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How James Harden can help elevate the Sixers’ offense

From his step-back threes to his elite playmaking, James Harden can do a lot to improve the Sixers.

Brooklyn Nets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It happened. After months of wondering how or when the Ben Simmons saga would come to an end, Daryl Morey’s patient approach paid off perfectly. Just before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, the Sixers sent Simmons to Brooklyn in a deal for James Harden.

Harden is the best player the Sixers could have realistically acquired in a Simmons trade this season. Now, they have a real chance to maximize Joel Embiid’s MVP-level campaign and actually contend in the playoffs.

After generally lacking the perimeter creation that was needed next to Embiid for years, the Sixers now have a backcourt featuring James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, who’s developing fast and already showing star upside.

Even in what had been more of a down year so far in Brooklyn for Harden — with a rough start, some hamstring issues, and recently being ready to leave the team entirely — he’s still averaged 22.5 points, eight rebounds and 10.2 assists per game with a 57.6 true shooting percentage. Just last year with the Nets, he put up 24.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.9 assists on 61.9 percent true shooting, working extremely effectively alongside his star teammates.

From his scoring arsenal to his top-tier passing, Harden brings so much to the table that can elevate the Sixers’ offense, so let’s break it down.

Isolation play and shot creation

We all know Harden can score. His years of ludicrous scoring volume and efficiency have helped him become one of the top offensive players in NBA history.

Even though he isn’t quite what he used to be athletically right now, he still gives the Sixers more shot-making that they simply didn’t have. Isolation plays have accounted for at least 31 percent of Harden’s scoring possessions in each of the last two seasons in Brooklyn. And after ranking in the 88th percentile last season, he’s still in the 83rd percentile this year.

Injuries and a decline in burst haven’t helped Harden’s finishing at times this season — he’s made 57.4 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket, the worst mark since his rookie year. However, just last season he made 67.4 percent of these shots, and can still utilize his strength, crafty footwork, shifty hesitations, and touch to operate effectively with floaters and drives to the rim. Maxey has helped significantly with his driving ability, but the Sixers could still use plenty more of what Harden offers downhill. If he’s healthy and fully engaged in a new situation, his finishing numbers could soon climb up again.

Harden’s interior scoring is massively helped by the fact that he’s one of the league’s experts in drawing contact, too. He’s averaged eight free throw attempts per game this season, with a higher free throw rate (.496) than a year ago (.440). While Embiid is tied for first place in the NBA with 11 free throw attempts a game, the Sixers only rank 12th in free throw attempts as a team because no one else on the roster gets to the line that much (Tobias Harris is second behind Embiid at just 3.6 attempts). It may not always be pretty, but Harden can routinely power his way to the rim and draw contact to rack up easy points at the line. The Sixers haven’t had this from a perimeter player since Jimmy Butler left.

Then there’s Harden’s signature step-back three. The vast majority of his three-pointers come off the dribble, with only 24.2 percent of his threes over the last two seasons being assisted. Threes make up a large chunk of Harden’s shot profile overall, at 50.9 percent of his field goal attempts over the last six years (including a lower 43.5 percent rate this season). Even with Maxey’s growth creating threes off the bounce and Seth Curry’s silky shooting which the Nets can now enjoy, the Sixers haven’t had a player with anything near Harden’s level of craft and volume off the dribble.

Before shooting a slightly cooler 34 percent on six pull-up threes per game this season, Harden shot 36.4 percent on pull-up triples over the previous four seasons on a staggering 2,522 total attempts. With his volume and shot difficulty to create space out of nothing or fire when contested, that’s rather impressive.

The addition of Harden’s high-level shot creation will give the Sixers’ offense the kind of counter it just hasn’t had. For reference, Harden’s average of six pull-up three attempts per game this season isn’t that far behind the Sixers as an entire team — they rank 25th in the NBA at 7.9 per game. When Embiid is being hounded by aggressive double teams, or simply taking a rest on the bench, they can look to Harden now to create different shots from range.

Part of the reason Harden was frustrated in Brooklyn was reportedly due to having too high a workload with Kevin Durant’s recent MCL injury and Kyrie Irving not being able to play in home games. Embiid, an MVP-level talent and the NBA’s leading scorer at 29.4 points per game, is the Sixers’ top offensive weapon and should continue to be the focal point. Maxey continuing to succeed in a larger role can lighten some of the burden on Harden, too.

Harden wanting to come to Philly is a key part of why this trade finally happened. And if he wants to be the running mate to another superstar and not have to work as hard offensively, this new situation should keep him happy and potentially help his efficiency in the process.


Since breaking out as a perennial MVP candidate with the Rockets, Harden has established himself as one of the very best passers in the league.

He can make any kind of pass you could ask for. And because he excels with so many different kinds of reads that are going to help the Sixers, I’ve decided to look at a few specific types of pass that are going to be particularly valuable.

Entry passes

Let’s start with something simple. As dominant as Embiid has been this season, the Sixers have lacked quality entry passers. Whether guys are missing him sealing off defenders under the basket, struggling to pass to him in traffic, or simply taking too long to get him the ball, it’s been a real hindrance at times.

Before even getting into the more complex reads Harden can make, this is where he can help with simple actions immediately.

For instance, just look at the plays in the clip below. Harden is near half court when Kevin Durant is establishing positioning by the basket, and still delivers these passes right on target over the top of the defense:

No one else on the Sixers even attempts these passes, let alone has the ability to routinely place them perfectly over a defense.

Harden hasn’t played with a dominant post center like Embiid before, but has all the vision and precision needed as a passer to set up the big fella on time and in the right spots.

Pocket passes

The is where the Sixers’ main offensive adjustment will come into play, by embracing more pick-and-roll. Philly is still below average in terms of pick-and-roll usage this season, and will need to learn how to increase it to get the most out of Harden.

Harden is a masterful passer in these situations. He processes the game quickly yet has the patience and handle to wait until openings arise, look off and manipulate defenders to send them the wrong way, and can fit a range of passes through tight windows. It’s hard for defenses to trap Harden because he can so easily fire passes through these small gaps, fling precise lobs over defenders, or drop off unexpected behind-the-back dimes. He also knows exactly how to lure in a second defender with the threat of his jumper or floater before setting up a teammate.

Over his career, Harden has typically had his success setting up high-flying rim runners, like Clint Capela in Houston. This isn’t where Embiid’s strengths lie. He’s never been a big rim runner or lob catcher — partly because he’s never excelled as a screener/roller and doesn’t love catching lobs, and partly due to the fact he hasn’t had the kind of high-level passing (and shooting) guards to help him out.

Fortunately for the Sixers, though, Embiid has improved his screening and movement/scoring off the ball this season. Harden’s creativity and timing as a passer will create easier opportunities for Embiid as he rolls down the lane, pops out to the arc for three, or uses his go-to short rolls to work in the mid-range. Just look at how effectively Harden set up LaMarcus Aldridge in his mid-range sweet spots with the Nets and imagine Embiid in Aldridge’s place.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Embiid’s continually developing passing shine more in short-roll situations either. Harden can set up Embiid on time in space to either survey the floor and attack, or make an extra pass after he and his new co-star have pulled in the defense’s attention.

Skip passes and kick-outs

Harden excels when sending passes back outside to shooters, too. He passes with speed and precision, and brings a completely new level of vision to the Sixers. With impromptu kick-outs from drives and heady skip passes out of pick-and-rolls, Harden can make advanced reads to set up shooters.

Combine the gravity of Harden passing out of drives and Embiid passing out of double teams in the post, and the Sixers should have an easier time creating open shots. And if Embiid is being double teamed or denied the ball in the post, or he’s off the floor, Harden can be trusted to take over and pick apart defenses.

This is also where Maxey’s rapid growth as a shooter will help him off the ball next to Harden, and why it could make sense for Danny Green to re-enter the starting lineup full-time. The more reliable shooting Philly has around its two stars, the better. If Green doesn’t start, Matisse Thybulle still provides notably improved cutting as the starting small forward, and should continue finding even more lanes to dart to the rim alongside Harden.

Tobias Harris isn’t a high-volume shooter, but has come into form again over the last six weeks and has shot 43.1 percent from three since the start of January. If he’s going to be any more decisive as a shooter and up his attempts at all, it’ll be now with Harden generating easier looks for him. Maybe Furkan Korkmaz can rediscover his shooting form from the last two seasons, and Isaiah Joe potentially playing more minutes would provide more quick-trigger shooting as well. Filling out the rotation with some extra depth — like a new backup guard and center — in the buyout market is something else that will help the Sixers.

Ultimately, Harden’s passing ability could easily be the most valuable part of his arrival in Philly.

No, Harden isn’t a perfect offensive fit. His lack of activity as an off-ball mover and spot-up shooter has long been one of his main flaws offensively, which isn’t ideal next to Embiid. It’s hard to expect much (if any) change from Harden’s off-ball play at this stage of his career, but any added cutting or relocation for spot-up threes alongside Embiid would help. Time will be needed for them to develop chemistry, adjust, and learn how to best complement each other.

The Sixers need what Harden excels at, though. Whether he’s creating out of pick-and-rolls or simply toying with defenders in isolation, he’ll be adding brand new elements to the team’s attack. Harden can elevate those around him as a passer and is fully capable of leading the team at a high level whenever Embiid is off the floor. Doc Rivers should finally embrace staggering his top players as well (emphasis on “should,” not necessarily “will”). He can have at least one of Embiid or Harden on the floor at all times, and even stagger Maxey and Harden somewhat to help maintain more guard creation.

If Harden can benefit from good health and the motivation of playing for the team he wants to be a part of, that should only help his performance and efficiency as this season continues.

Harden is going to make a serious difference improving some of the Sixers’ key weaknesses, and they have a real chance to contend now because of it.

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