Is JAMES HARDEN back?
Maybe. Probably not.
BY HENRY ABBOTT
All year, David Thorpe has been saying, “The way age works is not that it makes you generally unspectacular; it’s that it makes you spectacular less often.” You have a great game, and then you don’t for a while. And you will again, but you never know when it’s going to happen. Coach Thorpe first said those words when he noticed how much trouble James Harden was having drawing fouls to start the season in Brooklyn.
There are examples of players defying age all over the league, from Chris Paul to Al Horford. But there are also older players who counted on their magic returning when they needed it most, and—like LeBron—many are on vacation today. Like Paul and Horford, though, James Harden is still in the hunt.
It has been a rough ride for Harden. MVP just four years ago, he’s now 32—an age when NBA players tend to decline steeply. We’ve heard how Chris Paul has staved off age with veganism. In his later years, Steve Nash talked about surviving on fruits, vegetables, raw nuts, chicken, and fish. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t drink alcohol in season. Harden, meanwhile, skipped much of training camp in Houston to party on video with actual and figurative honeybuns, and then forced his way to Brooklyn, where he played with some extra weight but little heft.
Then Daryl Morey talked for the better part of a year about Ben Simmons being the bargaining chip of a lifetime, the asset that could turn the 76ers into top-tier contenders. And he unloaded Simmons (and Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond, and two picks) for Harden, who was then … fine as a 76er. Sometimes good, other times so/so, never supernova. Just six weeks ago, Doc Rivers criticized his team generally, and James Harden specifically, for standing around and taking contested shots instead of moving the ball.
Harden has evidently lost his ability to jump, perhaps because of the weight on his shoulders.
In his D’Antoni days, Harden’s offense was spider-like, catching defenders at will in his web of misdirection, deadeye shooting, and referee tricks. Those skills have all ebbed, now it’s Harden who seems unable to wriggle free.
To his credit, in this later phase, he has assigned himself a lower-case role, as quarterback, with good success. But if his upcoming contract extension is to make sense (he’s eligible for $223 million over four years), he’ll have to find the ladle for his JAMES HARDEN special sauce at least once in a while.
With about 90 seconds left in Sunday’s thrilling Game 4, he was fully reanimated as JAMES HARDEN.