James Harden made his return to the Sixers on Monday following a monthlong absence, but it wasn’t as triumphant as hoped. He finished with 21 points on 4-of-19 shooting, seven assists and seven turnovers in the Sixers’ 132-123 double-overtime loss to the rebuilding Houston Rockets.
Some rust was inevitable for Harden, and this was the final game of a long road trip. Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang, two of the team’s best three-point shooters, also weren’t active. It’s important not to overreact to one disappointing regular-season game.
With all of that said, Monday’s loss was a microcosm of some concerning trends that have emerged with Harden this season. As such, it’s fair to wonder whether he’s the right long-term fit alongside Maxey and Joel Embiid, and what the Sixers’ alternatives are if they decide he isn’t.
Harden got off to a sizzling start this season, averaging 26.8 points on 48.6 percent shooting, 9.8 assists, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 triples over his first four games. His efficiency quickly cratered from there, though, as he averaged only 18.2 points on 39.1 percent shooting, 10.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 three-pointers (on 28.6 percent shooting from deep) over his next five before going down with his foot injury.
Harden is leaning more into mid-range shots than he ever has before, which is a welcome development from a three-level scoring perspective. Beyond that, though, he’s been far too heliocentric given the Sixers’ other personnel.
Heading into Tuesday, Harden ranked third leaguewide in number of touches per game (93.7), trailing only Tyrese Haliburton (96.8) and Nikola Jokic (94.8). He’s second in overall time of possession (9.0), behind only Luka Doncic (10.0), and he’s averaging nearly six seconds and five dribbles per touch.
Harden is averaging a team-high 9.7 assists per game, which helps justify some of that heavy usage. He is by far the best passer on the team, which head coach Doc Rivers noted leading into Monday’s game.
“Our passing and our ball-handling has been limited,” Rivers told reporters in reference to Harden’s absence. “Let’s just be honest there. And we’re probably the only team in the NBA without a true point guard, but James is as close to that as we have. Especially, with his ability to see the floor and pass.”
However, Harden also tends to revert to his isolation-heavy Houston form at times, which often leads to disastrous results. That was on full display on the Sixers’ final possession in regulation against the Rockets.
I still can't believe *this* is what the Sixers ran as their final play in a tie game in regulation. pic.twitter.com/HqHy2qDZYo— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) December 6, 2022
With Harden on the floor, the Sixers are averaging 114.8 points per 100 possessions overall (69th percentile leaguewide) and 100.3 points per 100 possessions in half-court settings (78th percentile leaguewide), according to Cleaning the Glass. However, they’re generating relatively few transition opportunities. Harden lineups are running a massive 83.1 percent of their plays in the half-court, which ranks in the 6th percentile leaguewide.
Harden’s probing, deliberate style may translate better to the playoffs, where the game tends to slow down a bit, but the Sixers also need to get him more involved off the ball. Only 8.0 percent of his shot attempts on the season have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, whereas a whopping 60.5 percent have been pull-ups. He’s shooting only 37.8 percent overall and 33.9 percent from three-point range on those off-the-dribble looks, too.
Harden is never going to be a movement shooter like Stephen Curry, but opponents might begin sagging off him if they aren’t worried about him as a catch-and-shoot threat. That could clog space for Embiid around the basket, much like Harden’s predecessor did.
There isn’t an easy out for the Sixers if they did decide to pivot away from Harden, though. Since the Sixers have his Bird rights and he can become a free agent in 2023 if he declines his $35.6 million player option, he would have to consent to any trade involving him this season.
Even if the Sixers wanted to cut their losses on Harden and he agreed to be traded, it’s unclear whether they’d be able to recoup much value for him. Interested suitors likely wouldn’t give up the farm for a 33-year-old showing signs of potential decline, especially since he might only be a half-season rental.
The thornier question is what happens next summer.
The latest salary-cap projection for the 2023-24 season is $134 million. The Sixers already have $117.1 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, which doesn’t include players such as Danuel House Jr. ($4.3 million) or Montrezl Harrell ($2.8 million) picking up their respective player options. Georges Niang, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle and Paul Reed are all set to become free agents as well.
If Harden left in free agency, the Sixers still might not have any cap space unless they allowed Niang, Milton, Thybulle and Reed to walk as well. Even in that scenario, they’d have only around $11.4 million—including five incomplete roster charges—along with the $5.9 million room mid-level exception to fill eight roster spots.
In other words, the cap-space route is likely a non-starter regardless of what Harden does.
Harden could always pick up his player option to punt the Sixers’ long-term decision to 2024-25. However, that seems unlikely unless he suffers a major injury this season. Even if he can’t find a team that’s willing to give him a contract worth more annually than his current deal, he’d likely opt out and sign a 1+1 deal (if not longer) to give himself additional financial security.
Only seven teams currently project to have cap space next summer, according to Danny Leroux of The Athletic: the Rockets, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and Oklahoma City Thunder. All seven are in the midst of rebuilds, which likely wouldn’t appeal to Harden given his age and urgency to win a championship. The Los Angeles Lakers are the one wild card, as they could carve out upward of $30 million in cap space and would offer Harden the opportunity to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Unless Harden signed with the Lakers, his best path off the Sixers seems like a sign-and-trade. The Sixers likely wouldn’t recoup the full value they sent out to acquire him, but perhaps they would at least get one first-round pick and/or a flier on a young prospect. (Think along the lines of the Toronto Raptors fetching Precious Achiuwa for Kyle Lowry.)
From there, the Sixers might look to move off Tobias Harris, who would be on a $39.3 million expiring contract. They could seek to salary-dump him on one of the rebuilding teams with cap space if they’re eyeing one of the major prizes on the free-agent market, or they could look to break up his contract into multiple rotation players. P.J. Tucker would likely be expendable as well, although it’s difficult to imagine him having positive trade value at $11 million next year and with an $11.5 million player option in 2024-25.
If the Sixers continue their uninspired play once they get back to full strength, a significant retool next summer could be the better long-term play than doubling down on this core. However, they might take a significant step back in that scenario.
Let’s hope Harden, Embiid and Maxey can get this team back on track at some point in the coming weeks and months. Otherwise, the Sixers could be facing uncomfortable questions next summer.