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James Harden’s elite passing has caught the attention of his new teammates

The Sixers were aware of how great James Harden is, but even they’ve been blown away by how the former MVP sees the floor.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

For years, the Philadelphia 76ers have lacked a guard able to create his own shot. So when James Harden entered the fold weeks ago at the trade deadline, it’s not surprising that his ability to score the basketball was the headliner. After all, he’s a three-time scoring champion, topping out at a whopping 36.1 points per game back during the 2018-19 season.

However, it was a bit surprising that his distributing abilities were given such short shrift. Harden also led the league with 11.2 assists back in 2016-17, and despite his less-than-harmonious time spent in Brooklyn this season, he currently sits second in the league at 10.3 assists per game. At practice yesterday, Doc Rivers recalled how Harden was first known in the league as a passer:

“People forget his first two years in Oklahoma, he was the point guard. They moved Russell over to the two. I think people forget that. Scottie Brooks wanted him to be the facilitator more. I think what we were all surprised with is when he went to Houston, that he could score the way he scores. He came in the league more as a passer. I think what surprised all of us is when he went to Houston and was scoring 40 every night. No one knew he could do that.”

Somehow, though, his passing was not only under-discussed following the trade, but things got twisted into an unwarranted ballhog narrative, quickly leading to freezing cold takes like this one (which have since been quote-tweeted to death):

For those scoring at home, Tyrese Maxey has been arguably the biggest beneficiary of The Beard’s arrival, averaging 24.5 points while shooting 20-of-36 from the field in two games alongside Harden.

Of course, Harden hasn’t limited his helpers to Maxey, dishing out 28 assists in his two games with the Sixers. Tobias Harris mentioned how Harden spreading the ball around has helped create instant chemistry:

“He’s such a great passer and a willing passer as well, getting guys involved. He’s really good at finding ways the defense makes mistakes. You’ve seen Matisse get a bunch of cuts and lobs at the rim; Tyrese is getting out in transition; he’s hitting Joel in pick-and-rolls — all the way down the line of how he plays. The ball movement, that always helps us as a group. And it is fun.”

Our Tom West discussed those pick-and-roll actions involving Harden in a terrific piece yesterday, including a breakdown of Matisse’s cuts which Tobias mentioned. It was something Rivers highlighted as well:

“James is a better passer than what we’ve had. Matisse is the roamer for us. And the more he gets it, the more free he will cut. Before, he would cut and not get it; that makes you not cut. And now he’s cutting and getting it. It’ll make him cut more.”

Harden’s new teammates are certainly happy to be on the receiving end of these looks, rather than trying to defend against them, like Danny Green had done for so long. The 13-year NBA veteran has seen his share of Harden dimes from the opposite sideline, so he’s not surprised, so much as entertained:

“I’ve been playing against him for 13 years, so not many things surprise me. Obviously he’s on my side now, so it’s a lot more entertaining instead of guarding it. Everybody’s excited about his start, and how he’s been playing and how he’s helped us win. It’s only two games, it’s still early, but I think we’re all excited to be able to share the floor with him and get open looks. His passing is unique. He has a very good ability, obviously, to score and get guys in the right positions offensively. So when I get the opportunity to share the floor with him more, I’m always looking forward to it.”

Clearly, Danny has nothing but high praise for James, even if we were all amused by this little mix-up:

Georges Niang is another Sixer who has faced Harden often as an opponent, particularly in both the 2018 and 2019 postseasons when he was in Utah and Harden was with the Rockets. Both series were won by Houston, and Niang went long on the nuances of Harden’s game and how he catches defenses off-guard:

“No, I think the biggest thing is … he does such a good job of manipulating the defense. When people think he’s dribbling between his legs, if you watch his eyes, he’s looking at the defender’s feet. How can I get his foot to drop? Or if you watch, he’s looking past the defender and looking to see if the big man is standing in the lane. And if he’s going to go cleanse to the other side, he’s going to drive the ball and make you make a decision. So, little things that people who aren’t really into basketball don’t notice. They’re like, ‘Ah, he’s just wasting dribbles.’ But he’s just timing you up to use your strengths against you. It’s amazing that I get to see it every day because when we were playing against him, it was like, ‘Man, this is a pain in the ass.’ But when he’s doing that for you, it’s such a blessing. I was telling someone the other day, you have two of the best iso scorers in the NBA right now, but both of them are willing passers and draw so much attention. So I’m just excited to see the team build and move forward.”

Niang even provided a couple specific examples from over the weekend:

“I think in the New York game, there were two instances. It was by our bench and he was iso-ing — I think it was against Obi Toppin — and I was watching him watch his feet. And as his foot dropped, he took a step-back. And then there was another time when he came off a pick-and-roll with Joel and was watching the opposite team’s low man, as we call it. As soon as the low man left … he threw a pocket pass to Joel and Joel laid it up for an and-one. So I’m excited for what we’ve got going on in the future.”

The scary part for the rest of the league is that with a couple more practices to learn the playbook and player preferences and tendencies, Harden’s playmaking should only improve going forward. So while NBA lifers like Doc and Danny may not have been surprised by what they saw from the former MVP, Tobias Harris accurately summed up the thoughts of many fans across the Delaware Valley:

“We all knew how great of a scorer he is, but his passing … he’s a really good passer, man. No-look passes; on time, on target; quick reads. His passing ability, I didn’t know he was that good of a passer for sure.”

With Harden out there, everybody’s open...and he’ll find them.