For years, the Philadelphia 76ers have had a problem (well, many problems, but I’m only focusing on one specifically for this article). Whenever Joel Embiid hit the bench, the team completely fell apart. If you want to see a Sixers fan have a mini-stroke, bring up Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when Embiid was a plus-10 across 45 minutes of play in the two-point loss. Backup center Greg Monroe was a minus-9 in two minutes, which is honestly impressive as a sheer statistical improbability.
Every year, Sixers fans have bemoaned how the lack of a suitable Embiid backup dooms the roster. Even last year, after Dwight Howard did a nice job during the regular season, his inability to switch defensively or space the floor on offense rendered him ineffective in the postseason. While Andre Drummond acquitted himself well in his short time with the team this year, most observers anticipated a similar dynamic coming into play during the playoffs.
Following the trade with Brooklyn, however, it looks like the team may have an answer. And no, it’s not 37-year-old Paul Millsap, who has gotten the latest crack at backing up Embiid, but looked adrift amidst all the athleticism on the court Sunday afternoon in New York. Instead, it looks like James Harden’s arrival might simply make the backup center woes much less concerning.
Through the first two games, Harden has played over 13 minutes without Embiid on the court. The Sixers are plus-five in those minutes. Obviously, it’s a small sample size, playing against average to below-average teams in Minnesota and New York, but the early returns look good that things won’t fall apart without the big man on the floor.
Previously, not only would the defense collapse without Embiid in the game to anchor the backline, but the offense would stagnate without its fulcrum. Now, Doc Rivers has wisely chosen to go against his all-bench-lineup nature and keep either the former or the soon-to-be MVP on the court at all times. So even if the Sixers don’t have Embiid’s formidable defense in the game, Harden’s presence enables them to remain a well-oiled machine on offense. As the old saying on this website goes: Bucket = stop = bucket.
Check out a few plays from Harden without Embiid in the game. Every eye can be focused on James, but his signature step-back three is a skeleton key that unlocks any defense:
Of course, Harden is far from a one-trick pony, here showing off his ability to power into the paint and finish through multiple defenders:
Worries that Harden might no longer be able to handle a heavy workload seem ill-founded, enabling him to continue propping up Embiid-less units. The hamstring injury appears to be completely in the past, as James has averaged 37 minutes per game with the Sixers, right on his season average. Harden had this to say after the Knicks game on how he felt physically:
“I feel good. This is my second game in damn near a month. But my body feels great, man. Honestly, it feels great. I haven’t felt this way in a really long time — just my pop, me getting to the rim, my extra step. It feels really great. Just have to continue to work, continue to build my body, my legs, and just keep pushing.”
Doc Rivers even noted that the coaching staff left Harden in the game longer than they had originally anticipated:
“The game was so slow. We would usually take James back out at the beginning — I think at the nine-minute mark of the fourth — and bring him back in. But he walked over and he was like, ‘We’re walking the ball. It’s a foul every play. I literally have everything in the tank right now.’ And the trainers thought it was good, so we just left him out there.”
The James Harden Sixers era couldn’t be off to a better start and Joel Embiid’s life has been made a lot easier in more ways than one. Maybe all along the problem wasn’t so much that the Sixers needed someone to back up Embiid, but that they needed someone to star alongside him.
Stats per NBA.com/stats.
Quotes via NBA Content Network.