James Harden can’t buy love from the Philadelphia crowd

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

In the NBA, money doesn’t just talk, it shrieks and bellows at ear-splitting velocity.

Money is currency in regular terms. It boosts the bank balances, yet is perhaps even more powerful in the eternal game of flex players engage in to try to show who is the best, baddest and most worthy in basketball.

Money might matter more in pro hoops than in any other sport. Contract sizes have escalated so much that it won’t be long before someone earns more than $60 million per year. The deals, of course, are fully guaranteed, and every dollar counts.

Money is everywhere in the NBA and everyone wants more of it. Except for, in one of the more unusual developments of this off-season, James Harden.

Speaking to various reporters in a series of interviews to promote his new wine brand, Harden revealed that he would be taking $15 million less than the $47 million he could have opted into with the Philadelphia 76ers. He gave up that money after only 21 regular-season games as a Sixer, having been traded there from the Brooklyn Nets near the end of last season.

“I had a conversation with (general manager) Daryl (Morey) and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players,” Harden told Yahoo Sports. “I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over.

“This is how bad I want to win. I’m willing to take less to put us in a position to accomplish that.”

So far, so chivalrous.

There is quite a bit to unpack here, as we consider the eye-popping sum Harden is leaving on the table.

First, NBA wage packets are at a point now where $32 million for a player of Harden’s caliber constitutes tremendous value, even if there is lingering uncertainty after the disappointing end to the Sixers’ latest postseason run.

Harden was outstanding in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat but otherwise below his best, which he attributes to nagging injuries.

If he had accepted the full amount of his player option, it would have largely hamstrung Morey’s attempts to put valuable pieces around him and star center Joel Embiid. The freshly-created surplus freed up room for (Harden’s friend) P.J. Tucker and fellow forward Danuel House to be added.

Philadelphia fans have been drawn into false hope before, but there is no denying now that the Sixers lineup looks potentially imposing.

Harden hasn’t been an especially popular player during his time in the league. Even when he topped the NBA in scoring in 2018-19 by a full eight points (36.1 per game), he missed out on the MVP award to Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He has often been cast as an unideal teammate and did his own reputation few favors with the handling of his departure from the Houston Rockets. After getting moved on from — some would say escaping — Brooklyn’s train wreck of a season and being reunited with a GM who loves him with the kind of devotion all lonely hearts seek, this might be his final chance to return to true elite status.

Harden divides opinion drastically, but this is a hard one for even his most avowed critics to find fault with.

Whatever you think of him, you simply have to appreciate that giving up any kind of money is a decidedly unconventional step in modern pro sports. Every player wants his team to win. Very few look to have their pay slashed in order to increase the chances of it happening.

Maybe Harden is just glaringly aware that there are no NBA championships on his résumé and a decreasing number of chances left to try to get one. FOX Bet rates Philadelphia at an eighth-strongest +1400 to capture next season’s title.

But whatever happens, that $15 million Harden could have had isn’t coming back. His salary down the road will be dictated by his performance; there’s not going to be a retroactive “thank you” token slipped into his pocket.

He is a complex player and a similar kind of personality. He seems set on changing what people think of him … while insisting he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

“I don’t really listen to what people are saying,” Harden added. “I wasn’t right last season, and I still almost averaged a triple-double. If anybody else had those numbers, we’d be talking about them getting the max. I was in Philadelphia for a couple of months and I had to learn on the fly. That’s just what it was.”

The paradox of Harden continues, exacerbated by his present location. He is teamed up with Morey, his ultimate supporter. But he is also in Philly, where the local media and fan base are impatient, demanding and unforgiving.

“He has nowhere else to go,” wrote Mark Sielski in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The notion that James Harden is doing the Sixers some kind of favor here is spin, nothing more. If anything, it is the other way around.”

That’s probably a harsh interpretation. Even at below his best, Harden was one of only a handful of players to average 18-7-7 last year. If he was indeed suffering physically, then there is no obvious reason why an improved version won’t be on display when the games start again in October.

Few players in history have shown the capacity to score at will that Harden managed during his best days in Houston. There is a reason why he took the Rockets to the Western Conference finals twice — and why he is a 10-time All-Star.

He wants to make noise in a market and with a team that is desperate for it, with Embiid’s prime years here and now. He’s made the noisiest splash possible by bucking the norm of hoarding whatever money is there.

But this is James Harden, so even that is not enough to drown out the critics.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.

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