After the Philadelphia 76ers crushed the New York Knicks at
Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Joel Embiid said he felt his
partnership with the newly acquired James Harden was
It's hard to blame the big man for feeling confident. Philly is
2-0 with Harden in the lineup, having blown out both opponents by a
combined 45 points.
Harden's first game as a member of the 76ers was also the team's
first post-All-Star break, a 31-point demolition of the Minnesota
Timberwolves on the road. In his Philly debut, The Beard racked up
27 points (7 of 12 from the field, 8 of 9 from the free-throw
line), 12 assists, 8 rebounds and 5 made treys.
On Sunday, Harden stuffed the stat sheet with 29 points, 16
dimes, 10 boards, 5 steals and 3 triples. In the process, he became
the first player in NBA history to tally at least 25 points, 10
assists and 5 rebounds in each of his first two games with a new
He has been, to borrow a phrase from Embiid,
However, in watching him stack up insane numbers over those two
games, I couldn't help but think back to his last appearance with
Brooklyn on Feb. 2.
Before the Nets sent him to the Sixers in exchange for Ben
Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks,
Brooklyn was beaten badly by the lowly Sacramento Kings, and
Harden's effort (or lack thereof) was abominable in his final
contest as a Net. He finished with 4 points on 2 of 12 shooting,
and the team was outscored by 21 points with Harden on the
The energy and effort level Harden has played with for
Philadelphia, when contrasted to Brooklyn, is stunning.
Over Harden's last two games with the Nets, he scored 26 points
on 8 of 30 shooting, recorded a single steal and posted a
plus/minus of -32.
Over Harden's first two games with the Sixers, he scored 56
points on 15 of 26 shooting, notched 5 steals and posted a
plus/minus of +54.
To put his putrid performance against the Kings in context, keep
in mind that Harden had scored in double figures in 450 consecutive
games from 2015 through 2021. That's the eighth-longest such streak
in NBA history.
Over the last decade, dating back to the start of the 2012
season, Harden has scored more points than every player in the
league. His 21,340 points are more than 2,000 ahead of LeBron James
(19,250), who ranks second.
But it wasn't just the inefficient offense. The footage of
Harden loafing around the court in Sacramento was
Here's what NBA insider Shams Charania of The Athletic said on The Ringer
NBA Show podcast about that game and the situation surrounding
He has a game in Sacramento where, you know, I think it's fair
to say there were people who were within that locker room, within
those confines, wondering, "Did he just quit on us?" And then he
sits multiple games for a hamstring injury when, you know, there
was no sign of a hamstring injury. There was a sign of the hand
injury, but there was no hamstring.
The day before the deadline, ESPN NBA senior writer
Brian Windhorst intimated that Harden might sabotage Brooklyn's
season if the franchise didn't acquiesce to his wishes.
You gotta be very careful using the "Q word" or saying whatever,
but [Harden's] actions over the past 10 days are basically a threat
to the Nets. Last week in Sacramento, he played 37 minutes and
scored 4 points... And that doesn't even articulate the effort
level he gave on defense in that game. Then, he basically shut it
down for the rest of that road trip, and he is screaming in every
way he possibly can, "I don't want to be here, get me out of here."
Just like he did in Houston.
And so what the real issue here for the Nets is not the
consequences of making this deal, it's the consequences of not
making this deal. If they don't do this trade, what is James Harden
going to do the rest of this season? And then, of course, what is
he going to do when he becomes a free agent in the summer?
As we now know, in the hours leading up to the trade deadline,
Harden would leak that he planned to sign with the Sixers as a free
agent this summer, essentially forcing the Nets to trade him to
Philadelphia. Consequently, the Nets pulled the trigger on the
blockbuster swap. As I detailed last month, the Nets
were able to add three starters and two future firsts by parting
with the unhappy Harden.
The drama at the deadline generated a ton of interest in the
NBA, with trade rumors dominating social media and sports news
In addition, the tension and emotion surrounding the situation
may be the birth of a heated rivalry between Brooklyn and
Philadelphia. Immediately after the trade was finalized, fans
worldwide circled March 10 on their calendars, as the Nets and
Sixers will meet for the first time on that date. That
highly-anticipated, nationally-televised game will generate huge
ratings, just as a playoff series would between the two squads.
That is obviously good news for the NBA.
However, on the flip side of the coin, it is worth asking: What
is the long-term impact of superstars quitting on their current
teams and complaining their way out of town, only to get rewarded
by landing in their preferred destination?
Remember, this is the second time in two years that Harden has
forced his way off a team.
Prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, while a member of the
Rockets, Harden showed up to training camp late and out of
"He believed he could force a trade if he could anger team
governor Tilman Fertitta enough," Bleacher Report's Farbod
Esnaashari wrote on March 3, 2021.
And in early January, Harden told reporters Houston was
"just not good enough."
The Rockets got back a bevy of promising young players and draft
picks by trading away Harden, but after finishing with the league's
worst record last season, they are once again on pace to finish at
the bottom of the standings.
In his final game as a member of the Rockets on Jan. 12, 2021,
Harden finished with 15 points on 5 of 16 shooting and posted a
plus/minus of -23.
Three nights later, in his first game as a Net, Harden made
history as the first player to post a 30-point triple-double in a
team debut, finishing with 32 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds in
a victory over the Orlando Magic.
Harden, of course, is not the first player to force the hand of
his employer. Jimmy Butler belly-ached his way out of Minnesota and
ended up in South Beach. Anthony Davis maneuvered his way out of
New Orleans and landed in Los Angeles. Paul George forced his way
out of Indiana and Oklahoma City. Simmons never played another game
for the 76ers after he felt disrespected by his teammates and Doc
Rivers following his poor performance in the 2021 playoffs.
The established precedent is troubling, especially considering
how frequently it has occurred in recent years. The player
empowerment era puts persistent pressure on general managers, and
it may test the dedication of even the most loyal fans in some
Late last month, Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated
reported that executives leaguewide have speculated it's only a
matter of time before several other popular players follow
The teams that have a star are feverishly doing everything to
keep them happy. The rest are plotting to poach them. Around the
league, team executives are already bracing (and/or plotting) for
the next disenchanted star to ask out, with speculation focused on
Zion Williamson in New Orleans, Damian Lillard in Portland, and
Donovan Mitchell in Utah.
As Beck notes, NBA commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the
worrisome trend during his annual All-Star weekend press
"It's no secret that I've expressed my unhappiness with public
Silver stated. But he added, "I don't want to pretend standing
here that I have some secret idea that I know can fix that
It's hard to imagine the issue abruptly disappearing. If
anything, it may get worse before it gets better.