“This team is definitely the best chance I’ve had to win,” Harden tells ESPN as he walks out of the arena. He is alone and unhurried, despite having the rest of the night free in Los Angeles. “It’s still not perfect,” he says. “It’s still constant communication.
“The faster we can get going and catch a rhythm, we got a really good chance.”
Harden says all of this on a night he shot 1-for-6, with just six points and nine assists, snapping a six-game streak in which he had posted double figures in both categories. He was fine, he insisted throughout his time in Philadelphia, with sacrificing his offensive game. In doing so, though, he wanted to make sure everyone understood: This was a choice, not a result.
Back in the arena, Harden continues. “Obviously I’m capable of [scoring] more,” he says, making eye contact to emphasize his point. “But I’m playing the right way, just doing whatever’s necessary to win. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Sixers won the game because the Clippers had no answer for Embiid, who finished with 41 points in 33 minutes and after the game credited Harden for “making it easy” for him.
In terms of momentum and messaging from Philadelphia’s two superstars — any two superstars, really — this is as good as it gets. Both players talking about how much they appreciated each other. One, after a dominant performance, recognizing the other’s role in making it so.
But the line between positive self-talk and talking yourself into something is a fine one.
Harden teetered along it all season. He came to Philadelphia thinking Sixers general manager Daryl Morey would help him recreate his best years with the Houston Rockets, this time with an MVP-caliber center alongside him and a championship coach in Doc Rivers guiding him.
Morey built his reputation by believing in Harden and wasn’t about to stop now. Embiid respected Harden’s game and knew he needed him. Rivers did, too, but understood it isn’t always about talent or belief. Championships are borne out of a special alchemy of timing, sacrifice and alignment that’s hard to predict, much less engineer.
But Harden had also come to Philadelphia thinking he would be compensated like he used to be. After his first season in Philadelphia, Harden took approximately $14 million less than what he was due in a player option so the team could sign veteran forward P.J. Tucker away from the Miami Heat.
It was sold by the Sixers as “sacrifice” to both Harden and the public — a line he dutifully repeated throughout the season.
“You have to sacrifice to get to where you’ve never been,” Harden said that night in Los Angeles. “I’m in a really good space on the court and off the court.”
But Harden was savvy, too. He knew the reason he was “sacrificing” was that the Sixers didn’t feel comfortable offering him a new maximum contract worth upward of $270 million, sources said, after the way he played following a midseason trade from the Brooklyn Nets. They were still evaluating him, much like he had been evaluating the Nets a year earlier when they offered him a max deal and he said he wanted to see how things went.
This wasn’t so much a sacrifice as mutual unspoken recognition. The dream of recreating the glory days in Houston had probably already passed them by. But they played it out anyway, the Sixers never quite sure Harden was worth the max he sought, and Harden suspecting they felt that way.
So the “sacrifice” narrative was created. And it worked for everybody — until it didn’t.
What Harden didn’t realize was how little he’d be left with when it all came apart.
THE FIRST HINT that Harden’s “sacrifice” wasn’t being appreciated, much less rewarded in the way he hoped, came in late January when he wasn’t voted to be an All-Star. Harden, who had made 10 consecutive All-Star games, was dismayed at the snub, sources said.
It didn’t help that his former Nets teammates Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had both been voted in as starters by the fans, media and players, while Harden was a distant fourth among Eastern Conference guards behind Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown.
Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was prepared to name him as an injury replacement, sources said. Harden just had to give assurances that he would show up and play in the game.
Days went by without Harden’s answer. He was pouting.