Man Is Always Prey To His Truths

The days are getting longer. They look short but continue for ages. At once, a new day will be upon you and gone almost before it happened. They pile up, the days, and the blurring of colors at dusk can just as easily be the memories of events that slip between the cracks, regardless of importance.

When we think about the things that are familiar, we can have a sense of present-nostalgia: yes, I know that deli; of course, I’ve seen that player many times; indeed, I fell out without ever actually falling in with a group of people during that game. We think we know who we are, and we assert that to the world, only for the world to remind us of a different reality.

For a time almost destined to be locked inside of itself, quarantined or otherwise, the Philadelphia 76ers are a perfect emblem. The sense of what the Sixers are, or were, or will be(?) has shifted in the various allegedly-conscious organs of fans and onlookers nearly by the minute ever since Ben Simmons essentially ruled himself AWOL. Joel Embiid is currently enjoying an MVP-caliber campaign, this time as earnest as ever, but – thanks to old pal Daryl Morey – here comes James Harden, and the bevy of his flavor in seeming full force.

It’s been a fair question ever since he received the big contract representing Sam Presti’s most glaring failure in Oklahoma City: what, exactly, does James Harden want? It becomes a public matter for all top-tier NBA players; Harden’s aloof personality doesn’t lend itself to fan charity.

He arrived in Houston – at Morey’s behest – an essentially made man and left only after several iterations of star partnerships. Going from Sixth Man of the Year in OKC to MVP and multiple-time scoring champion in Houston, Harden turned himself into one of the greatest scoring threats in league history, albeit at least partially by exploiting the rules as written[1].

Several star partnerships came and went, with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and, finally, Russell Westbrook joining Harden in his domain. As volatile as it was, the Harden-Paul collaboration very nearly felled the Golden State Warriors in 2018, and probably should’ve. Outside of that, Houston’s play with dual All-Stars never quite set a standard in the perennially difficult West.

Morey left the Houston Rockets in October 2020; both of Harden and Westbrook would ask out shortly thereafter. While the Rockets were able to forward an invite to the Washington Wizards for Westbrook, they took a bit more time in sending out the now-mercurial James Harden, whose conduct for the Houston-based portion of his 2020-’21 season could be described as “physically present but has a habit of setting meetings with himself to block off time.”

In January 2021, Harden was the centerpiece of a four-team trade that got him to Brooklyn[2] to play alongside his OKC running mate Kevin Durant and the, uh, perpetually breaking-off-at-an-angle-perpendicular-to-society Kyrie Irving. Here were two marquee NBA champions, seemingly ready to usher Harden into a similar air.

Believe this: the offense was outstanding. The defense was good enough and, at times, exemplary. If Durant’s shoe was one-half size less than it is, the Nets may very well have been champions of the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA outright. The triumvirate of Harden, Durant and Irving played a grand total of 16 games together, going 13-3 in those games. Wouldn’t it have been nice?

Brooklyn’s increasingly bolded question marks surrounding Irving’s vaccination status, which effectively precludes him from playing in Nets home games due to local mandates, and Durant’s injuries, which have been piling up for some time now, made it all the easier for Harden to ask out. Leave it to Daryl Morey, late of the Rockets but current of analytical trends that brought him to James Harden’s expertise in the first place.

So, fine: Harden is a Sixer, and he allegedly wanted to be there originally. Excusing Ben Simmons from this conversation entirely[3], a Harden-Sixers marriage may very well be the best of all possible worlds. Harden has only worked with a star at a peak as close to Embiid’s once, with Durant in 2012, and even then, Durant wasn’t as complete as he is now. And yet, Harden just left Durant for a second time.

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid has been enjoying himself. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are indirectly bickering over the scoring title; he and Nikola Jokic are the direct objects in discussions surrounding the return of the center as a prominent figure in the NBA. Embiid’s progression has been one of the more captivating developments in the league over the past decade; it basically needed to be in order to legitimize plenty of the more grotesque thoughts surrounding

Watch any Sixers game this season, and it becomes apparent what kind of renaissance the center is experiencing. Joel Embiid is in the midst of actualization: 29.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 61% true shooting and more free throws per game than in any previous season. He is, at very worst, the third-best player in the NBA right now. As such, he might be its MVP.

Introducing Harden to a situation like Philly’s is a many-splendored item: he will play, which makes him an appealing figure to Morey’s Sixers. His pick-and-roll sensibilities, halfway established with Serge Ibaka once upon a time and realized with Howard, enter a new state with Embiid, who is much more capable of so many more things than any big – short of Durant – has ever been able, up until now.

To turn the question outsiders ask of him on itself: what can anybody reasonably ask of James Harden, now? His now-signature individualistic style has driven people away, but he makes it work. Embiid wants more from everyone around him. Does he need Harden to be an ideal running mate if, away from the ball, he strays? What does a successful Embiid and Harden look like, short of a title?

It feels too easy to let the machinations of the NBA, or anything else, overwhelm; the rapidity with which the trade deadline came and went has left enough of us wondering who plays where, in what roles. Having a sense of things in the right places becomes all the more challenging when you barely know where you are at any given time. Enter James Harden, time warp embodied.

Welcome: the Sixers play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night as a first game-back coming out of All-Star Weekend. Harden is reportedly ready to play. Three question marks live in the previous paragraph, with many more to come. Joel Embiid is definitely a player worth making judgments like this, as they relate to him. To add one more: Is he the MVP? It might end up out of his hands. I hope not.


[1] It’s annoying to speak to this, but the fact that Harden’s style of play worked (until the NBA changed its policy on calling fouls adjacent to unnatural shooting motions) isn’t an indictment of the player himself. Quite the opposite, actually: he’s a genius because he figured out how to do what he did better than anyone else. While it made for positively unwatchable basketball at times, it was effective. Harden being so good at villainous offense led to the rule change, which is tough for him but great for the rest of us.

[2] Not to literally relegate this detail to a footnote, but: Funnily enough, he was nowhere near the most important piece of the trade in terms of what the receiving team got out of him. Jarrett Allen, an All-Star for the first time this season, thanks the wheels in motion.

[3] Difficult, I know, but for those unprepared to deal professionally with his mental state and/or the circumstances surrounding his Sixers exit: we’ll see.

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