NEW YORK — The present can't possibly look too bad for James Harden.
The game after setting a career high and tying the Sixers' franchise record with 21 assists, he ended a Christmas showdown against the Knicks with 13 dimes. And, with Joel Embiid on the bench ahead of his final stint, Harden drained tightly contested three-pointers, fed Georges Niang open jumpers, and helped guide the 20-12 Sixers to an eighth win a row.
Still, wearing an exceptionally colorful coat at the podium following the game, Harden was bound to be asked about his future. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported around an hour before tip-off that Harden is "seriously considering" a return to the Rockets in free agency if he does not sign a new contract with the Sixers.
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“I’m here, we’re playing very well and I don’t know where that report came from," Harden said. "But I’m excited to be here and we’re playing well. We’re continuing to get better.”
There's nothing controversial with Harden's view that the Sixers are playing quite well. They haven't been close to perfect during their winning streak, but the team has continued to find solutions at moments where games might slide downhill. Harden has talked about enjoying that process, too, and he's also noted that he and Embiid don't have many reps together yet. In the regular season, the Sixers are now 24-12 when that duo plays.
Regardless, reporting on what's next for Harden merits attention. The 33-year-old declined his player option this past summer and then signed a two-year, $68.6 million deal with the Sixers that has a player option in Year 2. That contract enabled the Sixers to sign two of Harden's former Rockets teammates in P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.
At media day in late September, Harden sounded like he expected a long-term stay in Philadelphia.
“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.”
The Sixers didn't have a championship-contending sort of start to this season. When Harden went down with a right foot tendon strain on Nov. 2, they were 4-5 and desperate for consistency and stability. Playing the Eastern Conference's best defense in the 14 games Harden missed sure helped on those fronts. With greater clarity about the Sixers' defensive schemes, communication issues have become much less prevalent. They've lately appeared to be a team with formidable star talent, elite defensive potential, and role players with both toughness and the tools to do their jobs.
Harden is clearly going to be a big part of however this season turns out. Asked if he's figured out when to take over games and when to facilitate, his confidence was not feigned.
“Yeah," he said. “And then it’s a constant communication between me and Doc. If he sees a play ... he’ll let me know. And tonight was one of those scenarios where he just let me go, we found something, and we got what we wanted out of it every possession.”
Of course, Tyrese Maxey's return is a less distant future topic than Harden's next offseason. The 22-year-old was out again Sunday, but he went to New York with the team and Rivers said Friday he's "close" to coming back from his left foot fracture.
Harden certainly doesn't mind thinking about that.
“We’re going to add Tyrese back into the equation," he said. “He’s a huge part of what we want to do. It won’t be that hard. There’s a lot of questions, but it’s good questions to have, good problems to have.”