The Houston Rockets-era James Harden no longer exists. There will be fewer and fewer glimpses of “vintage” Harden from here on out as his NBA career winds down.
Gone are the days of averaging 40 points over a month’s span, an offensive system solely predicated on the Beard being able to create for himself and his teammates with his dribble, and a playoff team that can thrive simply by orbiting Harden’s heliocentric mastery.
No, that version of James Harden is gone for good. And his historic levels of usage rate during that time are a big reason for why. After shouldering the offensive burden of five men for over half a decade, his workload has caught up to him.
Critics can repeatedly say that Harden fails to show up to training camp in shape and has never been in peak physical form since his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but in reality, his legs have simply run out of springs after being the NBA’s Ironman for so long.
Perhaps slimming down could have lengthened his prime, but there’s also the possibility that Harden’s stocky build aided him in crashing into big men a dozen plus times per game on his way to multiple scoring titles.
Luka Doncic and Trae Young are in danger of replicating Harden’s career arc — a short peak that offers both historic levels of production and usage rate but ultimately burns out the body.
No matter how he got to the point, it’s clear that James Harden is a lesser version of himself with the wear and tear on his body and the output in his box scores to prove it. That doesn’t mean that he can’t carry a team for stretches or is no longer a top option in the league; it just means that he and his teams will have to reassess how to maximize his abilities.
One of the most underrated aspects of James Harden’s game has always been his passing. He’s an elite orchestrator, capable of manipulating defenses with his body and dribble, making any pass at any angle, and creating openings for his teammates that they might not have even known were there.
And when needed, Harden can still create better shots for himself than 95 percent of the other players in the league. He can still bully his way to the rim, step back for signature triples, and command double-teams at will.
The Toronto Raptors had to commit extra attention to prevent the Beard from going nuclear (he still averaged 19 points and 10 assists), and he’ll see plenty of traps from the Heat before the series is over.
No, James Harden can no longer carry a team to the Conference Finals by himself. We saw evidence of that as the Heat defense held him to just 16 points and five assists on 38 percent shooting, pressing him full-court and trapping him whenever advantageous. While he won’t be able to singlehandedly down a team as talented and deep as the Heat by himself, he can certainly be better than he was in Game 1.
He can start to find cracks in a nearly perfect Miami defense and create opportunities for himself, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and the other Sixers, hopefully, enough to hold off the Heat until Joel Embiid can make his return.
He could still be the perfect floor general for Joel Embiid and Maxey and just may have some vintage performance en route to a championship.