Monday, November 28 2022
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James Harden was not fully healthy last season, having strained his hamstring — and then played on it — in the 2021 playoffs. After the Philadelphia 76ers‘ season-ending loss against the Miami Heat in May, he said he was “finally starting to kind of feel OK again,” but it had been frustrating “trying to get right throughout the course of a basketball season for two years straight.”

Harden’s comments in that postgame press conference took Daryl Morey by surprise, the Sixers president said in an interview on NBC Sports’ “Takeoff with John Clark” podcast. Morey didn’t expect Harden to be that honest about it. 

“More than any player I’ve worked with, he never says something’s wrong,” Morey said. “It actually surprised me when he said what he said after the season. For him to say that means that there were more issues than he — look, he’s, you know, ‘spit on it, get on the floor, win at whatever cost you can do, go out there and win.’ He’s been one of the most durable guys in NBA history prior to the hamstring issue. I know he’s worked hard to get it to a great place. It’s in a great place right now.”

In 65 regular-season games split between the Brooklyn Nets and the Sixers, Harden averaged 22 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds, with a 26.6 percent usage rate and a true shooting percentage of 58.3 percent. His first few games in Philadelphia were superb, but he was inconsistent as a scorer, shooting just 40.2 percent from the field in 21 regular-season games. The playoffs were similarly confusing; Harden saved the Sixers’ season with a series of clutch plays in Game 4 of the second round against Miami, then appeared listless in the next two games. It remains up for debate whether the 33-year-old was getting used to his new surroundings, still dealing with hamstring tightness or simply declining with age.

“He’s never going to say, ‘I’m not 100 percent,'” Morey said. “Because he doesn’t ever want to give any excuses, especially during the middle of a playoff run. And he’s also never going to want to indicate to his teammates or the other team that there’s an issue. So frankly, throughout my career, we’ve tried to get James to be more open about, you know, ‘Hey, this is hurting,’ whatever, just to protect him. But frankly, for example, in my years with him, he would turn ankles that would send guys out for weeks and just play right away. And then play the next night of a back-to-back. It was impressive. Maybe a little more brave than we needed at times, but you respect that that’s his mindset.”

Harden was definitely more brave than most would have been when he returned to play in Games 5 through 7 of the Nets’ second-round series against the Bucks in 2021. He was transparent after that series ended, too, telling reporters that he had played on a Grade 2 hamstring strain and was “literally going out there on a limb.” Before that strain, suffered moments into the series opener, he had missed more than a month late in the regular season because of issues with his hamstring.  

Asked if Harden had learned that he has to do more in the offseason at this stage of his career to be in better physical shape, Morey said: “I wouldn’t say more. I would just say different. I think the ways you prepare in your early 30s are different than you would in your 20s. And I think our performance staff has done a great job working with him to develop a custom plan for this offseason, for both strengthening the muscles around the hamstring to make sure that’s in a good place but also work on all those other areas that you maybe didn’t have to work on in your 20s but you do in your 30s.” 

Morey’s front office traded for Harden with his eyes on a championship, and he reiterated on the podcast that he believes Harden gives Philadelphia a better chance to do that right now. Morey praised Harden for being committed to the franchise, sacrificing money in free agency and elevating his teammates, pointing to the Sixers’ shooting percentages on passes from Harden and the fact that Harden and Joel Embiid were the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll tandem. Morey also acknowledged, when talking about the team as a whole, that “the last two games just felt strange for me — I’ll just speak for myself: It felt like a different team and I think we all have to live with that, learn from it and be better.” 

When it came to Harden specifically, Morey did not exactly say that Philadelphia needs him to be better in the playoffs. He said it needs Harden to be more consistent

“I would probably say there were three stellar games, across the Toronto and the Miami series, that you could say we win the game because of him,” Morey said. “There were a lot of games where he was very good and we won the game. There were a lot of games where he and others were a big contributor to why we didn’t win the game. So I think it’s really just that consistency and getting to where 70 percent of the plays in the games in the playoffs are ones that help us win to 90 percent. It’s getting to a level where — the teams that win the title they bring it pretty much every night. And I thought in the playoffs we just had a couple nights where we didn’t bring it.”

Morey said that Philadelphia’s additions — PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House and Montrezl Harrell — will “set the stage” next season, but “winning the title really comes down to your best players.” He said the Sixers need Embiid to have another MVP-caliber season, Tyrese Maxey to take another step forward and Harden to simply “be himself.” 

“We don’t even need five-years-ago James,” Morey said. “We need the guy that we saw last year for most of the games.”

Source: CBSSports.com

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