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James Harden’s 2022-23 preseason debut should provide optimism for the Sixers

The star guard produced a poor shooting line, but the tape reveals encouraging signs.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

James Harden made his highly anticipated 2022-23 preseason debut on Wednesday evening. After a 2021-22 that saw him hampered by a nagging hamstring injury, which altered his burst, fluidity and outside jumper, he enjoyed a healthy offseason to seemingly move past that affliction and return to the All-NBA mold of prior years.

Tyrese Maxey’s first-half flurry of 21 points and Montrezl Harrell’s late-game heroics were the bookends of a narrow victory, but Harden’s 19 minutes and his approach during those stints felt significant. Despite shooting just 3-of-9 from the floor for nine points, his performance should be interpreted favorably.

The crucial aspects to monitor were his aggression as a scorer — something the Sixers’ offense needed more of from him at times last season — explosiveness as a driver and vertical pop as a finisher. Harden looked improved in all three regards.

He took nine shots in 19 minutes, which extrapolates to 18 shots in 38 minutes. During his 21 regular-season games with Philadelphia, he averaged 13.6 shots in 37.7 minutes per night. In 12 playoff games, he averaged 13.2 shots across 39.9 minutes*. Albeit, a few of those shots came in transition and in scrambled situations, but it never really seemed as though Harden was bypassing field goals to the detriment of the offense. He cohesively blended individual creation and playmaking.

*This doesn’t account for varying possession counts, so it’s a rough approximation, but the comparison is still informative, even if imperfect.*

More importantly, though, he had little trouble getting downhill on his drives and holstered considerably more juice elevating around the rim. He consistently turned the corner against various Cavalier defenders and was quite spry in his transition from East-West ball-handling to North-South movement. The refs were very liberal in allowing contact on both ends, so he didn’t get a few foul calls he felt should’ve been issued; similarly, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen had some justifiable gripes with the lack of calls as well.

Regardless, when Harden was determined to drive, he was not stymied. Those endeavors were always crisp and fluid. I can’t remember a single time he truly didn’t generate an advantage downhill when he wished. That was certainly not the case last season. Whether the preseason is a salient harbinger is worth wondering, but his burst and lift appeared starkly better than 2021-22.

The play that really jumps out from that sequence is his drive past Caris LeVert and missed layup against Allen. He requires little time to accelerate off the catch — often, his top-tier burst last season succeeded a lengthy dribbling sequence — and elevates well to fashion a genuine chance. Yes, he misses the finish, but Allen is a premier rim protector. The fact Harden gets this far off the ground via a one-foot jump is splendid.

A season ago, this play might result in a blocked shot in which Harden barrels into Allen and barely bounces off the floor. It’d be ugly. He had an opportunity here. He wasn’t doomed as soon as Allen entered the frame. That matters under the stipulation of process vs. results in preseason basketball. Most rim protectors aren’t anywhere close to as adept as Allen. That drive will frequently be fruitful.

On a related note, let’s assess the quality of Harden’s nine shots. Two are included above. I deem them viable. If you disagree, I’d understand. Below, are four more. The shots not shown above or below are an open, made three following a steal, a breakaway layup after a turnover and an open, missed pull-up triple in transition.

These are all comfortable shots. He misses a wide-open floater, but that is good process. If Allen is going to sit on Joel Embiid’s roll, Harden should take that. Ideally, the floater efficiency perks up again this year. He misses a stepback midrange jumper. I wrote this summer that’s a shot he should feature more. The lane is crowded, so he applies his strength against an undersized defender to manufacture space and avoids an ill-advised drive. He can hit that shot.

He misses a finish over Robin Lopez, but the elevation is encouraging and he pleads for the foul. I’m not sure whether it was legitimate, but he might’ve been hit on the arm or head by Lopez or Mitchell; like I said, the officials allowed substantial contact for both defenses. He also misses an open three after a loose ball scramble.

All nine shots are conceivably within his wheelhouse. Don’t glance at the box score and frown. If he took 16-22 shots akin to those every game, he and the Sixers would likely be in a good spot. It’s all about “the how” and “the how” passes the test.

His playmaking, as it almost always is, was on point, too. One setup involving him felt emblematic of this team’s offensive potential.

He drew a pair of defenders out of a pick-and-roll, spurring a chain reaction to yield a wide open Maxey long ball. Embiid’s own gravity exacerbates the problem for Cleveland. The pin-in screen from P.J. Tucker is a perfect penultimate portion. He set a few of those Wednesday. That awareness from him is going to behoove Philadelphia’s shooters. Harden’s skip pass is on the money.

There’s less to dissect in this next one. Yet Harden’s pace, ability to prevent Isaac Okoro from fully recovering and accuracy to loft a pass overtop where only Embiid can snag it is maestro initiating. He checked a ton of boxes Wednesday and simply makes the Sixers’ offense hum at a very high level.

The lone blemish on Harden’s outing process-wise was periodically sloppy ball control. On a few instances, he squandered the stage to boogie because he couldn’t hold onto the rock. This issue plagued him virtually all of 2021-22. The optimistic perspective suggests he’s shaking off some rust after 4.5 months away from NBA action. The pessimistic lens suggests he’s still going to struggle gathering on drives and his trademark stepback triples.

I skew much closer to the former, while also noting the overarching offensive decline it hinted at last season. Harden’s handle has long been a prominent asset for him, though; if he’s truly back to pre-2021-22 ways (even if below MVP form), he will be fine. Worries should swell if it persists the next few weeks. For now, it’s a happening I’ll track and assess as more data becomes available.

Whenever I pen analysis about preseason hoops, I underscore the value of process over results. Harden’s 2022-23 debut is a prime example of why. The shots didn’t fall. He only took two free throws. But wipe away the fog that is a contextless box score and hope prevails.

He collapsed the defense routinely. His shot profile was all stuff he’s qualified for. He sprung off the floor for finishes rather than plodding into big men and tossing up prayers. His passing remains exquisite. Whether his burst will continue to suffice once defenders shift into regular-season mode cannot be prophesied. Harden, however, is assuredly better equipped this year to endure such a defensive shift than he was last season. That is what’s most relevant — at least for now.

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