You’re forgiven if you don’t remember the Sixers’ win over the Bulls back on Oct. 29. That same night, the Phillies were playing Game 2 of the World Series in Houston.
But for those of us that did tune into the Sixers, we remember Joel Embiid and James Harden rolling in the first half. Embiid had 12 points in 12 minutes and was 6 of 9 from the field. Harden had a tough shooting night, but doled eight assists before halftime. Even P.J. Tucker, who has drawn the ire of sports talk radio and Twitter folks for not scoring, had eight points heading into the locker room.
So, why as the calendar rolls to December do I bring up this mostly forgettable win in Chicago from over a month ago?
Because it was the last time we saw Embiid and Harden on the court at the same time. The Sixers’ superstars have played just six games together. Considering the way the injuries have piled up, it’s somewhat impressive that the team has managed a 12-11 record through 23 games.
But it’s impossible to make any sweeping declarations on the 2022-23 Sixers until we see the team the way it was intended to be deployed.
The Sixers have truly been two different teams in the games Harden has played without Embiid and the games Embiid has played without Harden. As one would expect, the offense hummed with Harden at the helm and the defense has been stifling with Embiid on the back end.
During the first nine games of the season — of which Harden played all nine — the Sixers were fourth in the NBA in offensive rating. The Beard averaged 22 points (on 59.1 percent true shooting) and 10 assists in those contests. Harden has been out since Nov. 3. Since then, the Sixers have the third-worst offensive rating in the NBA.
Breaking news: the Sixers’ offense is significantly better when James Harden plays.
There’s been a lot of odd hand-wringing and revisionist history about Harden’s acquisition recently. Some have lamented the team not landing standout guard Tyrese Haliburton from the Kings before he was ultimately moved to the Pacers. A source told Liberty Ballers that discussions with Sacramento surrounding Ben Simmons never got serious. Multiple sources said the Sixers were uninterested in De’Aaron Fox, who the Kings reportedly dangled. Meanwhile, Sacramento had its sights on Domantas Sabonis in a trade that’s seemingly working out for both sides.
It’s fair to wonder how Harden will ultimately fit with Embiid and the rest of the Sixers. Pondering that is basically the crux of this article. But that’s not to take anything away from Harden. An obviously compromised version had his moments last season despite a brutal ending. He also looked pretty darn good in the nine games he did play this season. Health is a concern, but when Harden is healthy, he can still play at a high level.
If both Harden and Embiid are healthy, can they mesh together to get the most out of this Sixers roster on both ends?
From Embiid’s return to the lineup on Nov. 7 vs. Phoenix to the game where he suffered a mid-foot sprain against Minnesota on Nov. 19, the Sixers had the league’s best defensive rating at 101.7. Over the first nine games of the season the Sixers were 19th in defensive rating. As it stands on Dec. 5, they’ve moved all the way up to fourth.
Breaking news: the Sixers’ defense is significantly better when Joel Embiid plays.
Embiid made his return to the lineup last Monday. Harden seems poised to come this Monday in Houston. In the not-too-distant future, Tyrese Maxey will return from the small fracture in his foot.
But while those players were out, Shake Milton and Tobias Harris were awesome.
We’ve seen Harris adapt more than any player on the Sixers’ roster once Harden arrived. Harris became more of a quick-trigger, high-volume three-point shooter and honed in his defensive ability. That’s likely the role Harris will assume again — perhaps with the occasional mid-post back down of a smaller defender.
Milton’s situation could be a bit trickier. As we’ve seen, Milton has had success when he has the ball in his hands. The Sixers deploying three high-usage players in Embiid, Harden and Maxey doesn’t leave much Wilson left for Milton.
But as Rivers said last week, these are good problems to have. There’s no such thing as having too many players that can dribble, shoot and pass. That’s why much of this will likely come down to the coach. How can he get the most out of Embiid and Harden? Who should Maxey play his minutes with? Where does Milton fit into a crowded rotation suddenly teeming with capable playmakers?
Those are questions that can’t be answered right now, but will need to be soon enough.
If they find the right answers, maybe we’ll forget about a random Phillies’ win in June because we were watching the Sixers.