James Harden is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s already considered one of the 75 greatest players of all time. His run with the Rockets will go down as some of the greatest individual offensive basketball we’ve ever seen.
But respectfully, none of that is going to help the Sixers right now.
That’s why, to the 33-year-old’s credit, he’s adding new elements to his game. His ability to thrive in different ways alongside Joel Embiid could be what ultimately determines the Sixers’ fate.
“The thing with Joel and James is they have the ball on almost every possession,” Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ win over the Kings Tuesday. “They literally can shoot when they want to, right? So the more they pass, it makes their shots easier.”
Embiid has been the runner-up for MVP the last two seasons and is bullying his way into the conversations yet again with his recent play. In the four games since Harden returned to the lineup, Embiid is averaging over 40 points a game and shooting over 63 percent from the field.
Obviously, Harden’s presence makes life easier on Embiid.
But Harden’s overall play has been stellar and maybe the most encouraging thing about the Sixers’ three-game winning streak. After a rough night in his return to the lineup in Houston, The Beard is averaging 22.7 points on nearly 65 percent true shooting along with 14.3 assists a night over his last three.
It’s the exact type of role the Sixers envisioned when they acquired the 10-time All-Star ahead of last year’s trade deadline.
“James tonight, I thought he was unbelievable,” Rivers said after Sunday’s win over Charlotte. “He was the point guard, the facilitator and the scorer all at the same time. That’s exactly what we’re talking about; that was phenomenal.”
Harden’s late-career transformation is a little Chris Paul-like. Though Paul was never the scorer Harden was, he’s had to adjust his game, especially after dealing with a severe hamstring injury in his early-30s. And though both players are amongst the craftiest we’ve seen, they both have had to rely on that craftiness a bit more as they’ve aged.
While Harden has always been an excellent passer — including leading the league in assists in 2016-17 — it’s gone up another level as he’s played alongside other elite scorers like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Embiid. His assist percentage this is season is 44.7, which would be his highest mark since 2016-17. He’s played more like a point guard that can score than a two guard that can pass.
His gravity is opening up everything.
“He kind of describes his job as just helping us get easy baskets,” Matisse Thybulle said postgame Tuesday. “However we can use him to put stress on the defense, it really creates opportunities for us role players.”
Two new things Harden is using — that are also a little CP3-esque — are the midrange and post-ups.
Over the summer we saw Harden putting up a ton of midrange shots in his open runs. Those videos tend to be strategic, so it was likely Harden revealing what he had in his bag for the 2022-23 season.
And we saw Harden break out those midrange jumpers early in the season. In the loss to Milwaukee in the home opener, Harden was cooking from that area of the floor on his way to 31 points on a night where his three ball wasn’t falling (1 of 7).
“I’ve been working on my game this summer,” Harden said on the night of that loss. “I just took what the defense gave me. I had a couple of threes that I missed, but I can’t control it. You put the work in and you live with the results. Tonight, they gave me midrange shots and I took them.”
On the season, Harden is 18 of 29 (62.1 percent) from the midrange, per NBA.com. That’s on 206 total shot attempts, meaning 14 percent of his shots have come from the midrange. For context, Harden took just 51 of his 1,150 field goal attempts (or 0.04 percent) from that area of the floor last season with not nearly as much success (41 percent). The prior season, Harden attempted just 19 midrange shots.
Throughout his career, Harden has always looked to score three ways: threes, shots in the paint and free throws. This season he is on pace to obliterate his previous high in attempts — and have his highest success rate — in the midrange.
Posting up is something that’s also new to Harden. With his strength and skill, he’ll have an advantage over most smaller guards. Against Charlotte, he posted up and then found his way to an easy floater. Against Sacramento he posted up three times, leading to two Georges Niang threes and a late shot-clock fadeaway that was off the mark.
It’s just another tool in the toolbox.
“Just trying to find ways to be aggressive, whether it’s for myself or my teammates,” Harden said after the Kings win. “But just trying to bait the defense or be aggressive and score the basketball. Georges shot the ball well tonight. Just trying to find a different element to be aggressive in.”
It’s probably necessary to add a trigger warning for Sixers fans that watched Ben Simmons career here: there’s about to be talk of the “snug” pick-and-roll.
You’ll recall both Brett Brown and Rivers utilized that action with Simmons and Embiid. The results were mixed, but the pairing had their moments running it. It’s a simple action. The ballhandler posts up and then gets a screen from the big. It can put defenses in a bind and it can be particularly useful for teams that heavily double Embiid.
Rivers liked it with Simmons and Embiid, but you get the sense he (probably rightfully) believes it can be a go-to action for Harden and Embiid.
“Yeah, that’s something we’ve worked on,” Rivers said Tuesday. “It can be something really good for us — the post-up to the pick-roll. That tight pick-and-roll is a hard play to guard. And James, it’s funny, we talked about it this summer. And now that he’s doing it and Joel and him have a pretty good rhythm in it, that can be a really great down-the-stretch play for us.”
We heard a lot about Harden’s rigidness and unwillingness to adapt his game to his age when he first arrived. The Beard is not the MVP-level player we saw dazzle for nearly a decade in Houston, but he still has plenty to offer a team that already boasts a perennial MVP candidate and a young, rising star.
And if he keeps making the necessary changes and sacrifices, it’ll only increase the Sixers’ chances for postseason success.