The NBA postseason is nearly upon us, and each year you can pick out a few players that have something to prove. Giannis Antetokounmpo did it last season (no matter how many breaks they got along the way), leading Milwaukee to the title, and LeBron James the year before when he led the Lakers to their first championship in a decade.
James Harden has the most to prove in these playoffs among star players. You could arguably say he’s had the most to prove in the postseason since the Houston Rockets, led by Harden, collapsed against the Golden State Warriors in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. When you’re the best player on a team that misses 27 three-point attempts, you get the blame no matter how many points you scored individually.
Since the Houston days, we’ve seen Harden stop briefly in Brooklyn before settling down in Philadelphia with the 76ers at the trade deadline in February. Although Harden is no longer “The” guy on his current team, he’s still more than “just a guy” for the Sixers. Harden is a former MVP and three-time scoring champion. Joel Embiid may end up being this year’s league MVP. There isn’t any reason this duo shouldn’t be favored to make it out of the East.
If the Sixers have any chance of getting through the Eastern Conference gauntlet, Harden needs to be a significant factor in that equation. And by that, I’m not just talking about him hitting his averages which is also important. I’m talking about making timely shots when games are on the line, like on Tuesday night against the Bucks.
Milwaukee battled back to take the lead late in the fourth quarter and was up by two with five seconds left in regulation. Harden had the ball in his hands with a chance to tie or take the lead, and of course, he jacked up a three that misses horribly, thus securing the victory for Milwaukee. Sure, Harden scored 32 points in this game, but with enough time to get a better shot, he chose to take a step-back three over the outstretched arm of 7-foot Brook Lopez instead.
That type of decision in crunch time is why I don’t trust Harden when it matters most in big games. He just hasn’t shown that he can come through and make the right play most times in that situation. Harden isn’t the leader on this team, but there will be times in the postseason when the Sixers need him to make a big play, and he hasn’t always shown that he’s capable of doing so.
Harden isn’t one of these LeBron James, Michael Jordan, or even Kevin Durant type of players we expect to win multiple titles during their careers. I don’t consider Harden to be a top 10-15 all-time player, but if he wants to get anywhere close to that, he needs to win a title while he can still play a significant role on a championship team.
Philly has the great guard and great big man formula that we’ve seen win multiple titles in the past. Of course, the first that come to mind are the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul Jabbar Lakers, then, of course, the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers. Those duos produced a combined eight championships between them. No, I’m not comparing Harden to Magic or Kobe. But he is one of the best guards of his era. So, I don’t think it’s asking too much for them to bring one title back to Philly. The Sixers have a great loyal fan base no matter how wild they can get sometimes.
This squad will have at least a couple of years to show what they can do, led by Embiid and Harden. But if they can’t at least make an NBA Finals appearance within the next couple of years, then the Harden experience will be considered a bust. Hell, anything short of an ECF appearance this year, and there will be plenty of criticism to go around.
The 76ers need to be in win-now mode more than any other team. James isn’t getting any younger, and we know what happens with him once a situation turns sour in his eyes. And Embiid doesn’t feel like his prime will be super long like LeBron or Kevin Durant.
If I had to pick Philly or the field in the east over the next three years (should Harden stick around), I’d take the field because it’s hard to trust Harden when it really counts. We’ve seen him come up short time and time again. Now it’s time for Harden to show us otherwise.