Compared to Ben Simmons, James Harden has been magical.
Compared to the Harden of yesteryear, “The Beard” has shown his age — no longer looking like the max-like player who won the 2018 MVP and three scoring titles.
Whether it’s his troublesome left hamstring or still getting used to his new teammates in Philly, the 32-year-old Harden has not been the scoring machine he was in Houston, where he was known as the best isolation scorer in basketball.
Now Harden will have to be that guy with superstar center Joel Embiid expected to miss at least the first two games of the 76ers’ second-round series vs. the Heat that starts Monday night in Miami. Embiid is in concussion protocol and also has been diagnosed with a fractured orbital bone.
If Harden flops on this stage, it will be interesting to see if the Sixers are willing to give Harden the maximum contract when he becomes a free agent in July.
Yeah, that’s how badly the mighty have fallen after Harden forced his way out of two franchises in Houston and Brooklyn in a 13-month span. Even by NBA diva standards, that’s a lot of disgruntlement.
“He made his bed, now he has to sleep in it,” one NBA executive told The Post. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. He’s a heckuva player, but even in Houston he wasn’t able to get over that hump.”
The ring-less Harden, who sometimes struggled in the Rockets’ biggest playoff moments, has put up solid numbers — just not superstar numbers.
After the Nets-Sixers trade, Harden played in 21 games, averaging 21 points but shooting just 40.2 percent from the field — 32.6 percent from 3. He was a sound distributor on a stacked team with Embiid, Tobias Harris and a rising star in Tyrese Maxey.
In the six-game, first-round win over the Raptors, Harden put up satisfactory numbers — 19 points and 10.2 assists per game. But he committed 3.5 turnovers and shot just 40.5 percent overall.
“He’s still a heckuva player, but hasn’t been healthy or committed enough to be who he once was,” the executive said. “I think he’s capable of carrying the team and even leading them to win a game, but what I saw this year, I’m not sure he’s physically fit to do consistently that over a series.”
Harden was overweight during the 2020-21 season he spent mostly with the Nets, which likely caused the hamstring issues that diminished him in the playoffs against the Bucks when he made his return. Playing on one leg, Harden shot 5 of 17 in the Game 7 overtime loss as coach Steve Nash made the ill-advised decision to play him all 53 minutes.
After being told to rest in the offseason to heal the wear and tear on his hamstring, Harden, going back to his 44 games with the Nets, hasn’t been sharp enough or in the best condition.
Perhaps Embiid’s absence will awaken the Harden of old. But the analytics don’t suggest it will be good for the Sixers.
In the regular season, Philly was outscored by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor without Embiid. In the first round vs. Toronto, the Sixers were minus-6.8 in Harden’s minutes minus Embiid.
So good luck to Harden against Jimmy Butler’s Heat — who completely shut down the Hawks’ Trae Young in the paint.
Harden will have to get his once-brilliant isolation game on without Embiid. Miami coach Eric Spoelstra paid Harden his due respect.
“He definitely changes the dynamic,” Spoelstra told reporters. “You’re talking about an MVP player, a guy who can manipulate the game. He can hurt you whether he’s scoring, whether he’s assisting, or whether he’s just manipulating the defense.”
Of course, the Sixers are better off with Harden than with Seth Curry and Simmons, the latter of whom never suited up for the Nets because of his mental health and back issues.
Harden is expected to opt out of his final season in 2022-23 worth $47 million. He could command a potential $270 million max deal this summer. But a lot will depend on whether “The Beard” can have a throwback series against Miami.