By Terrance Turner
May 12, 2022 (first posted May 4)
The Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years after eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90 in Game 6. The Heat have won the playoff series, four games to two. 76ers guard James Harden scored 11 points in the first half and zero in the second, attempting just two shots — and missing them both.
Commentator Stephen A. Smith dissed Harden’s performance in withering fashion: “It was a basketball atrocity. In the second half, James Harden played 23 minutes, and only attempted two shorts — one each quarter — and went scoreless in the second half. This is an anemic performance of epic proportions.” Fans also took notice, and they, too, were displeased with Harden’s efforts:
Former NBA player Amar’e Stoudemire criticized Harden, too. “I don’t think he is this season capable of being that type of player,” Stoudemire said on ESPN’s Get Up when asked if Harden is still capable of being a major scorer for Philly. “I think, not being in top shape, not taking your body serious, and not really being able to focus in on that in the off-season, and getting yourself prepared through training camp and through the regular season to get to this point… It takes a lot of determination for that to happen. And I don’t think that happened for him this past off-season, and throughout this season.”
Harden managed just 14 points in a blowout loss in Game 5 (the Miami Heat won, 120-85). And outside of a 31-point, 11-assist performance in Philly’s Game 4 win, he’s been underwhelming throughout the series. He had 17 points and shot just 4-for-11 from the field in Game 3. Harden shot 6-15 from the field and 1-5 from deep for just 20 points as the Philadelphia 76ers lost 119-103 to the Miami Heat in Game 2. The Heat led the series 2-0.
At one point in the game’s second quarter, Harden had as many turnovers in the series as he did points (8 of each, according to the Miami Herald). The 76ers shot 26.7% from three. This match came after a lackluster Game 1, in which Harden could only muster 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting. (This continued a streak in which he’s been held to under 25 points for 11 straight games, per ESPN.)
This was all the more concerning, given the 76ers’ position: star center Joel Embiid suffered a concussion and an orbital fracture (in which one or more of the bones around the eyeball break, according to Temple Health) in Game 6 of Philly’s series against the Raptors. He was hampered by injuries throughout the Heat-Sixers series. So there Harden was, being asked to carry the team — his third team in less than 18 months.
Harden landed in Philly after being traded from the Brooklyn Nets, where he’d been for all of 13 months. He landed in Brooklyn after being traded from the Houston Rockets. Harden arrived in Brooklyn in January 2021. When he reported to training camp in September 2021, new teammate Kevin Durant was taken aback by his conditioning. “Durant was astonished in the opening weeks of the season by Harden’s lack of explosiveness and sluggish play, something he attributed in large part to Harden’s being out of shape,” wrote ESPN columnists Kevin Arnovitz.
As fall turned to winter, tensions grew. So did Harden’s discontent. Bleacher Report claimed that Harden was unhappy living in Brooklyn (citing climate differences and state taxes). Harden was also disgruntled with his team. He told Nets brass and close contacts about his frustration with teammate Kyrie Irving being a part-time player. (Irving was unvaccinated and couldn’t play in home games, due to a local mandate that all professional athletes in New York City’s public venues be vaccinated against COVID-19.) Irving’s absence put more pressure on Harden and Durant, which only exacerbated the strain.
To make matters worse, Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury (a sprained MCL) in January and missed time. Harden missed at least three games with a hamstring injury. He, Durant and Irving only played together 16 times this season.
After posting an emphatic 37-point triple-double on 13-of-24 shooting at the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 21, Harden left the team for Houston and a night of clubbing, Bleacher Report learned. He rejoined the traveling party in Minnesota for a Jan. 23 game against the Timberwolves and scored just 13 points on 13 attempts.
After playing as Brooklyn’s lone All-Star against LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 25, Harden dismissed that day’s B/R story of his discontent as “reports,” but people across the NBA noted his animation while he acknowledged his frustration. Harden followed that news conference by sitting out the next evening against the Denver Nuggets, leaving Brooklyn without all three of its megastars. It raised eyebrows across the franchise—Durant included—about Harden’s wavering loyalty, sources said.
Durant and Harden reportedly never resolved their differences, and things went from bad to worse when Harden injured his hamstring in April, during a playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Harden played against the Phoenix Suns in primetime Feb. 1, but that next night in Sacramento—which proved to be his final game in a Nets uniform—it became obvious to Brooklyn staffers that he was offering minimal effort. He took just 11 shots and had more turnovers (six) than points (four).
Harden was soon traded to Philadelphia — in a trade that involved Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. (The 76ers also received veteran forward Paul Millsap in the deal.) Durant was nonplussed: “I think everybody got what they wanted.”
Apparently it was what Durant wanted, too. According to Bleacher Report, it was Durant who called Nets general manager Brian Marks in February to encourage a trade. “Kevin’s the one that pulled the trigger with this,” another source with knowledge of the situation said. “Kevin’s the one that said, ‘Do this deal.’ There was growing concern that this entire season would be lost and then they’d lose James for nothing.”
The report claimed that Brooklyn’s losses and Harden’s “freelancing behavior” forced Durant’s hand. “Kevin was like: ‘F–k it. James isn’t bringing s–t,” another figure with knowledge of Brooklyn added. “I don’t think that would have happened without Kevin making that decision.”
Harden had only landed in Brooklyn in the first place by forcing his way out of Houston — where he’d shined for years. But as talented as he was — Harden in Houston was one of the NBA’s brightest stars — his inconsistency and propensity for recreation ultimately soured his relationship with the Rockets.
On December 23, 2020, the Rockets were supposed to start their season at Toyota Center. But the game got postponed in accordance with the league’s heath and safety protocols. Three players tested positive for COVID-19; Harden was unavailable due to a violation of COVID protocols.
Two days after reportedly hurling a basketball at a teammate during practice, Rockets superstar James Harden was now unable to play. ESPN reporter Tim McMahon tweeted earlier that day: “Rockets are working with NBA office to review video of James Harden at a strip club. If the video circulating on social media is verified to be recent, it is a violation of league’s COVID protocols, which could put Harden’s availability for tonight’s opener in jeopardy.”
Harden responded to the report on Instagram, writing (in part): “I went to show love to my homegirl at her event (not a strip club) because she is becoming a boss and putting her people in position of success and now it’s a problem. Everyday it’s something different.” McMahon responded by quoting the tweet, adding: “By doing so, he violates the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, which prohibit players from going to bars, lounges or clubs or social events with more than 15 people.”
To hear McMahon tell it, the seeds of trouble had been planted years before, with a Rockets culture that often catered to its star. In fact, one former staffer described the Houston Rockets’ culture thus: “Whatever James wants.”
McMahon’s article asserts that Harden calls the shots on both the playing roster and coaching staff. He also exercised considerable sway on travel and playing schedules, too. If the Rockets had two or three days between games, Harden would likely call for an off day and charter a private jet to party in Las Vegas or another city. He always gets an excused absence from practice after the All-Star break for that very reason.
“If they have multiple days off, everybody knows: James is going to fly somewhere else and party,” a member of last season’s coaching staff told McMahon. “But he’s going to come back and have a 50-point triple-double, so they’re OK with it.” Indeed, Harden had his third triple-double in six games back in January 2019. His 43-point performance led to a dominant Rockets win — one of 53 wins in the 2018-2019 season. The previous year had been even better.
Powered by Harden’s brilliant performances, the Houston Rockets won a franchise-record 65 games during the 2017-18 season. Harden was named league MVP, per ESPN. The Rockets jumped out to a 3-2 lead in the Conference Finals. But thanks to 27 missed three-pointers — and Chris Paul’s raggedy hamstrings — the Rockets lost the last two games of the series in their home stadium! That loss to the Warriors marked the beginning of the end for the Paul-Harden era in Houston.
McMahon reports that the relationship soured leading up to the summer of 2019. Paul reportedly grew frustrated that Harden would disengage from the offense whenever the ball wasn’t in his hands. “Harden quickly tired of Paul barking about his concerns, which included lobbying coach Mike D’Antoni to implement more structure and movement,” writes McMahon. Things deteriorated further when the Rockets lost in the playoffs to the Warriors.
In June 2019, Yahoo! Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported that the relationship had become “unsalvageable”: “Paul went to Rockets management and demanded a trade, and Harden issued a “him or me” edict following the Rockets’ second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, sources said. The backcourt mates went nearly two months without speaking to each other during the season, sources said, creating a tenuous environment for teammates and everyone involved with the franchise.” Harden denied the report, saying: “Me and Chris had constant communication, and we’re good.”
Yet Paul was gone a month later.