Suitcases are packed, and passports are in tow. The Philadelphia
76ers will soon be heading to Canada to do battle with the Toronto
Raptors in this year's NBA Playoffs.
Best believe, no matter how lightly he packs, it is James Harden
who will be carrying most baggage, even if he doesn’t want to admit
Ahead of Saturday’s playoff matchup in which the Sixers will
play host to the Toronto Raptors, Harden has been consistent in
stating that he doesn’t feel any pressure heading into his first
playoff series as Joel Embiid’s running mate.
“There’s nothing to it,” he
said to ESPN, just days after he
declared to Complex that he had, “Nothing to prove.”
Not even Harden himself believes that. That is, assuming he
gives one iota about the legacy he will eventually leave.
Named MVP in 2018, the 32-year-old Harden is a 10-time All-Star
and six-time All-NBA First Team Member. He’s one of the most
talented players of his generation and one who has helped
revolutionize the way the game is both played and officiated
Despite being able to boast those facts, if things ended for
Harden here and now, he would only be remembered by future
generations as another “superstar” who ultimately wasn’t able to
deliver when it mattered most. Fair or not, he wouldn’t be
considered among the likes of Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson or
even, perhaps ironically, Chris Paul.
Each of those three players have proven histories that show they
were not only winners, but that they managed to get every bit out
of their potential. They showed up, every single day.
Can the same be said of Harden?
As a basketball-viewing public, we are in an era where
individual greatness is ultimately defined by someone’s ability to
deliver championship-level performances, if not championships. The
perception (whether true or not) is that Harden hasn’t done that.
What he’s mostly remembered for today is quitting on each of his
last two teams. That, and a rather shabby playoff track record.
To his credit, in his eight years in Houston, Harden did get the
Rockets out of the first round five times, reaching the Western
Conference Finals in 2015 and 2018. But is that good enough? Do
people remember that he lost twice to the dynastic Warriors? Do
they even care?
Or do people more remember Harden for his five dubious Game 7
performances? In those contests, he shot a combined 37.4% from the
field and also happens to have a higher regular-season scoring
average (24.9) than playoff scoring average (23.3). If you check
the tape on the greatest of Harden's contemporaries — Giannis,
Curry, LeBron and Durant among them — you’d see that this isn’t the
In the end, sadly for Harden, the scoring titles, incredible
individual performances and career accolades ring a bit hollow. Not
only because he hasn’t been able to win a championship, but
because, on an individual basis, he has faltered so tremendously on
Once upon a time, we said similar things about Dirk Nowitzki and
Paul Pierce. To a lesser extent, we at least questioned the true
greatness of Kevin Garnett. In the end, they were able to write
final chapters that mostly made us forget about their earlier
shortcomings. They reinvented themselves and changed their
legacies. The aspiration is what brought Harden to Philadelphia to
in the first place.
On the precipice of his first postseason run with MVP candidate
Joel Embiid, Harden can only hope that his career trajectory in
Philadelphia emulates that of his new teammate. Through his first
eight seasons as a professional, the hallmarks of Embiid’s
still-young career have been about working harder and doing more.
He just secured his first scoring title and has a legitimate shot
at dethroning reigning MVP Nikola Jokic for that accolade. He’s
looked almost as dominant as an in-prime Shaquille O’Neal and will
now attempt to lead the Sixers to the franchise’s first Eastern
Conference crown in over 20 years.
That, Embiid knows, will require Harden to play at a high
"I tell him to be himself,” Embiid
told ESPN. “He just has to be himself and not worry about
people talking about pressure. Whatever happened in the past, you
look back at what he's accomplished and what he's done, he had to
play against a dynasty… Bad timing. But I'm sure it's going to be
For Embiid’s sake and that of the front office in Philadelphia,
we can only hope his words are prophetic.
Whether James Harden cares to admit it, there’s a lot riding on
his marriage with Joel Embiid. Not the least of which is James
Harden’s ability to write a final chapter devoid of postseason
With all his baggage, Harden forced his way to Philadelphia.
Passport in tow, baggage checked, as he prepares to head north
to Canada next week, the hope for Harden is that it will be just
the first of many postseason trips that the Sixers will be
Truth be told, Harden's legacy depends on it.