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Appreciating James Harden, the NBA’s best entry passer

The Sixers’ starting point guard might do one skill better than anyone else in the league.

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in the third quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 113-93 win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, James Harden hurled one of the best passes I’ve ever seen. Well, I kind of saw it. This is the “best” version I’ve found thus far. The Pistons’ broadcast didn’t provide anything better either. Regardless, Joel Embiid and the Sixers logged two points as a result.

Harden had to have lobbed that from at least 75 feet and it was perfectly on the money. My goodness, what a delivery. And yet, the Sixers’ Twitter account didn’t tweet a better angle, nor did NBC Sports Philadelphia’s. The broadcast replayed the bucket prior, but not this one. It’s a Festivus for the rest of us (well, Friday) and I’m airing my grievances. This is my lone grievance for the year. Somebody, anybody, help me out. Gift me the all-encompassing angle of this assist, please. One of the many cameras inside Wells Fargo Center has to have it somewhere. I know that footage exists!

Fortunately, Harden regularly treats viewers and teammates to these sorts of dimes, albeit not to that magnitude. But the Philadelphia point guard simply has to be the league’s foremost entry passer, if not squarely among the leading candidates.

The placement, the gaul, the varied release angles, he tosses those suckers without any fear of repercussions. Sometimes, he lofts it with his dominant left hand. Other times, he flicks it like a two-handed chest passes. The height and endpoint always seem to be just beyond the defender’s sprawling limbs. He’s akin to a quarterback plopping the ball in his receiver’s bread basket and allowing them to stay in stride on the move. I’ll spare you the obvious, cringe-worthy quip of Harden filling in for the injured Jalen Hurts on Saturday. You’re welcome.

Embiid is the most common beneficiary of this skill, but guys like Tobias Harris and Montrezl Harrell also reap the rewards. If there was one type of play to summarize how Harden’s arrival has amplified Embiid, this would be it. Well, that or his creative, punctual pocket passes. This dude can really sling it, huh?

Since Harden arrived 10 months ago, he and Embiid have played 34 regular season games together. In those contests, the 28-year-old is averaging 32.5 points on 63.9 percent true shooting. That’s all right, I suppose. Thirty-three a game would move me more.

Embiid consistently seals off smaller players, which is almost anyone, really, and Harden feeds him seamlessly. For years, entry passes plagued Philadelphia as a weak point of the roster. Few could get the ball to their superstar center when defenses fronted him; Danny Green might’ve represented the best entry passer of the Embiid Era at one point. Heck, Embiid might’ve been for a bit and that’s, uh, suboptimal. Dr. Harden remedies that ailment (sorry, Zumoff, there’s another Doctor here, but he’s part-time, I promise).

Fronting can still be a lucrative tactic for the opposition, especially when Bam Adebayo is that opposition. But it’s much tougher these days, thanks to Harden. The circumstances don’t have to align as smoothly for Embiid to score on a quick duck-in or seal as they used to either.

Harden’s scoring exploits may have diminished from their peak and his ceiling in that regard certainly looms relevantly for this team’s playoff outlook. The passing is simply exquisite, though, and it’s not something I appreciated to this degree before he joined the team I cover. It was just more challenging to recognize the full scope of watching him a couple times a week, at most, instead of a full-time basis.

One of the joys of analyzing players so intently and watching so often is identifying micro-skills. Harden’s entry passing falls into that category and I’ve grown to eagerly and blissfully await the next one every time he’s on the floor. His playmaking is a genuine delight to see. The bold, deft, arcing entry passes encapsulate said delight aptly, none more than Wednesday’s full-court wizardry. Well, that is if we ever receive an actual replay of it.

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