Let’s overthink this James Harden to Houston thing, and the Harden-Joel Embiid fit/relationship in general, shall we?
We can say it, Harden and Embiid isn’t an ideal fit. They each like to have the ball. When Embiid draws a crowd he can’t always make the right pass, and when he does, and the right pass is James, the third-most prolific three-point shooter in history ironically, hilariously doesn’t love to chuck ‘em up off the catch. (Him doing so anyway may just be the most important shot of the Sixers’ postseason).
Still, they’ve both adapted to each other. Embiid is rolling more than ever, and very recently, he’s even spacing the floor a bit. Something he’s let us know he was loathe to do at times when Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons were around. They have the 14th overall offense, and that’s despite missing Harden and Tyrese Maxey for lengthy portions of the year. They have an 89th percentile (119 points per 100 possessions) offense when Harden and Joel share the floor. Not too shabby.
It’s less than 40 games but the pairing has been pretty damn good, if not great. They just need to both be healthy at the same time.
But could Harden want to leave anyway?
Recently we’ve had ESPN’s Zach Lowe hinting at the idea of Harden opting out of his 2023 player option and testing free agency.
“There are a lot of whispers around the league that he wants to continue cycling through one-plus-one kind of deals,” Lowe said on The Lowe Post pod.
We’ve had ESPN’s Tim MacMahon “connecting the dots” on a possible Harden-Houston reunion on the “Howdy Partners” pod. We’ve had Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports both reporting on Christmas Day that Harden is at least open to a Houston return.
So I think we can safely conclude that Harden truly loves Houston and misses a lot about living there and sure, if the money (say Houston offers the same or more as the Sixers do) and vibe were right, he’d strongly consider a return.
Some extra context
Harden left almost as much money on the table dating back to 2020 as his entire career earnings! By turning down extensions in both Houston and Brooklyn, eyeing both a championship and perhaps a bigger payday, it wouldn’t be shocking if he felt he needed to “chase” some of that back.
Imagine this: you turn down a two-year $100M-ish dollar deal from Houston, because you knew it was a sinking ship. Then a year later you could have picked up your $47M option and tacked on $161M from Joe Tsai’s Nets, but you wanted to be a UFA in 2022 and maybe break records on a $260M payday. Many top reporters speculated there was a wink-wink in place that if Harden agreed to ask out of Brooklyn, he’d get a bag from the Sixers come July 2022. That obviously never happened. Perhaps the Sixers came to him, after a playoff flame out, with a much lower total than he expected or originally hoped for. And perhaps he turned it down in favor of this one-plus-one, and maybe even left feeling a certain kind of way. He still wasn’t too miffed to take a $13M haircut to make room for reinforcements and friends, but you get it. He needed to evaluate things over the next 12 months.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities if he felt something like: bro, I cost myself like three seasons worth of max money and we only have the ninth-best (+1800) title odds now? Look at the Nets! C’mon Daryl, make this worth my while. It’s cold here, and I don’t have my Mansion on my own ranch!
OK, so with maybe some of that swirling in your mind, you come to work every day. How is that part?
Is there any awkwardness or tension between Harden and Embiid?
This one is a little trickier to answer. Let’s do some tea leaf reading.
The team lost at home to the Miami Heat last season in the playoffs. Neither Joel nor James were quite healthy by that point.
Maybe some of that stuff contributed to Embiid’s seemingly frustrated post Game 6 comments, many construed as a passive-aggressive slight: “Obviously, I’m sure since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden, but that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, as with all of us, could’ve been more aggressive.”
Embiid also, hilariously, sort of took an indirect swipe at Harden (and I’d argue Daryl Morey) with this bit of damning by faint praise. When asked about the job Morey had done so far with the 76ers, Embiid said: “Pretty good. Since Daryl has got here I think he has done a fantastic job...Seth [Curry] was a huge part of what we did, and this year bringing in Andre [Drummond] who helped us a lot.”
Highlighting acquiring Andre Drummond before James freaking Harden is certainly a Troel special.
Embiid after Harden’s debut: "That was probably the most wide-open I've ever been in my career."— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 13, 2022
Embiid tonight: "Everybody expected the Houston James Harden. But that’s not who he is anymore."
Honeymoon period over. pic.twitter.com/EIcdNagcR6
It was even a little bit of déjà vu from Embiid’s post 2021 Game 7 “turning point” comments directed at Ben Simmons.
(I’ll let you decide if I think Doc Rivers having had so much trouble with personal accountability in Philly at least correlates with Embiid’s publicly putting down costars in back-to-back seasons when things go south).
So here’s what Woj said on this general theme a couple days ago:
“For all of Harden’s history and connection with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and CEO Tad Brown, his working relationships with Embiid and coach Doc Rivers resemble something closer to a work in progress.”
Hmm...later that day, Ian Begley of SNY chimed in as well:
“I know going back to the offseason, people familiar with the dynamic between Joel Embiid and James Harden said it wasn’t where everybody wanted it to be coming off that last year in Philadelphia.”
Fascinated yet, or are you rolling your eyes. Or both?
The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann hopped on our podcast last offseason and said he felt Embiid was frustrated with The Beard, so I think it’s safe to say that part is true.
And of course Bill Simmons of The Ringer added his two cents:
Bill Simmons claims Joel Embiid wanted Bradley Beal at the deadline, but begrudgingly accepted James Harden pic.twitter.com/NlMDxdzll0— The Wooderboys (@wooderboys) May 17, 2022
Did Joel once stump for Beal over The Beard? Could that be why he mentioned Seth and Andre as Morey’s great accomplishments?
Nobody mistakes him for “Houston James” anymore. But it’s probably not helpful to point that out to the media when he’s mulling over whether or not to stick around.
This season Harden is averaging 22 points, 11.2 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals, on 43-36.4-88 shooting splits.
But look the two were hugging after their eighth straight win!
December 25, 2022
Yaron said he wasn’t sure he trusted Morey’s quote about Harden & Jo getting along well but he asked around and people confirmed that’s true https://t.co/LGF3SbxzJz— Francis Parker (@franciszomes) December 22, 2022
Harden famously didn’t always appear to get along with Dwight Howard, later Chris Paul, and perhaps the Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant duo, although the Nets thing with vaccines was pretty out there, to be fair. Embiid didn’t get along with Ben Simmons. Doc’s had an extremely difficult time getting the most out of his No. 2 player over the years (see deploying Paul George like JJ Redick, or playing Ben Simmons alongside Dwight Howard for like seven months)... is this more combustible than we think?
More about role and fit, and the best version of this Sixers team
What about when they don’t share the floor?
When Embiid is out of the lineup, Harden is averaging a more robust 27.8 points, 9.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds per 36, shooting 42 percent from distance, with a TS percentage of 63, according to FantasyLabs.
Per @FantasyLabsNBA :— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 28, 2022
Harden w/ Embiid on, per 36:
16.8 pts, 11.3 ast, 5.7 reb, shooting 40% fg, 32% from 3, 5.8 FTA, TS% 56.5
Harden w: Embiid off, per 36:
27.8 pts, 9.3 ast, 6.9 reb, 47.4% fg, 42.4% from 3, 7 FTA, TS% 63.
Maybe room to grow as scorer when they share floor?
When Embiid is on the floor, The Beard takes more of a back seat, at least in terms of scoring as you can see above.
These splits are pretty similar to last season as well. Again, Harden isn’t the scorer he once was in Houston. But he’s certainly closer to it when Joel isn’t in the ballgame.
Philly offense is popping with both of them on the court, but there's a wrinkle in the "Harden is a washed, hamstringless husk of a man" discussion— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) April 10, 2022
All per 36:
JH + JE: 16.7 pts, 6.8 rebs, 9.9 asts, 6.3 FTA, 59.3% TS
JH - JE: 30.8 pts, 6.7 rebs, 10.3 asts, 15.4 FTA, 61.5% TS
Is it possible Harden would like things to be tweaked schematically? Is it possible he sees himself as somewhat more of a scorer than Doc and Joel see him? Could he feel like Paul George once felt under Doc, underutilized?
Per our Paul Hudrick a couple of days ago:
“This is a generational scorer that has taken [to] and decided to be a point guard,” Doc Rivers said postgame. “And that’s hard to do. ... Most people can’t do that — or will not do it is a better way of saying it. And the fact that he is willingly doing it, running the team, organizing us, it’s huge for us.”
Hudrick’s post continued:
“When told about Rivers’ comments Harden gave a similar look to the one that matches his now-famous GIF. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate his coach’s praise, it’s that Harden doesn’t really see this as anything transformative....
“A lot of people can’t transform their game, if that’s what you want to call it,” Harden said. “There’s only a handful of guys that be a really good scorer but still be a facilitator. It’s a credit to the work I’ve put in, my IQ and just going out there and being the playmaker that I am. I’ve always been a playmaker but in other scenarios I had to score a lot more. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here and it’s working well.”
It’s hard to know exactly how he feels but might he bristle at the way he’s viewed sometimes even by his own teammates or coaches? This almost reads like he’s defending himself from some narrative Doc inadvertently touched upon.
All this to say, Harden is adapting his game a lot here and may have certain feelings about it all.
A few days ago, Embiid told Cassidy Hubbarth of ESPN that “I think [James is] at a position in his career, he has to be more of a playmaker, you can see by the numbers, this year he’s probably gonna lead the league in assists.”
I wondered how Harden might hear that, “he has to be more of a playermaker” now given the context of all these Houston rumors, and given that it strikes such similar chords as Embiid’s post Game 6 dig.
I think back to this line. “With James, if you’re not 100 percent on his side, you’re his enemy,” a former Rockets staffer said, per Yaron Weitzman.
OK, I’m not Houston James, but sometimes ya’ll talk about me like... Obviously, I COULD shoulder a little more of the scoring burden, I score nearly twice as much whenever Joel takes a rest. We all talked about how Jo doesn’t have to try to lead the league in scoring anymore so he can focus a bit more on D.
Or something. And if James ever did think any of that, he probably wouldn’t be wrong.
Sixers really look dreadful defensively on fairly regular basis for a top-5 defense— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) December 28, 2022
Become a Sixers stats and splits expert!
In lineups without Joel, led by The Beard, the team has an 85th percentile +6.1 differential, 72nd percentile offensive rating (116 points per 100 possessions) and a surprisingly solid 82nd percentile defensive rating (109.9 points per 100 allowed) spanning 494 possessions, per Cleaningtheglass.com.
The most utilized no-Embiid lineup there was actually a small-ball look featuring James, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker and De’Anthony Melton. (Promise for a possible playoff unit, anyone?) But tossing one or both of Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell has had good results in small samples as well.
The team plays noticeably faster in these Harden on-Embiid off lineups.
They have an 80th percentile (16.8 percent) transition frequency, and score quite well on the run (a 92nd percentile 5.2 points added per 100 possessions).
With both stars on, by contrast, the team’s transition frequency plummets down to 13 percent, and 13th percentile while their efficiency plummets to 43rd percentile, contributing just 2.6 points per 100 possessions on the run, per Cleaningtheglass.com.
What about when Embiid is on and Harden is off? Do they play fast or slow?
They’re just 12th percentile in frequency of transition looks when Embiid is on and Harden is off. The tempo nearly slowing to a crawl in these instances.
So all in all, they play their fastest when Harden is leading bench units, slower when the starters are on the floor together, and slowest when Harden takes a blow and Joel keeps things afloat.
This makes some sense. Embiid’s alpha presence commands certain conditions, and Embiid routinely dominates. It’s just not at a quick tempo, as they rank 26th overall in pace.
It’s not exactly what Harden is used to despite his rep as a ball-deflating dribbler, as his teams have ranked 11th, 11th, and second, in pace over the prior three years before he came to Philly.
The Sixers ranked 27th in pace a year ago, when Ben Simmons was out of the lineup and Harden was still in Brooklyn. They were winning enough to be a fifth seed, but it was a slow, slow MVP-led burn.
To begin 4th Harden scores or assists on 8 straight Sixers pts cutting 9 point Wiz lead to 3 in 1.5 minutes. He drops 10 in under 2 min himself. Embiid reenters the game with 7:23. Harden never scores again.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 28, 2022
Love point Beard but they NEED to get him and Jo scoring together more pic.twitter.com/f2PA0YkI2a
So strange to watch James Harden play within an offense that isn’t all about him. Legit PNR’s being ran by Tobias and Embiid, actions to get Melton going off ball. Center isolations in the middle of the floor, never had this in Houston.— Apollo (@RedNationBlogga) December 22, 2022
We’ve seen time and again this season when Embiid sits, the team leans on James, the tempo picks up, and he gets buckets. And Joel is right about Harden needing to take on this bigger playmaking role as he declines.
Harden is averaging a league-high 11 dimes per game. Once he qualifies for games played, he’ll likely hold the crown there. A look at the Sixers bread-and-butter offense, led by their non-traditional point guard:
In the 16 games both Harden and Embiid have been active, the duo has played 464 total minutes together, + 98 on the year. And in that sample, Harden has logged a total of 619 minutes. Meaning The Beard is carrying the load, minus Joel for roughly 10 minutes per contest. The team is 10-6 in that span.
You can see why he scores so many more points per 36 when Embiid is off the floor.
Vs. the Knicks on X-mas:
Vs. Milwaukee, early in the year:
A couple nights ago when Embiid got into foul trouble:
And when Joel is out there, Harden does tend to struggle more at least as a scorer:
Rivers, we heard last summer, established a clear pecking order.
Doc Rivers is in mid-season form!— NBA (@NBA) September 30, 2022
Check out some of his best mic'd up moments from @sixers training camp pic.twitter.com/n41a4psPB2
“But what I’m trying to get Joel first is to establish himself, be a better post player....Alright, so, our objective is getting that first. And that’s why you gotta have the right spirit about it. And you gotta be a leader...”
At another point Doc and Beard had this interesting back and forth:
“You’ve been the President,” Rivers said.
“I ain’t the President no more,” Harden replied. “If you start judging him, well he averaged 30 at Houston, but he only averaged 20 here, that’s insane,” Rivers said, adding “Here, the No. 1 option is Joel. James has never been the second option.”
But might all of these public, to say nothing of potential private reminders, stir up certain feelings? Might P.J. Tucker have similar feelings, that the offense, as currently schemed up, could be a tad, just a tad more egalitarian?
On multiple occasions we’ve seen Harden really cooking, when Embiid reenters a ballgame and receives a few isolations from 30’ out. Is that the President pecking order? Where’s the crunch time pick-and-roll? They ran one vs. the Wiz down the stretch the other night and got a dunk. Then forgot about it.
Kind of a wild play call given the context of this game. You know they’re gonna double hard banking on Joel to take a crazy contested shot or make a crazy pass. Let Harden work a screen… pic.twitter.com/LcIUSehA7M— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) October 21, 2022
Joel didn’t say anything,” P.J. Tucker said. “Just called the play he wanted. That was it.”— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 14, 2022
So, he was calling his own number all night?
“They’re all for him anyways,” Tucker joked. “It’s just which one do you want to run?” https://t.co/lpQFB83v88
On Christmas Day, Harden had it really going. He was hot, and late in the game, when Embiid checked back in, he did something he doesn’t often do. Instead of setting the usual screen, he spot up in the corner to space the floor for James.
Harden took advantage of the extra space and made quick work of Julius Randle, and even froze Mitchell Robinson, trapped in no man’s land, worried about Joel. More of that, maybe?
We’ve read each report, listened to the pods, crunched the numbers, and watched the games.
My gut instinct says that Harden would enjoy his time in Philly at least a little bit more if he were scoring more even when Joel was in the game. We’re not talking an entire game’s worth. But maybe just a couple times per half, they could do more sets like the ones above. Maybe they could play at a tempo slightly closer to the one Harden’s preferred to play at. With Tyrese Maxey set to return, it’s a huge lift but things also get a little more complicated in terms of distribution.
Embiid is outplaying numerous stars right now and not even being considered as a top MVP candidate, why? I guess because the team’s record isn’t good enough and they Hate the Process. So maybe we could get that record up a little with several more spacing sets for James and Tyrese per night?
What if instead of Doc’s President and Vice President metaphors, and instead of Embiid’s he “has to be more of a playmaker now, he’s not Houston James” narratives we found new metaphors, not about pecking orders, not about our past selves but about responsibility and sacrifice.
Clearly, I’ve overthought this entire mess and some of you think I’m tacitly calling Harden unimaginably sensitive to take things so personally. But I’m not. Let me boil it down.
If Harden has some reason to want out next summer, and it makes sense that he might, the Sixers will have to pay to keep him. And in the meantime, there are also things the Sixers could do (on the court) to not only keep him happier, but simultaneously improve the team’s overall attack. Less President, Vice President. Less hero ball. More sharing. Just a bit. You can’t make Philly as warm as Texas. But you can at least get the money right and keep tweaking the offense.