James Harden’s most iconic sequences are so identical they blur together. Jab step, dribble, dribble again, dribble behind the back, dribble between the legs, dribble one more time… I check my phone… he stutter-steps — oh wait — one more dribble, crossover dribble, crossover dribble, step-back. The result is typically either a swish, brick or he gets his defender stuck in cement, and drives the lane.
His most indelible moment was a seven-dribble set-up of Clippers forward Wes Johnson in February 2018. Harden used his non-dribbling arm and a nifty between-the-legs stepback dribble to create separation from Johnson, whose foot buckled, causing him to take a seat and become a meme. Harden doubled down on the moment by staring Johnson down, shimmying and draining the wide-open triple. The image of Johnson propping himself up onto his feet like an 80-year-old grandfather waking up to shuffle to the toilet bowl for the fifth time in one night is the last time anybody has ever seen or heard from him.
Peak Harden is also no more. Even back then, his narcissistic overdribbling was considered an abomination. The 2022-23 season was intended to be a new beginning for Harden and the Sixers. Instead, opening night was a reminder this is an operatic tragedy taking place in slow motion. That play in the final minutes of the first half against Boston — a flopping Marcus Smart flailed and threw himself comically toward the baseline in the opposite direction of Harden’s stepback dribble. Harden squared up, shimmied, glanced at Smart, and sailed an airball toward the nylon. What could have become another of Harden’s viral moments resulted in a moment he’d prefer to forget.
Harden hot doggin’ it during a prove-it season is a given. Some things never change. The Celtics were all hustle on both ends. Harden’s stare down and shimmy were indicative of his unique ability to walk the line between trying too hard and showing how little effort he can give by casually hoisting a dead ball toward the tin.
I can’t blame Harden for launching the wide-open jumper, but his airball symbolized Philadelphia’s deflating expectations after the Celtics ran them off the court — again. At 0-1, their season is only just beginning to gestate. However, they still haven’t learned from what’s plagued them in the past. Harden’s final stat line — of 31 points, 12-of-12 from the charity stripe while adding seven assists — is neat, but he also did so in 525 dribbles. That astronomical total exceeded the rest of his entire team.
Where were the swing passes, the electric ball movement? This season, Doc Rivers is leaning into Harden. As a whole, the 76ers only scored on 16 assisted buckets to 24 by the Celtics. Boston tallied 61 points off of assists to 45 by Philly. The ball sticks in the Sixers’ offense and their best perimeter playmaker is the league’s slow-mo iso lord. Harden’s clock-chewing brand of basketball makes life harder than it has to be. The ball has no energy when Harden takes command of the offense. He gets his numbers, and in the postseason, he morphs into a scarecrow.
It’s simpler for defenses to guard a sedentary offense than one that has them diving over multiple screens, keeping an eye for flare cuts and versatile shooters leaking into open spaces. Rivers’ Sixers offense is a frustrating derivative of 90s basketball. Harden remains the antithesis of how today’s contenders operate. They got physical in the offseason, signing P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., but there’s no solution for Harden.
It’s rare for a season to be defined by a single play in the season opener. Harden will undoubtedly give us another SportsCenter Not Top 10 gaffe, but this will be hard to top.
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