James Harden is a fascinating player to analyze. He no longer looks like the perennial MVP candidate of yesteryear, but still made the All-Star game this season, is producing gaudy numbers and has flashes of brilliance. He also has stretches where he looks well removed from star guard status.
So, who did the Philadelphia 76ers just trade for? How good is Harden these days? To answer these unknowns, I solicited the insight of Matt Brooks, who does an absolutely phenomenal job covering the Brooklyn Nets for Nets Daily. Let’s dive in.
How would you assess Harden’s season to this point, and what’s so different from last year before his hamstring injury?
We can be honest: He’s having a down year, posting his lowest true shooting and points per game since Barack Obama’s first term. Harden’s still surging downhill at will out of pick-and-rolls and knotting together opponent’s shoes as an elite isolationist, producing a rim rate that’s right in line with his career averages.
It’s his accuracy (54 percent, 23rd percentile, per Cleaning The Glass) that’s been greatly affected, likely a side effect of losing a portion of his burst and/or the springiness in his lift, due to last season’s recurring hamstring injury. Harden’s shown some trouble turning tight corners, which has affected his ability to beat aggressive coverages; thus, the career-high turnover rate.
Has he, in your eyes, been All-Star-caliber? Why or why not?
In short, yes. But just barely. He’s still good at what he’s good at, enough to be an All-Star, to put it simply.
While Harden’s numbers may automatically thrust him into the threshold of celestial goodness, it’s fair to wonder how much he actually contributed to winning this year — a strange sentence to read given that Harden was basically good for 45-plus wins in the uber-tough Western Conference all by himself for half a decade. This year, Harden’s Nets ex-lover of a basketball team went just 5-7 in games in which Harden played without Kevin Durant. Calling his production “empty stats” would be disingenuous, but it’s fair to say he hasn’t been the engine to wins that he once was.
How does he differ from peak Harden and why does that alter the way he should be deployed offensively?
I touched on it briefly, but the biggest thing he’s lost is his burst. Once upon a time, Harden was the basketball equivalent of a mountain bike, able to shift gears and change speeds to drop defenders in their tracks. Now, he’s more of, I don’t know, a fixie bike? Short the ability to juxtapose his impressive acceleration with his uncanny deceleration, Harden’s become significantly more predictable when trying to beat his man to the basket. What I’m saying is, he’s a one-speed dude now.
In general, high step-up screens tend to be the best way to get Harden going, as they give him a runway to thunder toward the basket for finishes and skip passes to the corner. In lineups with good spacing and a proficient roller, he’s still an absolute nightmare to defend; what this also means is that he’s much more lineup-dependent than peak Harden.
How do you see him fitting alongside Joel Embiid offensively? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that pairing?
Talent-wise, they should be excellent. Staggering their minutes could certainly pay dividends for Philadelphia as the two co-stars get acclimated early on. Philly can ideally throw together some pretty solid lineups that insulate Harden with ample spacing when he’s riding solo. Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Tyrese Maxey, Georges Niang, and Tobias Harris all come to mind.
Together, well, that’s where it gets a little trickier. Joel Embiid will likely have to tap into being utilized as a roll man more (he ranks among the bottom three in pick-and-roll frequency for players that have rolled to the rim 100 times or more, per Synergy).
Conversely, I get a little queasy thinking about Harden making the entry pass to Embiid posting up, Harden’s man doubling the superstar big, and Harden balking on the catch-and-shoot three after Embiid passes out. Seriously, it’s absolutely mind-boggling that such a talented offensive player is still this bad at nailing jumpers off the catch.
There will be growing pains, that’s for sure.
Where does he still thrive offensively?
You give this dude an even half-decent roller and fill the corners with plus shooters and he’s going to make the right read in the pick-and-roll pretty much every time. He is still an amazing passer when given open space to make plays and maybe the best lob-tosser in the game (I’m sure Luka Doncic would have something to say about that, but still). Oh, and the foul drawing is still ELITE. Like, 100th percentile on shooting-fouls-level-elite.
What are his limitations offensively?
I’ve mentioned the slight dip in burst and the incredibly frustrating unwillingness to do, like, anything off the ball. The untimely turnovers have also been rough. So, rather than repeating myself, here’s a new one: Harden could also greatly benefit from a midrange game. He’s knocked down 46 percent of his long midrange jumpers, good for the 84th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass, yet he barely takes any of them. Just 28 all season!
Oh, and can someone teach this dude to post up! He’s a 6’5 220-pound guard, go body up some poor saps in the post!
How would you describe the pros and cons of him as an off-ball player?
The pros are, uh. OK, let’s just skip to the cons. He doesn’t cut. Ever. He doesn’t even qualify as a cutter with the minimum number of possessions on NBA.com. Off-ball shooting, oh boy. It, too, is bad! He’s made just 30 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks this season, and he’s been a frequent candidate for defenses to help off of and clog the paint. His (in)ability to do literally anything as a spot-up threat is the lowest-hanging fruit for him to pick while he attempts to age gracefully into this next stage of his career.
What’re the issues with his defense and how has it ebbed and flowed this season?
I don’t want to sound like I’m being too negative about James Harden. He’s still a top-20 player in the league, in my humble opinion, and is a self-regulating engine to a top offense in the association.
But his defense is bad. Real bad. Activity-wise, Harden’s having his worst defensive season since his early years in Houston. Brooklyn ran a great deal of drop coverage to kickstart the year, and The Beard was basically roadkill while trying to navigate screens. Isolation situations were just as despondent; he was a total blow-by guy.
I’m sure you’ve seen the YouTube videos and/or the Twitter threads by now. Harden’s not an active nor attentive off-ball defender. His closeouts, well, don’t come close, and The Beard’s an omnipresent candidate to get back cut. Don’t even get me started on the transition defense. You and I would have a better shot at winning the gold medal in the Winter Olympics Bobsled competition with a blindfold on than Harden would at finding his man in the fastbreak.
It pains me to say this, but I’m really not sure I’ve seen a worse NBA defender this year. Hopefully, he picks it up in Philly in a new situation.