Can James Harden still be an elite scorer? Or is the Sixer now just a facilitator? Daryl Morey won't say

Keith Pompey, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — Daryl Morey used the word “unlocked” a couple of times when referring to 76ers point guard James Harden.

That led to the Sixers’ president of basketball operations being asked if there’s multiple levels Harden can elevate to than what he’s shown the past couple of months with his new team or should people adjust their expectations?

The expectation when Harden arrived in Philadelphia was that he would be an elite scorer to complement Joel Embiid. However, Harden turned out to be more of a reliable facilitator who often struggled to shoot the ball and score.

“Look, he’s an incredibly talented player — just like Joel, just like Tobias [Harris],” Morey said.

Morey added that he’s excited for the Sixers’ coaching staff to have a whole offseason to work with players and come up with the best plan for the roster.

“Obviously, our circumstances having it all come together in February makes it very difficult to try to figure out how to use the word unlocked again,” he said, “unlock all the different skills of players and how they can work together.”

Morey was right about the Sixers not having the ideal time to work with Harden after he was acquired in a Feb. 10 trade from the Brooklyn Nets. And the 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champion didn’t play until Feb. 25 because left hamstring tightness delayed his Sixers debut.

But the executive didn’t answer the question.

Asked a second time, Morey said, “I think we all know he’s a very skilled player and we’ll figure out how to use him.”

The second non-answer led to another question about Harden, who was an elite scorer as a Houston Rocket: When you look at Harden, do you see him more of a facilitator than he was as a Rocket?

“James is a great player,” Morey responded. “He has the ability to score, pass. Yeah, he’s a very good player. We are excited for the future with him.”

Perhaps they are, but he never answered that big question. This leads one to believe that either Morey doesn’t know or he declines to say what appeared to be the obvious.

Yes, Harden is not the primary scorer while playing alongside Embiid, who led the league in scoring at 30.6 points per game. His job became setting up teammates and to be the secondary scorer.

However, Harden was called upon to be the Sixers’ scoring threat in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Miami Heat with Embiid sidelined with a concussion and an orbital fracture near his right eye.

He had nowhere near the impact that the Sixers could have hoped.

Harden had 16 points, nine rebounds, and five assists in the 106-92 Game 1 loss. He shot 5-for-13 from the field, including making just 2 of 7 three-pointers. He followed that with 20 points, nine assists, and four rebounds in the 119-103 Game 2 loss. On this night, Harden made 6 of 15 shoots, missing four of his five threes.

He’s appeared to be a shell of his former Rocket self since joining the Sixers, and especially in the playoffs.


And it’s hard to blame all of that on a hamstring injury when considering all the minutes he has played. He averaged 40.6 minutes in the opening-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Harden followed that up by averaging 39.2 minutes vs. the Heat.

The 32-year-old point guard has lost some quickness and can’t get past defenders like he once could. Harden is not getting to the foul line as much these days either as a result of his loss of speed and quickness and officials are swallowing the whistle on players who were once called for fouls.

His free-throw attempts decreased from 8.3 per game in the regular season to 6.3 in the playoffs. Harden didn’t attempt any in Thursday’s 99-90 Game 6 loss to the Heat.

In the elimination game, Harden had 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting to go with nine assists in 43 minutes. He did not score a point after intermission while attempting only two shots.

One has to wonder if Harden has the capability to regain his explosiveness and shooting touch. On the outside looking in, he’s showing glimpses of how two Hall of Famers — Sixers great Allen Iverson and All-NBA point guard Gary Payton — looked at the end of their careers. Their skills seemed to diminish overnight after seasons of dominating foes.

Harden is still a solid facilitator when not over-dribbling or being careless with the ball. He was, after all, second in the NBA in assists this season.

The problem is the Sixers need him to be an elite scorer if they are expecting to go far in the postseason. They need someone to take the pressure off Embiid, and free up things for rising star Tyrese Maxey. Realizing Harden’s skills have diminished, the Raptors welcomed him to shoot while shutting down his passing lanes.

But Harden will tell you that this has been a long two years for him when it comes battling injuries.

The perennial All-NBA selection has been slowed by hamstring strains since forcing a trade from the Rockets to the Nets on Jan. 13, 2021.

He missed 21 of the Nets’ final 24 regular-season games with a right hamstring strain. He returned in the opening-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics and played in all five games.

However, he exited Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks after only 43 seconds. Harden returned for Game 5 in a limited role, but played 46, 40, and 53 minutes in Games 5, 6, and 7. After the Nets were eliminated, he revealed that he played through a Grade 2 hamstring strain during the final three games of the series.

Before he made his Sixers debut on Feb. 25, Harden had been sidelined since scoring four points as a member of the Nets on Feb. 2.

“I’m finally starting to feel OK again,” Harden said. “So it will be a great summer for me to kind of get my body right and get ready to go far next year.

“These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”

The Sixers can only hope that his diminished skill set is a result of battling through injuries and not what it appears to be: Father Time.

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