The start of the James Harden-Joel Embiid partnership has been as thrilling as the Sixers and their fans could have asked for so far. Through two games, Embiid has averaged 35.5 points while being assisted on far more easy opportunities than he’s used to, and Harden has averaged 28 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists (to only 2.5 turnovers) and 2.5 steals with ease.
Despite having had just a couple of practices and games together, they already look comfortable working off each other, and their early pick-and-roll chemistry has stood out.
A two-game sample size is obviously tiny, but the numbers behind Harden’s early efficiency certainly match the film of how well he’s operated in the pick-and-roll to start his Sixers career. So far, the Sixers are producing a stellar 1.28 points per possession from Harden’s pick-and-rolls, including plays where he passes (that places him in the 98th percentile for such plays). With his masterful passing repertoire, driving ability, and signature step-back three, Harden can orchestrate pick-and-rolls and attract extra defenders in a way that the Sixers have never had in Embiid’s career. With Harden’s help, Embiid can continue the growth he’s shown as a screener and roller over the last year and enjoy the easy scoring chances that Harden’s passing creates.
They’ve started finding their rhythm in pick-and-rolls already. For instance, take the first play in the clip below. Embiid’s screen puts Evan Fournier well behind Harden, Harden drives until he’s pulled Mitchell Robinson out of Embiid’s path, and then hits Embiid with a pocket pass at just the right moment when it’s too late for Robinson to contest properly. It’s one of plenty of examples of Harden’s pass and Embiid’s movement down the lane being timed well.
Embiid isn’t always going to dive to the rim or elevate for lobs like the centers Harden is used to excelling with, but he doesn’t need to. He likes short rolls into the mid-range where he can survey the floor or fire jumpers, and he thrives in those settings. If Harden can find Embiid near the basket, he can leave it up to his new big man to shoot, overpower defenders, or draw a foul.
Embiid knows he can react to what the defense gives him, and rely on Harden to either make the right pass on a roll down the lane, fire a lob over defenders in the paint, or bounce a timely pocket pass to exactly where he needs it for a jump shot.
“Sometimes I’m going to pop, sometimes I’m going to roll,” Embiid explained after Sunday’s game against the Knicks. “But like I said, (Harden) attracts so much attention, so you can’t go wrong with both choices. If that night I’m making a lot of outside shots, I’m probably going to pop a lot. And then tonight [against New York], I just saw that I could get to the free throw line really whenever I wanted. That’s why I was so aggressive.”
And if a clear pass to Embiid isn’t available or he pulls in extra defenders, Harden can create for himself with strong drives, floaters in the lane, or his trusty step-back three. Again, the Sixers simply haven’t had a player with these scoring counters — both inside the arc and from distance — to take pressure off Embiid creating so much himself.
Even when Harden and Embiid aren’t scoring themselves, the attention they command from defenses can create opportunities for others.
Here, the Timberwolves get aggressive against Harden and blitz him at the screen to take away space to drive or pull-up for three. Harden promptly passes to Tobias Harris on the wing, and as Embiid starts rumbling down the lane, Anthony Edwards leaves the strong-side corner to tag Embiid’s roll and take away an open finish. At this point, Danny Green is left wide open for a corner three:
Even if D’Angelo Russell shifted over to tag the roll instead and Edwards kept guarding the strong-side corner, Embiid could be set up inside with a mismatch on Russell to attack.
Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle has found some openings to cut on plays like the following. Harden and Embiid initiate a side pick-and-roll, and Thybulle clears out and drifts over to the weak-side. Fournier ignores Thybulle at this point and steps into the lane to help stop Harden’s drive, while Embiid slips away from the screen and pulls Jericho Sims with him. Once Harris’s defender, Alec Burks, has stunted towards Harden as well, there are four defenders swarming around Harden and Embiid. Thybulle cuts behind Julius Randle, and Harden hits him straight away for a quick finish:
Randle needed to be more switched on here, but Thybulle has improved a lot as a cutter and he’s going to get open lanes when three or four defenders are focused on Harden and Embiid.
Tyrese Maxey is a beneficiary of Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls, too. Maxey has done a great job playing next to Harden in general so far, averaging 24.5 points on 66.7 percent shooting through their first two games together. He’s flying out in transition, shooting threes when he’s left in space, and attacking off the catch in a flash against scrambling defenses. When defenses gravitate towards Harden and Embiid, Maxey is ready to burst to the basket once the ball has swung around the perimeter or Harden has caught defenders off guard with a sudden skip pass. Maxey can burn late closeouts with more speed than pretty much anyone in the league.
Tyrese Maxey has been playing really well off James Harden in their first two games. Getting plenty of opportunities to run out in transition and attack off the catch.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 27, 2022
Harden's quick skip pass here forces a fast closeout, which Maxey can easily drive past for the floater. pic.twitter.com/RtZTcZ4I07
“I feel very comfortable,” Harden said after the Sixers’ victory over the Knicks when talking about his comfort level with Embiid. “Just trying to read — he likes to pop, he likes to roll, he likes to mix it in a little bit. As long as we continue that communication ... things will be great.
“But yeah, I know a couple plays. I’m just out there winging it, honestly. I’m just trying to make the best decision as far as my playmaking ability each possession.”
One of the plays that Harden has down: a “Chicago” action out of the Sixers’ “Delay” setup, which is where Embiid is positioned in the middle of the floor as a playmaker. This is something Embiid has done far more over the last two seasons as the Sixers have utilized increased face-up play and his improved passing — the latter was particularly on display this year before Harden’s arrival.
“Chicago” is a dribble hand-off play where the ball-handler receives a pin-down screen on the wing before receiving the hand-off. This lets Harden get ahead of his defender and start attacking downhill after coming off the initial screen, while Embiid rolls inside out of the hand-off from the top of the floor. With the attention Harden can draw against a recovering perimeter defender and a rim protector who’ll often step up to prevent a pull-up or floater, he can easily find Embiid with anything from a pin-point pocket pass to a perfectly placed lob.
To look at a couple of examples in a bit more detail to show how effective this play can be, you can watch the breakdown below:
The Sixers have started using this Chicago action to get James Harden attacking downhill to set up Joel Embiid as a roller, and it's working well already.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 28, 2022
Here's a quick breakdown of two examples from today's game against the Knicks ( sound on): pic.twitter.com/n8nJgh7KQe
What word would Embiid use to describe his partnership with Harden?
“Unstoppable,” Embiid says.
“What are you really going to do? He’s a great passer, and obviously I’ve got someone that attracts a lot of attention, too,” Embiid added on Sunday. “So you’ve got to make a decision: Do you stay on me or do you stay on him? If you want to guard both of us with the other guys, now you’ve got Matisse diving to the rim, wide-open shooters that have one job to do, and that’s to make shots. That’s what we’ve got to keep doing. Like I was saying in the locker room, I’m happy I don’t have to post up every single possession, so it’s great.”
Besides just enjoying the start of his time with Embiid and the Sixers, Harden feels good physically. “This is my second game in damn near a month. But my body feels great, man,” Harden said after Sunday’s contest. “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.”
Sure, it’s only been two games. Harden and Embiid still need time to polish all the areas of their partnership and hone their two-man game as much as possible. They need to get used to playing against tougher opposition together, too. But their respective gravity and skillsets were always going to benefit one another. Embiid has never had a passer on Harden’s level who can manipulate defenses in pick-and-rolls at such a high level.
When you consider how comfortable they look playing off each other after just a couple of games and practices, their chemistry at this stage is seriously promising.
Just think about their potential when they’ve had more time together.