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BIGGEST TARGET IN SPORTS: HARDEN FORCED TRADE, BETTER WIN
Leveraging his way to a third team in 13 months, The Beard is pressured to lead the 76ers to a championship, a burden more navigable than a wayward Simmons leading the chaotic Nets anywhere
The beard remains in full fluff, even as his hairline recedes, reducing James Harden to a self-caricature. That will remain his avatar in a dizzy, confounding, unfulfilled basketball life until he decides how he wants to be remembered.
Will he abandon the strip clubs, resolve his teetering legacy, conquer a postseason that always has tripped him, and mesh with the unstoppable Joel Embiid for an NBA championship? Or, will he carry on as the same aloof, underachieving, clutch-averse jackass? There is no halfcourt here. Either his journey ends in a Broad Street parade, with Harden rising taller in Philadelphia than William Penn atop City Hall, or the city’s prickly fans will kidnap him and take a weedwacker to his facial growth.
When you’ve become the biggest malcontent drifter in sports, always looking for greener grass and shinier hardwood, you can’t force a move to a third franchise in 13 months and not produce a title. Otherwise, Harden will deserve every decibel of his new city’s notorious wrath. He continues to treat a sport that has made him absurdly wealthy — $316 million so far, a $270 million extension ahead — like his personal mosh pit. It’s time, at 32, that he grasps the mean reality of his current circumstance: This is his best and probably last chance to win a ring, now that he has been rescued from his Brooklyn blues and Kyrie Irving’s anti-vaccine stance by his old boss in Houston, Daryl Morey.
The Eastern Conference is winnable. Embiid is the presumptive league MVP and ravenous to win the bigger trophy. Doc Rivers, who failed in Los Angeles when the Clippers collected stars, has more to prove as a coach. Morey, the eccentric basketball boss, still is known more for defending Hong Kong against China than postseason successes. So, what are you going to do with all of your new gifts, James Harden?
Make it rain?
“That’s the goal, man. That's the goal,’’ he said. “Like Daryl said: The opportunity to win is now. Joel is playing the best he's ever played. So my job is to come out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward."
In a league that is nothing without the eruptions of its drama kings, Harden begged out of an aborted Big Three mission and immediately turned himself into a target. LeBron James inherited the pariah’s role when he took his talents to South Beach, but he won two titles in Miami. Durant was villified when he left Oklahoma City for Golden State, but he won two titles with a superteam before he fled to Brooklyn, where he’s back in the perceptional sin bin. Harden arguably has the most pressure of all, because he might not have the competitive juice and greatness to pull off even one title.
If he fails, heaven help James Harden. Throughout America and in Brooklyn, he already is scorned. In Philly, recognizing the delicious possibilities, 76ers fans who haven’t experienced a title since 1983 — shoutouts to the late Moses Malone and Julius Erving — are embracing Harden for now and flocking to buy his jersey. Those people loved Allen Iverson and suffered his pratfalls, right? If Harden feeds Embiid and accepts his role, on a team with veteran Tobias Harris and young talent in Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle, the Sixers have a chance to win the East and create a compelling NBA Finals against Phoenix or Golden State. They’ll love Harden, too, as long as he grasps what’s necessary to repair his reputation and build his suffering brand.
“For me, it made sense, man," Harden said of his escape down I-95. “It's a time where I needed to be around guys that I know want to win, and know that they are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and the structure here is unbelievable.’’
If it sounds like a shot at the Nets, it is. He grew disillusioned in the hipster borough, managing to play only 16 games with Durant and Irving, and his discontent over one element — Irving’s part-time playing status because of New York City’s vaccine mandate — surfaced during his first Philadelphia press conference. Said Harden: “Like, obviously me and Ky are really good friends, whatever he was going through, or is going through, that's his personal preference. But it definitely did impact the team because, originally, me, Kyrie, KD on the court — and winning — covers up a lot of that stuff. But it's unfortunate that we played 16 games out of whatever it was, and it is what it is.
“Here in Philly is an opportunity, and I'm looking forward to it."
He’s lucky the Nets were desperate to recoup at least some of the foundational pieces they surrendered to acquire him in January 2021. They did Harden a favor and might have sabotaged themselves in the process. For all the hope that Ben Simmons will find himself in Brooklyn, as the returning centerpiece in the Harden deal, it’s just as possible that he’ll continue to struggle. He acknowledged his mental health issues Tuesday, in his first extensive public appearance in months, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same All-Star player or an engaged person just because he’s in a new jersey and city. Nor does it help that his own rehabilitation largely depends on the health of Durant, whose non-stop injuries threaten to shorten his career as an all-time great, and the anti-vaxx drama of Irving. Into that mess, enter Simmons, who sulked his way out of Philadelphia and refused to play and practice all season.
His messages were mixed. “For me, the mental health has nothing to do with the trade," Simmons said. “It was a bunch of things that I was dealing with as a person, in my personal life, that I don't really want to go into depth with. But I'm here now — it's a blessing to be in an organization like this. I'm just looking forward to getting back on the floor and building something great here.
“A bunch of things that had been going on over the years to where I knew I wasn't myself and I needed to get back to being myself and being happy as a person and taking care of my well-being. That was the major thing for me. It wasn't about the basketball, it wasn't about the money, anything like that. I want to be who I am and get back to playing basketball and that level and being myself."
Yet, one 90-mile move doesn’t make that “bunch of things’’ suddenly go away. Simmons said he has been fighting serious demons for a long period. Asked about how Philly will treat him when he returns with the Nets on March 10: “They should be happy I'm smiling, honestly. I’ve had some dark times over these last six months and I'm just happy to be in this situation with this team and organization. People are going to say what they want. They've said it the last six months and I haven't commented and it is what it is so people are always going to have their own opinions.’’
Whether Simmons pushes the dark times into the past or is engulfed by them, the Nets are a ball of confusion and uncertainty. He is deluding himself when he says of playing alongside Durant and Irving, “I think it’s going to be scary. Having those guys running alongside me, multiple different weapons on the floor. And I think at the pace we want to play at, it's going to be unreal." First, they have to be on the floor together.
The Sixers, meanwhile, only have to get along and find cohesion in a hurry. Embiid is thrilled not to deal with Simmons, saying, “Yeah, I'm happy that I'm not going to be answering any more questions about that subject. It's good that, not just for me, but my teammates, the whole organization. The whole year, it was pretty annoying with the situation, but I'm glad everyone has moved on. I wish everybody the best in whatever they want to accomplish, but I'm focused on winning games here and trying to win a championship."
He can’t just will the title with words. Rivers knows that much. “We talked about it. We can do a lot of winning or we can try to be the winner. And being a winner is hard,’’ the embattled coach said. “That's what we want to become. That's why we make trades like this. We want the opportunity to be the winner, and we believe this trade does that.
“No one else can put no more pressure on myself than I do. It will never happen. I'm in this to win. I've always been in this to win. When you get into that, when you make that decision, you understand there's going to be pressure with it. And there should be. Because if there wasn't, everybody would be champions. I think the reason we did this deal is so we can jump into the fray. We don't have a lot of time. The Phoenix’s of the world, and Milwaukee and Miami, they've been together, Milwaukee three years, four years, as a group. So we have to get it done quickly."
The furious movement, the malcontent-for-malcontent dealing, isn’t healthy for a league that ignores the financial and emotional investments of fans when superstars are self-prioritizing. Commissioner Adam Silver agrees, telling Yahoo Sports: “I accept there will always be conversations behind closed doors, when teams are unhappy, or players are unhappy, but the last thing you want to see is for these issues to play out publicly. One of the things that I continue to do in my role is to think about ways we can improve the system.”
For Harden, it beats the daily saga in Brooklyn about who’s suiting up and who’s not. “I mean, it wasn't planned like this. Fourteen months ago, I didn't see myself with three different teams. But we are here today and I'm happy,’’ he said. “The last year has been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of stress, but whatever. That's in the past. I'm excited, I'm healthy and it's the opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s the perfect fit. You have the best big man in the league in Joel. Obviously, coaching. Top to bottom, it made sense. Everyone here wants to win, be the last team standing. I’m just blessed to be here.’’
Not that he deserves the blessings. And if he screws up again, he’ll never hear the end of it. Nor should he.
His beard has been forewarned.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.