it used to be and that is the problem for both him and the 76ers. Now the future for both sides couldn’t be murkier, three months after they were joined together in what seemed like a perfect long-term union.