James Harden said he was "all over the place" on his return from injury but vowed to improve once he finds his rhythm for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 2018 MVP winner was back in the starting line-up having missed 14 straight games after suffering a tendon strain in his right foot on November 2, with Philly going 4-5 in his absence.

However, his comeback failed to yield an upturn as the 76ers went down 132-123 to Harden's former team the Houston Rockets following double overtime.

Harden contributed 21 points but was just 4-of-19 from the field, missing all eight attempts inside the three-point arc. He also chalked up four rebounds and seven assists.

Philly coach Doc Rivers said Harden would be on a minutes restriction, but he still racked up 39. However, the 33-year-old said it was difficult to find fluidity.

"I didn't play well, but I've got to be better and I will," Harden said.

"I was all over the place. I'm not used to it, but I'm not making any excuses. I have to do better." 

Harden added that he had to fight his cause to play as much as he did in overtime.

"I had to fight to stay on the court just because there was a certain plan in place before the game started,'' Harden said.

"But once you go out there as a competitor you want to try to win."

The 76ers are on a three-match losing streak and sit seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 12-12 record. They next face the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

The Boston Celtics kept their terrific season rolling on Monday when they utilised a dominant third quarter to defeat the Toronto Raptors 116-110 away from home.

Boston were led by Jayson Tatum, who finished with 31 points on 11-of-24 shooting, hitting five of his 10 three-point attempts while adding 12 rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block in his 39 minutes. He helped his side outscore the Raptors 35-18 in the third period, turning around a six-point deficit at halftime.

The 24-year-old is enjoying the best season of his career, averaging a career-high 30.7 points per game while shooting a career-best 48.1 per cent from the field, all while attempting a career-high 9.3 three-pointers per game.

Tatum was supported well by running-mate Jaylen Brown, who chipped in 22 points (nine-of-22 shooting), eight rebounds and eight assists, while reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart posted 18 points (seven-of-14) and seven assists.

While the Celtics were the best defensive team in the league this past season when they went to the NBA Finals, this campaign it has been all about their offense.

Scoring 120 points per 100 possessions, they are two-and-a-half points clear of the second-ranked Phoenix Suns (117.5), and they are getting it done by shooting a league-best 40.2 per cent from the three-point line.

Their win against the Raptors was their 21st game with at least 110 points, helping them to a league-best record of 20-5, while no other team has more than 17 wins.

Harden's rough return to Houston

Playing against his former team, James Harden returned for the Philadelphia 76ers after five weeks on the sidelines, but had a rough outing in a 132-123 double-overtime loss to the Houston Rockets.

Harden, who won the 2017-18 league MVP while playing for the Rockets, scored 21 points, dished seven assists, snagged four rebounds and plucked two steals, but he shot a dismal four-of-19 from the field.

His step-back three-pointer tied the game at 108-108 with 90 seconds remaining in regulation, ultimately forcing overtime, before back-to-back MVP runner-up Joel Embiid fouled out in the first extra period, leaving the 76ers short-handed for the second overtime.

Last year's second overall draft pick Jalen Green was strong for the Rockets, scoring 27 points on nine-of-20 shooting with seven assists, while this year's third overall pick Jabari Smith Jr added 16 points and 11 rebounds.

Gilgeous-Alexander carries the Thunder

Arguably the breakout star of the season so far, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the best player on the floor yet again in a 121-114 win on the road against the Atlanta Hawks.

The 24-year-old is currently third in the NBA in scoring at 31.1 points per game, and that figure got a bump after he put up 35 points against the Hawks, hitting 10-of-22 from the field and all 15 of his free throws.

Of the four other players averaging at least 30 points per game this season (Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum) none are attempting fewer than Gilgeous-Alexanders 3.0 three-pointers per game, and none are shooting better than his 92.4 per cent from the free throw line.

James Harden will return to the Philadelphia 76ers starting line-up on Monday after five weeks on the sideline recovering from a right foot tendon strain.

The 10-time All-Star and six-time First Team All-NBA honouree missed 14 games after suffering the injury on November 2, with his team going 4-5 in the nine games he has featured in, averaging 21.8 points, 10.0 assists and 7.3 rebounds.

His absence did not kill the 76ers' season, as they went 8-6 without him, thanks in large part to the stellar play of Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton in expanded roles.

For the month of November, Maxey averaged 22.4 points and 5.6 assists per game – similar to his stats with Harden in the side – but Milton took a massive step up, going from two points per game in October up to 14.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds.

Despite Harden's return, the 76ers will remain a man down as Maxey has now missed two weeks with a similar foot injury, and is expected back at some point in the next 10 days.

Monday will be Harden's second time playing against his former team the Houston Rockets since joining the 76ers. In the 2017-18 season, Harden became the first Rocket since Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) to be named league MVP.

James Harden faces a month on the sidelines after the Philadelphia 76ers star suffered a tendon strain in his right foot, according to reports.

The 33-year-old point guard played for 35 minutes in the 121-111 defeat to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, scoring 24 points and adding 10 assists and five rebounds.

However, according to ESPN, he will miss a long stretch now, with the injury detected during the Wizards game and confirmed in tests on Thursday.

Harden joined Philadelphia in February from the Brooklyn Nets in a multi-player trade and this season he has averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds through nine games.

The Sixers are 4-5 for the campaign so far.

Harden is a 10-time All-Star and was named MVP in the 2017-18 NBA season.

With Harden on board for the closing games of the 2021-22 campaign, the Sixers reached the Eastern Conference semi-finals in the playoffs, where they were beaten 4-2 in the best-of-seven series by the Miami Heat.

Big performances from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez carried the Milwaukee Bucks to a 110-108 victory against the Detroit Pistons on Monday.

With their win, the Bucks are now 6-0, and the NBA's last remaining unbeaten team.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo led the way with a game-high 31 points on 12-of-23 shooting, and he delivered in an important stretch of the game.

After the Bucks came out of halftime with a 60-52 lead, the Pistons got on a quick run, cutting the margin to one at 62-61, before Antetokounmpo scored his team's first 10 points of the third quarter to steady the ship.

He was supported well by Holiday, who scored 25 points with an efficient long-range shooting performance, finishing seven-of-15 from the field while hitting five of his 11 three-point attempts. He also added 10 assists and seven rebounds

Meanwhile, Lopez was a force in the middle of the paint, scoring 26 points (10-of-16) with nine rebounds and two blocks.

For the Pistons, Cade Cunningham was excellent with 27 points (11-of-23), seven assists and six rebounds, while the fifth overall pick from this year's NBA Draft, Jaden Ivey, had seven of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to make it a game down the stretch.

Harden narrowly misses career-high 

James Harden was one assist shy of his career-high as he dished out 17 in the Philadelphia 76ers' 118-111 win over the Washington Wizards.

His 17 assists matched his regular-season high, becoming the 10th time he has reached that figure, while he had 18 assists in a playoff game for the Brooklyn Nets against the Boston Celtics in the first round of 2021.

Against the Wizards, Harden also added 23 points (eight-of-17 shooting) and seven rebounds, with Tyrese Maxey finishing as their top-scorer with 28 on 12-of-22 shooting.

Washington's Kristaps Porzingis was the game's highest scorer with 32 points (10-of-17), nine rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Durant and the Nets get back in the win column

The Brooklyn Nets snapped a four-game losing streak when they defeated the Indiana Pacers 116-109.

Superstar duo Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving led the way as Ben Simmons missed the game with swelling in his knee.

Durant finished with a game-high 36 points on 13-of-22 shooting, while adding nine rebounds and seven assists. Irving was not far behind, posting 28 points (nine-of-19) with six rebounds, six assists and four steals.

Second-year wing Chris Duarte was impressive for the Pacers, scoring 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting, hitting five-of-10 from long range.

Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden said it is a weight off everyone's shoulders to finally get their first win of the season on the board with a 120-106 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night.

After an 0-3 start following losses to the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and the San Antonio Spurs, the 76ers began to right the ship with an explosive first half.

Led by former MVP Harden with 11 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the first two quarters, the 76ers ran out to a 64-46 halftime lead.

Back-to-back MVP runner-up Joel Embiid worked his way to the free throw line in the second half, hitting all nine of his attempts to finish with 26 points (eight-of-13 shooting), five rebounds and three blocks, while Harden posted 29 points (10-of-18 shooting) with nine rebounds and 11 assists.

Speaking to the media after the game, Harden said it's a good start, but there is still plenty of work to do if they want to be real contenders this season.

"That felt good, man," he said. "It felt like we were 0-82. It felt good, but it's a work in progress.

"As much as we want things to happen overnight, and for us to be 4-0, we're 1-3. We just have to continue to work, continue to build really good habits, and live with the results. 

"We have to hang our hats on the defensive end, and I think we had some really good spurts, and then some where we let them back in the game. We have to continue to build and continue to hang our hats on the defensive end."

Meanwhile, head coach Doc Rivers praised Embiid for his patience and playing within the structure of the offense.

"I liked his patience," he said. "This was one of those game where you haven't won a game, and they're trapping him every time – literally every time he touched it early – and he just kept moving it.

"He was in no rush, and eventually it opened up because they were tired of us making threes, so then they left Joel one-on-one – which is not going to work either.

"I just liked how he approached the game – he had great patience, he let the game come to him."

Rivers added that if the 76ers want to play faster – which they do – the Pacers are a great team to do it against.

"They play really fast – because they have to," he said. "They're very similar to San Antonio, and I've coached teams like this. When you don't have the one guy you can just give it to, you better run, if you have any chance.

"We really focused on [our pace] this morning – our goal was to get the ball across halfcourt by 20 [on the shot clock]. I don't think we accomplished that goal a lot, but we did get it up there a lot earlier.

"That allows us – especially against trapping teams, because they were switching and trapping Joel [Embiid] – having those four or five extra seconds to make the extra pass, guys get rhythm shots."

Harden also touched on that point, shouldering the blame for some of their lack of pace in the opening games as they entered this contest with the fewest possessions-per-game at 98.3, whereas the league-leading Golden State Warriors are averaging 113.4 possessions.

"It gives us more time to create a better shot," he said. "When you're walking the ball up, you're limited, so we want our pace to pick up a little more.

"The first couple games I put that on myself – just because I've played against some really good individual defensive players – but even me, when they're on me, I've got to push the ball up and push the tempo.

"That's just going to give us more opportunities on the back-end when the shot clock is winding down. Tonight was a good start, and we just need to keep improving."

Joel Embiid scored 40 points but it was not enough to prevent the Philadelphia 76ers from slumping to a 0-3 start to the new NBA season after a 114-105 home loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday.

James Harden had minimal impact in the second half as Spurs small forward Doug McDermott took control with an eight-point burst, capping his 14 points, which all came in the second half.

The 76ers, who had been beaten by contenders, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, to open their season, squandered Embiid's huge game where he shot 14-of-25 from the field and hauled down 13 rebounds with two blocks.

Harden only added 12 points on four-of-18 shooting, making one-of-six three-point attempts. The former MVP provided 12 assists with nine rebounds and two blocks, but was inconspicuous in the second half with the game up for grabs, with the Spurs defense denying him good looks.

Tyrese Maxey contributed 25 points for the 76ers, including three triples, but Philadelphia slumped to their first 0-3 start since 2016-17.

Devin Vassell (22 points with nine-of-14 field shooting, including four three-pointers) and Keldon Johnson (21 points with eight rebounds) were San Antonio's most productive offensive players.

Mitchell betters LeBron start for Cavs

Donovan Mitchell scored 32 points as he claimed his first win as a Cleveland Cavaliers player in their 128-96 victory over the Chicago Bulls in their home season opener.

Mitchell achieved a feat that not even LeBron James could, becoming the first Cavs player with back-to-back 30-point games to open a season.

The All-Star, who made a high-profile trade from the Utah Jazz to the Cavs in the off-season, landed four-of-six from beyond the arc with nine rebounds and eight assists.

Zach LaVine returned after off-season knee surgery that forced him to miss Chicago's opening two games to top score for the Bulls with 23 points.

Giannis powers Bucks past Rockets

Giannis Antetokounmpo only needed 28 minutes to put on an MVP-like display as the Milwaukee Bucks routed the Houston Rockets 125-105 in their home opener at Fiserv Forum.

Antetokounmpo scored 44 points, shooting 17-of-21 from the field with two three-pointers, along with 12 rebounds and three assists.

The Greek forward became Milwaukee's all-time free throws leader, shooting eight-of-13 from the stripe to exceed Sidney Moncrief's 3,505 record, before sitting out with 8:08 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Jayson Tatum also scored 40 points to lead the 3-0 Boston Celtics past the 0-3 Orlando Magic 126-120, while Paul George had 40 in the Los Angeles Clippers' 111-109 win over the Sacramento Kings.

Kawhi Leonard scored 14 points with seven rebounds as he returned for the first time in 16 months in the Los Angeles Clippers' thrilling 103-97 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday.

Leonard, who missed all of last season after sustaining an ACL injury in the 2021 playoffs, played 21 minutes off the bench, shooting six-of-12 from the field, including a crucial two-pointer with under two minutes left at Crypto.com Arena.

The Lakers had hit the lead in the last quarter after LeBron James' block on Paul George set up Lonnie Walker IV's jam, but the Clippers were clutch down the stretch to extend their winning streak over their rivals to eight games.

The Clippers' current eight-game winning run over the Lakers is the second-longest in franchise history, behind 11 from 2014 to 2016.

James, in his 20th season in the NBA, scored 20 points with 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks, while Anthony Davis was exceptional with 25 points including two triples and eight rebounds.

But the three-point issues that plagued the Lakers last season reared their head again, going at 20 per cent from beyond the arc as a team. The Lakers' two-game three-point percentage of 22 per cent this season is the worst by any team through two games in NBA history (minimum 60 attempts).

Russell Westbrook was a major culprit, managing only two points in 27 minutes, shooting none-of-11 from the field and none-of-six from beyond the arc.

Giannis in top form as Bucks open with 76ers win  

The Philadelphia 76ers lost for the second straight game to open the season after James Harden missed a floater off the glass on their last offensive play in a 90-88 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The 76ers were booed by their fans at Wells Fargo Center in the third quarter, before rallying with a 13-0 run in the fourth, led by Harden who had eight points during that span, finishing with 31 for the game, along with eight rebounds and nine rebounds.

But Harden, who went one-for-seven from three-point range, missed his late chance straight after Wesley Matthews' triple as the Bucks won their season opener.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was in MVP form, having 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks in the first half, finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists with three blocks. Joel Embiid was kept scoreless in the second half, to have only 15 points with 12 rebounds for the game.

The NBA is back, which means excitement for most fanbases – but anxiety for others.

The new season should ensure a clean slate for everyone, but some situations have been allowed to fester in recent months without the distraction of on-court action.

Now, even with basketball returning, developments around Kevin Durant's future might prove every bit as intriguing to the neutral as anything that happens in the regular season.

And Durant and the Brooklyn Nets are not the only player-team combo in a tricky spot heading into the year...

Everyone at the Lakers

Before considering the wide-ranging implications of Durant's trade request, let's check in on last year's team in crisis.

Plenty of outsiders could have forecast difficulties for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2021-22, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis joined in a 'big three' by Russell Westbrook – at this stage in his career, consistent only in using up a huge number of possessions.

Westbrook had averaged a usage rate above 30 per cent in every season between 2014-15 and 2020-21, with his average over the seven seasons (34.6 per cent) only narrowly trailing James Harden's league-leading 34.7 per cent (minimum 500 possessions). A ball-dominant player on often mediocre teams, Westbrook's winning percentage of 59.2 ranked 109th over this period among those to play 100 or more games. Harden (66.2) was a far more respectable 29th.

Although his usage dipped to 27.5 per cent around better players in LA, Westbrook remained every bit as erratic as expected and, unfortunately for the Lakers, played more than 500 more minutes than any team-mate – comfortably ahead of an ageing James and bulkier Davis.

The three superstars started just 21 games together and even then only scraped a winning record at 11-10.

Having missed the playoffs – and even the play-in – in 11th in the West, the Lakers fired coach Frank Vogel, perhaps optimistically hoping he alone was the problem, and brought back each of James, Davis and Westbrook.

Seemingly determined to further upset a team who won the title just two years ago, the Lakers were also linked with a move for Kyrie Irving before settling instead on Patrick Beverley, who might prove only marginally less disruptive.

Westbrook and Beverley have repeatedly clashed in the past, although the new Lakers signing has described his team-mate as "someone I always wanted to play with", praising his "competitive spirit, that fire, that will, that dog, that nastiness, that grit".

New coach Darvin Ham thinks the pair can work together, but the potential for fireworks is considerable even before taking into account James' own "competitive spirit".

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the Nets

The 2019 free agency moves for Durant and Irving certainly made the Nets relevant. But they haven't yet made them successful. And right now, Brooklyn might be the most explosive environment in the NBA.

Durant missed their first year together with an Achilles injury sustained playing for the Golden State Warriors, yet the Nets have still only won seven playoff games in the past three postseasons – all seven of those wins coming in a short-lived 2020-21 run.

Last season, as they had been in their first season with Durant and Irving, Brooklyn were swept in the first round. It concluded a miserable campaign that was not about to get better in the offseason.

With Irving unvaccinated and so unable to play in New York City until March, he and Durant started only 17 games together in the regular season. The Nets had started the season with their own 'big three', but Harden – much to his frustration – appeared just twice alongside the star pairing before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons came in the other direction and did not play once.

Far from a happy camp, when Irving then opted in to the final year of his contract in late June, the Nets were vulnerable to a trade request from Durant, which quickly followed.

However, with four years remaining on his own deal and Brooklyn asking for a huge price in trade talks, it was reported Durant had returned to the Nets and promised to stay if head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks were replaced.

Ultimately, Durant "agreed to move forward with our partnership" – as Marks phrased it – regardless, with Nash saying in September his relationship with the superstar was "good".

"I love the guy," added Nash, who understood Durant being "seething" at the end of the season. "Families have issues. We had a moment, and it's behind us. That's what happens."

In theory – especially if Simmons can return to his two-time All-Defensive First Team best – the Nets could have a great team in 2022-23.

Yet based on how this project has gone so far, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brooklyn endure another desperately disappointing season and are again left attempting to convince Durant to stay.

James Harden at the 76ers

The 76ers moved one miserable superstar in Simmons for another in Harden, which was only enough to take them as far as the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year.

And en route to that unsatisfactory conclusion, team-mate Joel Embiid was not shy in criticising Harden, repeatedly calling on him to be more aggressive while recognising he is no longer "the Houston James Harden".

It was an understandable complaint; Harden attempted only 13.6 field goals per game for the Sixers in the regular season – little more than half the number of shots he was taking in 2018-19 for the Houston Rockets (24.5), when he scored a career-high 36.1 points per game. He was also only making 40.2 per cent of his field goal attempts in Philly, down on every other season in his career.

So far, it is fair to say this has not worked. Doc Rivers, in a training camp clip published by the NBA, told Harden he and Embiid needed to "listen to each other" and acknowledged the partnership needed work as it was "unnatural".

Echoing some of Embiid's complaints, coach Rivers said: "You can't just say you're a facilitator. I need you to be a scorer and a facilitator."

Rivers for now believes it can still be fixed. "When it clicks, James, we're going to be unbeatable," he told a player who, for his part, agreed to a restructured contract that allowed Philly to bolster their roster in the offseason.

But this team – and certainly Embiid – might argue more help would not be required if Harden played in the manner he is capable.

"We've got to establish Joel and you – it's a pecking order," added Rivers. "This ain't a democracy."

Embiid may not believe this is "the Houston James Harden", but the team and Harden himself seemingly do, with the former Rocket announcing: "If my conditioning can be level with my skill set and my IQ and the work that I put in, it's MVP – and I feel like my conditioning is where it needs to be."

Harden needs to start showing that, or this time his team might tire of him, rather than the other way around.

Jaylen Brown at the Celtics

Little has gone to plan for the Boston Celtics since winning Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals, as they lost the next three to the Warriors and then saw preparations for a bounce-back season in 2022-23 rocked by a number of key absences.

Boston will begin the year without new signing Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL playing for Italy, Robert Williams, who has also undergone knee surgery, and, crucially, coach Ime Udoka.

Udoka had turned around his first season as a head coach spectacularly, with the Celtics tied for ninth in the East at the turn of the year after a 17-19 start before leading the conference the rest of the way (34-12) to take the second seed.

But a year-long suspension for Udoka "for violations of team policies" was announced by the team last month.

And even between the ultimately disappointing postseason and repeatedly disrupted preseason, not everything was rosy, with Boston also impacted by the Durant saga.

When Durant looked to be on the move, reports claimed the Celtics had offered the Nets a package that included Jaylen Brown. That trade did not materialise, of course, but it is difficult to imagine Brown was too impressed.

In recent seasons, Brown has been hugely valuable to the Celtics – not least because he is being paid below his value.

Brown is one of only 11 players who has scored at least 1,400 points at an average of at least 23.5 per game in each of the past two seasons. Of the other 10, four have current or future contracts with an average annual value of more than $50m, another four are being paid over $40m per year, and the final two are bringing in a salary in excess of $30m a season.

Brown's deal, which ranks outside the top 50 contracts in the NBA in both total value and average annual value, earns him $26.6m each year.

And the rules around NBA extensions will prevent Brown being paid on par with his contemporaries unless he makes All-NBA in one of the two seasons remaining on his contract.

In theory, that carrot should encourage Brown to enjoy another big season, but at a franchise as fractured as the Celtics have suddenly become, focus could understandably drift instead towards free agency in 2024.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the Thunder

Unlike the other teams on this list, the Oklahoma City Thunder do not have the pressure of needing to win now – but that is part of the problem.

OKC moved on their ageing stars, loaded up on draft picks and put together a young core that includes Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That is all very exciting... or at least it will be.

Rookie Holmgren is down for the year, seemingly making this another season in which the Thunder will lose games and then see what they can do in the draft.

That is no great issue for 20-year-old Holmgren or 19-year-old Giddey, but it does not suit Gilgeous-Alexander, now 24 and entering his fifth year, quite so much – even if he also starts the year injured.

Among the 63 players to score 2,000 or more points across the past two seasons combined, Gilgeous-Alexander ranked 18th for points per game (24.2). He ranked 61st for wins (32).

This is not a case of an average player stat-padding on a bad team; he is simply too good to be in this situation.

And having agreed a five-year extension in August ahead of Holmgren's injury, it appeared Gilgeous-Alexander had unknowingly signed up for more of the same.

He disagrees, insisting: "I know what I signed up for when I signed a five-year extension. I don't think we're going to be losing for much longer. It's not like I signed up to lose."

But lose they will, if they have any sense – and past experience suggests they do.

Without Holmgren, the Thunder are not going to be in any position to seriously compete, which opens up the possibility to pick high in a draft that includes a potentially generational talent in Victor Wembanyama.

At some stage, OKC will be ready, but that is not now, and Gilgeous-Alexander could be forgiven for finding his patience waning.

The NBA has begun an investigation into a potential tampering violation by the Philadelphia 76ers and their signings of James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

The league is interested in the circumstances surrounding Harden declining his $47million player option to sign a two-year, $68m contract that includes a player option for the second year of the deal.  

Questions have been raised about whether there was a handshake agreement in place on a future contract – which would be in violation of collective bargaining rules. 

Harden’s decision to decline his option gave Philadelphia more flexibility to sign Tucker and House. 

"Taking less money this year to sign as many players as we needed to help us contend and be the last team standing was very, very important to me," Harden said in an interview this month. "I wanted to show the organisation, the Sixers fans and everybody else who supports what we're trying to accomplish, what I'm trying to accomplish individually, that this is what I'm about."

Tucker signed a three-year, $30m contract, and House signed for $8.4m over two years. The 76ers were able to sign Tucker to the full mid-level exception and sign House to the bi-annual exception only because Harden declined his option. 

According to the report, 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has already begun answering questions from league attorneys.  

With tampering often a potential issue, the NBA approved stiffer penalties in 2019 and stripped a draft pick from the Chicago Bulls for early contact with Lonzo Ball in 2019, and the Miami Heat for doing the same with Kyle Lowry last summer. 

James Harden has officially finalised his deal to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers, agreeing to a two-year, $68.6million contract on Wednesday.

Harden will make $33m for the 2022-23 season and then has the player option for $35.6m in 2023-24. He can decline the option and become a free agent again ahead of the 2023-24 and sign a new deal. 

Harden had previously declined his $47.4m player option for this upcoming season from the 76ers, but was set to return to them all along while taking a pay-cut to help the team sign other players with the hopes of building a championship roster. 

Thanks in part to his pay-cut, the 76ers have been able to add P.J. Tucker and Danuel House this offseason, and are expected to contend amongst the best teams in the Eastern Conference with MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and Harden leading the way. 

Philadelphia acquired Harden from the Brooklyn Nets in February, and he averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds in 21 games with the Sixers, but the team suffered the same fate as three of the previous four seasons, again losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

The 76ers have not been past the conference semis since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, and the 32-year-old Harden has never won a title, only reaching the NBA Finals once, in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

A 10-time All-Star and the 2017-18 NBA MVP, Harden averaged 22 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds in 65 total regular-season games for the 76ers and Nets, missing time due to hamstring issues. 

James Harden made it clear this offseason that at this point in his career he cares more about having an opportunity to win an NBA championship than money. 

While his deal with the Philadelphia 76ers has yet to be finalised, Harden is expected to sign a two-year contract that will pay him $32million next season and includes a player option for 2023-24. That $32m salary is a steep discount after he declined his $47.4m player option for 2022-23. 

"I had conversations with [76ers president of basketball operation 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 want to compete for a championship. That's all that matters to me at this stage. I'm willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that." 

The 32-year-old Harden has racked up plenty of personal accolades – NBA MVP, 10-time All-Star, three-time league scoring champion and NBA Sixth Man of the Year, to name a few. However, he has never won a title and only reached the NBA Finals once, in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Following that NBA Finals appearance, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets and became a superstar in the league. He was then dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in January 2021 to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but that experiment failed, and Harden was sent to Philadelphia last February. 

Harden averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds in 21 games after joining the 76ers. He then put up 18.6 points, 8.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs, where the 76ers lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

Harden wound up appearing in 65 regular-season games overall in 2021-22, mostly due to hamstring issues. He averaged 22 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds in those 65 contests. 

"I don't really listen to what people are saying. I wasn't right last season and I still almost averaged a triple-double," Harden said. "If anybody else had those numbers, we'd be talking about them getting the max. 

"People were used to seeing me averaging 40, 30 points, and so they viewed it as a down year. I was in Philadelphia for a couple of months and I had to learn on the fly. That's just what it was. I'm in a good space physically and mentally right now, and I'm just looking forward to next season."

With a full season ahead of playing alongside perennial NBA MVP contender Joel Embiid, and with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House (thanks in part to Harden's paycut), the 76ers are expected to be a favourite in the East. They also added De'Anthony Melton in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. 

"I think we have a much deeper team," Harden said. "That's something we wanted to address. If you look at our team now, we're positioned to go a lot further. I like how we stack up with the rest of the top teams."

James Harden has declined his player option – which would have paid him $47.4million for the upcoming season – to become an unrestricted free agent, although all signs point to an extension with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Since arriving with the 76ers this past season in the trade that sent Ben Simmons to the Brooklyn Nets, Harden's production was up-and-down.

He averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds in his 21 regular season games with his new team, but he also shot a career low 40 per cent from the field while attempting his fewest shots per game (13.6) since coming off the bench with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-12.

His numbers in the playoffs dipped even further, averaging 18.6 points, 8.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds while no-showing in the second half of some crucial defeats in their six-game series loss to the Miami Heat.

The report about Harden declining his player option, broken by The Athletic's Shams Charania, states his reasoning for declining the option is to extend with the 76ers at a more team-friendly salary that would allow the team to spend the savings on additional talent.

In the report, it is said that Harden has also returned to the 76ers' practice facility to begin his off-season program early, with his "sole focus" being to win a title in Philadelphia in this coming season.

By signing a deal more in the range of three years, $100m, the 76ers would have slightly more wiggle room to sign additional talent, but if they have plans on totally revamping the landscape, it would require trading Tobias Harris ahead of a season where he will be paid $37.6m – more than star Joel Embiid ($33.6m).

Michael Jordan has company at last.

The Chicago Bulls legend was for a long time the only player to average more than 30 points per game in the NBA playoffs, yet Luka Doncic is now writing his own name into the history books in Dallas.

The Mavericks superstar has a long way to go before he can come anywhere close to matching Jordan's achievements, but he has been spectacular in scoring 32.7 points per game through his first four postseason series.

Not only is Jordan (33.4 points per game) the sole player to top Doncic's mark across a playoff career, he alone since 1963-64 joins the former EuroLeague sensation in scoring more than 750 points over his first 23 postseason games (823 for Jordan, 751 for Doncic).

These look to be early steps in a truly great NBA career for Doncic, and he could yet end this season as a champion.

The Slovenian was outgunned taking on the Los Angeles Clippers on his own in the first round in consecutive years, but the Mavericks made bold moves this year – most notably appointing Jason Kidd and trading away Kristaps Porzingis – and are now in the Western Conference Finals.

Although Doncic averaged 32.6 points as the Mavericks beat the Phoenix Suns in the second round, he crucially had help, now surrounded with defense and shooting.

Dallas held the Suns to their three lowest points totals of the season (94 in Game 3, 90 in Game 7, 86 in Game 6), while Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie became the first team-mates to each score 30 points in a Game 7 since Los Angeles Lakers greats Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal against the Sacramento Kings in 2002.

As the tournament heats up, Doncic will need all the assistance he can get – but any Mavericks title run surely depends on their main man being the best player in every series.

That becomes a little tougher when Dallas are faced next with playoff veterans the Golden State Warriors.

This is the 10th year of the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors, in which time they have been to five NBA Finals, won three championships and seen off a whole host of superstars.

There are plenty of examples for Doncic to learn from then as he prepares to take on the greatest team of the past decade.

LeBron James (33.0 points per game, 7-15 record)

Ja Morant, who scored 35 points against Golden State in last year's play-in tournament, averaged 38.3 points across three games in the 2022 second round until a knee injury ended his series and, ultimately, the Memphis Grizzlies' season. That is the highest mark posted against the Warriors in the past 10 years, albeit with a limited sample size.

Among those to play 10 or more games, James (33.0 points per game) leads the way. Equally as impressive, the four-time MVP has the most total playoff points versus the Warriors since 2012 (727) – despite spending the bulk of his career in the Eastern Conference.

 

James did score 22 in a Lakers play-in win over the Warriors in 2021, but all of their 22 postseason encounters have come across four Finals series. Unfortunately, while James has excelled, his teams have not fared quite so well.

Prior to Morant's explosion, James accounted for three of the four highest series averages against the Warriors over this period – 35.8 in 2015, 34.0 in 2018 and 33.6 in 2017 – but the Cleveland Cavaliers lost on each occasion. Their one Finals win came in 2016, when James scored 29.7 points per game.

James had a little more help in 2016 – we'll come on to that – and the Cavaliers' various failures perhaps best illustrate the folly of Doncic attempting to take on a super-team alone.

The 51 points James scored in Game 1 in 2018 were the most against the Warriors in a single playoff game in the past 10 years, but he was let down by his team-mates – we're looking at you, J.R. Smith – and Cleveland not only lost that series opener but were then swept.

James Harden (29.8 points per game, 7-16 record)

Harden's playoff career is best known for his repeated failures to get the better of the Warriors, losing all of his four series against Golden State while on the Houston Rockets, yet only James has scored more points in such matchups since 2012 (685).

Counted among Harden's 23 postseason games against the Warriors in the past 10 years – only Iman Shumpert (24) has played more – are three 41-plus-point performances. James alone can top that (five games).

However, Harden has also failed to reach 20 points on five occasions, twice shooting worse than 20 per cent from the field in 2015. Consistency is the key at this time of year, and Harden has not had that.

The Rockets blew their biggest opportunity to make a first Finals since 1995 in 2018, when they led the Warriors 3-2 in the Conference Finals before Chris Paul went down injured. Houston lost Game 6 and Game 7, collapsing dramatically in the first of the two defeats as Harden did not contribute a single fourth-quarter point.

Doncic, unsurprisingly, has never shot worse than 20 per cent in the playoffs, while his best shooting performance (63.2 per cent) came in Game 7 against the Suns and his career-high points total came in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers (46).

Kyrie Irving (27.7 points per game, 5-8 record)

Given Irving was the Cavaliers' second man behind James, it is difficult to draw a direct comparison with Doncic. But the point guard's performances show the sort of levels Dinwiddie or Jalen Brunson may have to reach to beat the Warriors if they are at the top of their game.

Irving's 2015 Finals debut ended in Game 1 when he sustained a fractured kneecap, but he returned in 2016 and played a huge role in the Cavaliers' historic win.

Cleveland were trailing 3-1 heading into Game 5 – a deficit that had never previously been overturned – only for Irving and James each to score 41 points, becoming the first team-mates to both top 40 in a Finals game. Irving shot 70.8 per cent from the field.

As the Cavaliers recovered to win 4-3, with Irving shooting a decisive three late in Game 7, his usage rate was a lofty 30.7 per cent for the series, taking responsibility off James' shoulders. Brunson is the Mavericks' second man, although his usage rate of 29.7 per cent was boosted a little by playing three games without the ball-dominant Doncic.

Damian Lillard (27.6 points per game, 1-12 record)

If nothing else, Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers provide an example of how not to play the Warriors. Only former Blazers team-mate Rodney Hood (0-12) has a worse record in playoff games against Golden State in the past 10 years.

A 43.7 per cent career shooter, Lillard has averaged 38.7 per cent from the field against the Warriors in the postseason. Sure, he has scored 27.6 points, but it has taken him 22.1 field goal attempts per game.

When Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are on the other side of the floor, you cannot afford to be so inefficient. Lillard's sole victory in 2016 came courtesy of his one 40-point performance – while Curry was out injured.

Only Allen Iverson (26.5) and Jordan (25.1) have attempted more field goals per playoff game than Doncic (24.3), so there is definitely scope for the Warriors to profit if he cools off – not that there has been a great deal of evidence to suggest that is likely.

Kawhi Leonard (21.9 points per game, 8-5 record)

The man who has occupied Doncic's playoff nightmares in the previous two seasons surely provides the blueprint for how to enjoy postseason success against the Warriors.

Leonard has played on two of the four teams to eliminate Golden State from the playoffs in the past 10 years; he has not lost a series to the Warriors – missing the entirety of their 4-1 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs in 2018 – and boasts the best winning percentage of any player to face Steve Kerr's winning machine on more than 10 occasions over this period.

The 2019 Finals showed the sort of standard that has been required to get the better of the Warriors in the past decade, with Leonard dominant as the outstanding player on the Toronto Raptors. He led the Raptors in points (171), rebounds (59) and steals (12) versus the Warriors, ranking second in assists (25) and blocks (seven).

 

Doncic made strides on defense over the course of the Suns series, but whether he is capable of such an all-round display is very much up for debate.

James Harden cannot be expected to consistently dominate NBA games but could have shown more aggression as the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs, team-mate Joel Embiid said.

According to Embiid, a team-wide lack of aggression cost the 76ers as a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat spelled the end for their season.

After being bounced out of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, much of the attention turned to Harden's quiet game.

He had just nine shots and scored only 11 points in almost 43 minutes on court, taking a mere two shots in the second half.

Embiid, who had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds, said the 32-year-old Harden cannot be compared to the player who averaged above 30 points for three consecutive seasons with the Houston Rockets from 2017-18 to 2019-20.

Harden was the NBA MVP in 2018, but his points on the board have begun to tail off in the past two seasons.

Since joining Philadelphia in February 2022, after a stint with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has averaged 21.0 points over 21 regular season games, and just 18.6 points per game in the postseason.

Harden's field-goal shooting record of 40.5 per cent over the Sixers' 12 playoff games was his lowest in the postseason since the 2013-14 season.

"Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden," said Embiid. "But that's not who he is anymore. He's more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive. All of us, whether it was Tyrese [Maxey] or Tobias [Harris] or guys coming off the bench.

"And I'm not just talking about offensively. I'm talking about as a whole, offensively and defensively. I didn't think we were good defensively as a team.

"They took advantage of a lot of stuff that we tried to do defensively. And then offensively just really everybody being on the same page, obviously, only having probably three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe it wasn't a lot of time. I don't think we played our best basketball."

Lakers legend Magic Johnson was among those to question Harden's display, saying such a player "can't have a performance like that".

The 76ers won the last of their three NBA titles in 1983 and have not landed a conference title since 2001.

Asked how he and Harden could forge a stronger understanding, Embiid told a news conference: "Everybody's got to get better. It's not just about me and him."

Questions will be asked of Doc Rivers and the 76ers coaching staff, but Embiid said the players must look at themselves.

"I believe that we have the right people, but at some point you have to stop looking at coaching and you have to look at the players. Maybe you are just not good enough," Embiid said.

"I'm not trying to blame anybody, but the players have also got to do their jobs. It doesn't matter how much a coach or a GM talks to you or tries to motivate you, if you still go out there and don't do your job and the other team is more physical than you, that's on the players."

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