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James Harden got his wish... again, and that's a problem for the NBA

James Harden got his wish... again, and that's a problem for the NBA

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 "unstoppable."

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 team. 

He has been, to borrow a phrase from Embiid, "unstoppable." 

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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 floor. 

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 astonishing. 

Here's what NBA insider Shams Charania of The Athletic said on The Ringer NBA Show podcast about that game and the situation surrounding Harden:

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 broadcasts.

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 shape.

"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 smaller markets.

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 suit.

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 conference.

"It's no secret that I've expressed my unhappiness with public trade demands," 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 problem."

It's hard to imagine the issue abruptly disappearing. If anything, it may get worse before it gets better. 

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