Pressure is on James Harden to deliver ring for 76ers now

There’s no tomorrow for James Harden. He has to deliver today.

And there’s no future for Philadelphia, because the Sixers sold it for the here-and-now.

Harden’s long career will surely end up in the Hall of Fame, and at no point in it has he ever faced more pressure to deliver a ring than he will this season.

“We’re in the window of Joel [Embiid] and James and Tobias [Harris] right now,” said 76ers president Daryl Morey, who has staked everything on his favorite star.

For better or worse, the next year (or two) will determine Harden’s legacy.

Because of the ugly way he forced his way off of two playoff teams in the span of just 13 months, and the trail of stars he’s left behind without a title to show for it.

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Because of how Embiid is enjoying a career MVP campaign and how the 76ers have narrowed their window to win-or-bust.

“I needed to be around guys that I know want to win, and I know are willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Harden said at Tuesday. “That’s the goal. Like Daryl said, the opportunity, the window is now.”

76ers guard James Harden practices at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex.
76ers guard James Harden practices at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex.
Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Harden never specified whose commitment to winning he was referring to. He’s mastered the art of pointing fingers without naming names.

But Harden’s relationship with Kyrie Irving has been under scrutiny. He was the only Net player to push back on the unvaccinated Irving’s part-time status.

On Tuesday, he said Irving’s situation had a tiny impact on his decision to leave, but a much bigger one on the Nets as a whole.

“Very minimal, honestly,” Harden said. “Me and Ky are really good friends. Whatever he was going through, or is still going through, that’s his personal preference. But it definitely did impact the team.”

Nets guard James Harden (13) stands with guard Kyrie Irving (11) during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at Footprint Center.
James Harden said Tuesday that Kyrie Irving’s part-time status “definitely” impacted the Nets.
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

That Big 3 ended up just 13-3, the experiment broken up when Harden told the Nets he wanted out. His unwillingness to stick it out with his fellow stars was the kryptonite that killed this superteam.

And it’s not the first time; just the latest and most disappointing.

Harden’s playoff meltdowns are legend, from his 2 of 11, 12-turnover night when Houston was eliminated in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, to a 2 of 11 repeat two years later when the Rockets were bounced in the Western Conference semifinals.

The 2018 and 2019 losses to the Warriors weren’t much prettier. But this 76ers experiment has to end with a title, or the narrative may switch from him being an all-time stat-stuffer to a star who couldn’t excel with others.

Three years with Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Then two alongside Chris Paul with the Rockets. Another one with Westbrook in Houston.

And just 16 games on-court with Durant and Irving in Brooklyn.

Now he has Embiid and a roster built to win.

Go ask Patrick Ewing if he would have liked that kind of support Harden has enjoyed. Instead, the Beard ran off some and ran away from others.

“It wasn’t planned like this. 14 months ago I didn’t see myself in three different teams,” Harden said. “But we are where we are.”

Which is in Philadelphia, whose crowd is “ride-or-die, the best fans in the NBA. I’m happy they’re on my side and I’m not getting booed as the opposing team.”

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden holds up his new jersey after taking questions from the media at a press conference at the team's facility, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Camden, N.J.
76ers’ James Harden holds up his new jersey after taking questions from the media at a press conference.

Rest assured, they’ll boo Harden as the home team if he doesn’t perform. The expectation will be to lead the 76ers to a title. After holding onto Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle there’s no reason they can’t win.

But the Sixers have boxed themselves in, with a window of this season and next.

They can’t trade a first-rounder until 2029, and Harden could be making $61.4 million in 2026-27 when he’ll be 37. The window is now, with Harden now having everything he claims he wanted.

“Philly was my first choice; it just didn’t happen … I knew for a very long time this was a perfect fit,” Harden said. “I had to go to Brooklyn, which obviously we all know that could’ve been something special. But whatever reason was for that.”

Now Harden is under pressure to make the 76ers special. And it’ll be more pressure than he’s ever faced.

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