James Harden brought jokes to Sixers media day Monday at the team’s practice facility in Camden, New Jersey.
Asked how much weight he lost this summer, Harden said, “A hundred pounds. Tweet that.”
The 7-foot, back-to-back MVP runner-up spectator by his side also hadn't been inclined to reveal any (true) numerical fitness markers a year ago.
“I don’t get on the scale,” Joel Embiid said during the Sixers’ 2021 training camp. “It’s not good for my mental health.”
Of course, other matters were more interesting Monday than whatever Harden and Embiid actually weigh. Physically, Harden gave a positive self-assessment following a second straight second-round loss in which a hamstring issue hampered him.
“At this point, it’s dieting, it’s proper rest, and then … gaining more muscle mass, which I’ve always had,” he said. “It’s just the last year and a half, I wasn’t healthy enough to put the proper work in like I’m used to. This summer was huge for me in that aspect — the hill runs and the weightlifting, and then adding the skill on the court, as well.”
Mentally, Harden did not pretend that everything had been just fine as he dealt with unfamiliar injuries.
Between the 2012-13 and ’19-20 seasons, Harden played 613 of a possible 646 games and averaged 37.1 minutes, posting 29.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6.0 rebounds per contest during that stretch. He’s long taken pride in being available and meeting a very high personal standard.
“For the most part, I’m to myself,” Harden said. “Media or whoever, they talk and shoot their little jabs and shots or whatever the case may be. And I never respond, just because I know who I am and I know what I’m about.
“But mentally, it was very, very difficult for me just because I’m in love with the game of basketball. If the money wasn’t involved, I’d be playing basketball. And before the injuries, I think everybody knows that. It was very difficult. A lot of tough times, lot of dark moments, which I’ve never really went through because I was always healthy and playing the game of basketball. But I’m in a really good space and I feel like I’m back to where I needed to be, where I’m supposed to be. The feeling is great.”
Harden is now also back together with three players from his Houston heyday in Danuel House Jr., Montrezl Harrell and P.J. Tucker.
House smiled as he started to answer a question about what Harden is like as a teammate.
“That’s my guy,” he said. “He’s a selfless guy. He’s a selfless guy. On and off the court, he does a lot of great deeds that are (not) talked about — and he doesn’t want credit from it, because it’s all done from the heart. He’s a good dude, real good dude. I know his mom, know his sister, know his camp. Growing up around him and seeing the things he’s doing on and off the court, it just makes my respect for him as an elite athlete … so much greater.
“He’s a tremendous leader on and off the court and a selfless guy. And he’s always willing to make sure that he can help you in any way possible.”
The well-traveled wing wasn’t the only Sixer to highlight Harden’s inclination to assist others. Shake Milton noted "everything becomes a little easier" in pickup games when Harden's on your team. Georges Niang pointed to Harden aiming to get the Sixers all “on the same page” at one point this offseason in Los Angeles.
“I think we had 15 of our 16 guys playing in the gym in the middle of the summer in L.A.,” head coach Doc Rivers said.
With all due respect to Niang, Harden’s connection with Tyrese Maxey is more consequential for the 2022-23 Sixers. The two got to know each other a lot better through summer workouts with assistant coach Sam Cassell and skill development coach Spencer Rivers that weren’t always the most amicable.
“Every single time we play pickup or 1-on-1, I don’t want to lose to James,” Maxey said. “It’s like my big brother — playing against your big brother. And there’s been times where we’ve played pickup in the past couple weeks and we’re going to bump heads because I’m just extremely competitive like that, and he is, too, which is really good. It’s really good when you have guys that are very competitive. I have one next to me (Paul Reed) … and when you have a group full of guys that are extremely competitive, that just makes your team a lot better.
“But playing with (Harden) is extremely fun, too. We’ve done a lot of things while we were working out together. And then just being able to have a chemistry and a brotherhood; I can pick up the phone and I can call him whenever — not just for basketball, but for life, and I really do appreciate him for that.”
While Harden’s weight is what it is, many numbers in the NBA are unavoidable.
He’s 33 years old and signed a two-year, $68.6 million contact in July with a player option for the 2023-24 campaign.
What are his plans beyond this season?
“Winning as many championships as I can here,” Harden said. “That’s the goal. Just going through what I went through these past few years, my focus is on taking it one year at a time and just making sure I fulfill everything that I do individually. And then making sure my individual goals mesh with the team and our entire goals. But (I’m) taking this year and trying to do what we all expect to do, and we’ll go from there.”