James Harden’s grueling usage is over as his role has changed, but 1 goal remains: a championship

DETROIT — Perhaps James Harden was playfully annoyed at Doc Rivers comparing his current game to Magic Johnson. The Philadelphia 76ers coach called Harden a “scoring Magic Johnson” in reference to balancing scoring and facilitating.

But even with the context, Harden wanted it made clear he’s his own player.

“I’m James Harden,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “I’m gonna get on Doc, too. But I’m James Harden. Magic Johnson was an unbelievable basketball player, doing so many things for this league. But I’m James Harden.”

All right, then.

For the record, Rivers said he hated the comparison — but made it anyway. He couldn’t think of a better way for his player who controls a game by doing it both ways offensively, especially with Joel Embiid missing games due to injury.

The days of Harden putting up exhausting, exhaustive usage rates bordering or surpassing 40% are over; that shooting task is left to Luka Doncic. He shrugs his shoulders on the notion of his production from being underappreciated, especially in the days of video-game numbers.

“I don’t really care,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t pay attention — underrated, overrated. It doesn’t affect me.”

But even as Harden has nestled into this role of being the co-star at Philly’s one-man human eclipse, he still admits to yearning for those days when 35-point, 10-assist games were the norm.

“I would love that, but not as much — if that makes sense,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “In Houston, I was doing that every single night. It was expected. It’s a lot of times I feel like I can have that same impact on games. But you see the bigger picture. I’m just focused on one thing, man. Thats all that matters.”

When he talks, he sounds less like someone willing to take a backstep to a losing team in the twilight of his career even as the rumors about his future swirl.

“I wanted to have the chance to win at the highest level. Once I figured we weren’t gonna be able to do that in Houston, I tried to put myself in a situation to win at the highest level,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “The ultimate goal for me is a championship.”

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden handles the ball against Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Jan. 8, 2023. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden handles the ball against Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Jan. 8, 2023. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

The Houston offense seemed simple enough, as long as Harden possessed the physical and mental stamina to engineer it. The floor being spread with shooters combined with one big as a rim-running threat and screener to give Harden some space was the formula.

It was predictable, but it was largely effective, even if it wore Harden down in the process. So when he says he wouldn’t mind going back to those days, albeit on occasions more than habit, it’s likely because the physical price paid was very expensive.

He was asked if he had an internal battle on what approach is the best course of action for the 76ers to get to the upper reaches of the East, as most agree they’re a tier below Milwaukee and Boston — and perhaps even the surging Brooklyn nets.

“I did. I did a lot more, I still do sometimes,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “It’s a bigger picture, a constant communication about style of play and how we want to play and what’s better for this team. I still got a lot more in the tank.”

Can he rev it up? Aside from Embiid, it feels like the supporting stars of the 76ers all have the skills to do more if called upon. But it’s Harden who’s likely to bear the responsibility of such a task.

The grueling minutes he’s played over the course of one season seemed to have a wear-down effect in the micro, some sputtering finishes in closeout playoff games.

There was the 12-turnover Game 5 finish in the 2015 West finals against Golden State. In 2017, the Spurs waxed Harden’s Rockets by 39 points in the West semis clincher, where Harden fouled out with six turnovers and was 2 for 11 from the field. There was the teamwide pu pu platter of bricks in the Game 7 West finals loss to the Warriors in 2018.

And last season, Harden mustered up just nine shots in Philadelphia’s Game 6 East semis loss to Miami — a loss that had many wondering about everyone’s future sans Embiid.

The illustrations are less about his individual performances, in large part because there were some 30-point finishes sprinkled in, and some games where his team didn’t have it, and more about how much energy he had at the end of grinding seasons.

So it wouldn’t be shocking to see all those minutes and games have a cumulative effect over multiple years, especially as he’ll turn 34 in August.

Embiid makes every defender playing center look like lunch meat in the Eastern Conference. Even defensive wizard Bam Adebayo ca n’t control a game the way he’d like to do because of Embiid’s mere presence of him.

So if he can’t do more, it would leave Harden to pick up postseason slack — or any night where there’s scoring to be done. His usage of 26.1 this season is higher than last season’s 21-game trial run, but lower than anything he’s produced since his first three years as a super-sub in Oklahoma City.

“It takes a toll on your body. But if you prepare yourself for that, then obviously you’d be better off,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “If a player has a high usage rate, first of all, the player has to be built for it. Like playing X amount of minutes a game and producing them, having to score and playmaking, doing all the things night in and night out.”

He felt like he was prepared for those years in Houston, and feels likewise now. After saying he plays high minutes now, he said “having Joel and Tyrese [Maxey] and Tobias [Harris]” lessens the general need for him to be an offense unto himself.

The Harden system isn’t needed, but Harden is.

And he knows it, and wants to be more than a passer, a secondary option.

“I want to score. I want to score,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “My scoring makes my facilitating a lot better. Don’t get that twisted. I want to score.”

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