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James Harden conundrum: do Sixers simply lean into point-Beard or can they unlock his scoring prowess?

Should the Sixers do everything to maximize two-man action between Harden and Joel Embiid or should they explore ways to spark Harden’s own scoring prowess

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Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

We’ve reached the end of the 2022 regular season and (largely because the team made a major change at the NBA Trade Deadline) we still have a fair amount of questions left to be answered.

Back on March 25, Doc Rivers said James Harden’s hamstring just wasn’t there yet. But on April 9, Rivers said Harden is not limited by the troublesome soft tissue injury at all.

You can see in the replies to Austin Krell’s update that fans are trying to figure out why Harden doesn’t look like... well the guy he did 13 months ago before any hamstring issues cropped up in March 2021:

Whether Harden is in fact limited by an injury (and MRI’s conducted around the NBA trade deadline did reveal tightness which presented a strength deficit at one point) or not is an interesting puzzle. Normally, fans would be hoping their favorite stars are totally healthy. In this case, if he is, it might have rather grim implications for his long-term outlook, especially facing a possible $270M five-year contract extension.

But never mind all that for now. Now we have this current version of James Harden, a masterful passer, a brilliant playmaker, but a dude coming up way short as a scorer, leaving fans scratching their heads. How do they beat the Toronto Raptors?

I think there’s two key options in front of Philly right now. Let’s compare.

Option one: jam as many Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls as humanly possible into every single playoff game, tapping point-Beard’s brilliance

Philadelphia 76ers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll has been a seismic weapon for Philadelphia.

According to Zach Lowe, of ESPN:

James Harden is broken right now as a scorer, but the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is as dominant as advertised....

The Philadelphia 76ers are averaging 1.17 points per possession when Embiid rolls after screening for Harden, catches the ball, and finishes the play, per Second Spectrum. That would lead all high-volume screeners.”

And here is what Derek Bodner of The Daily Six Newsletter wrote:

“Sometimes in the playoffs, teams don’t need to be perfect. They just need an unstoppable player, or unstoppable play, that can be enough to scratch out wins four times out of seven, propelling them to a series victory despite their weaknesses. The Embiid/Harden pick-and-roll might be just unstoppable enough for the Sixers to have a chance, despite their myriad of flaws.”

With this in mind, perhaps Doc Rivers and his staff should do anything and everything to maximize the total number of times they can run this play, from here on in.

If Doc, who just became No. 9 on the all-time winningest coaches list, was able to talk to No. 4 in late Jazz legend Jerry Sloan, don’t you think Sloan might say this is the right idea? You can almost hear him say Doc, every time we didn’t run a John Stockton-to-Karl-Malone screen-and-roll was a major, major win for the defense.

But you may have already thought about the cons. Here you’re looking to mate their minutes. And that means both of them sit at the same time and you’re intentionally inserting this terrifying life-support moment into every ballgame.

You’ve probably heard a bit about how good the Sixers’ starters are and how bad their bench units can be. Well, that dichotomy likely gets accentuated to the max if we dial up the Beard-Process two-man game. The downsides get accentuated in hostile environments without savvy veteran stars anchoring already dicey lineups.

And maybe that’s the best way to go. Maybe Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, Danny Green and perhaps BBall Paul can keep things afloat. But maybe it’s not. Let’s examine the alternative.

Option 2: stagger Harden and Embiid so that one of them is always on the floor, and maybe spark Harden’s scoring chops along the way

Dallas Mavericks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Harden’s a phenomenal playmaker and passer. He’s averaged 10.3 dimes on the season. In my opinion, the Sixers do need Harden to be an All-Star caliber scorer if they want to win the title. So Is there any way to get James Harden looking bouncy and spry again so he can get buckets?

Cookies Hoops’ Ben Detrick has pointed out on Twitter, Harden’s scoring splits with and without Embiid are stark:

When the 2018 MVP and team’s other scoring titelist was first available to play for Philly, we learned that the team wanted to mostly tether Harden’s minutes with Tobias Harris,’ while tethering Tyrese Maxey’s with Joel Embiid’s.

It made perfect sense to experiment doing it that way. But it also made perfect sense to try other ways and they haven’t done too much of that.

You can see Harden’s per-36 numbers in the tweet above. Harden is scoring 16.7 points/36 min. when Embiid is on the floor (a TS percentage of 59.2), and he’s scoring 30.8 points/36 min. when he’s in without Embiid.

Wow. That’s significant. The eye test warns us not to expect this 30 points per 36 business vs. top competition. But if you’re of the mindset you never want both of the team’s stars to sit at the same time in a huge playoff game, then this stuff becomes worth a long look.

When Embiid is off and both Harden and his stagger-mate Tobias Harris are on, Harden averages 24.4 pts/ 36 min., a TS percentage of 54.3. Harden’s points tic way up but his TS percentage here is down and the team has mostly gotten its ass kicked in these stints too. (Maybe some of that is the wrong choice of backup center, but still).

When Harden and Harris are both on, while Embiid and Maxey are both off the team is a -14.7 differential spanning 165 possessions, per Cleaningtheglass.com.

What if Harris sits at the same time as Embiid? How do Harden’s numbers look then?

We’ve only seen that for 68 minutes. Doc has been reluctant to deviate much from the combos he preselected at the onset. But in this sample, (Harden on, Harris and Embiid off) Harden rockets (see what I did there) up to 43 points per 36 with a True Shooting percentage of 71.6. These are small samples but maybe there’s some signal amidst the noise.

If you want to spark Harden as a scorer, and you find a lineup where he’s scoring an insane amount of points, and Embiid isn’t even in the game, Harris isn’t in, and you can still play Tyrese Maxey, maybe you’re onto something here.

Remember back in February when Harden talked about how he wanted Harris to shoot more catch-and-shoot threes? Rivers cautioned that wouldn’t happen for Harris over night. We all know that historically, Harden has thrived with quick-trigger spot up shooters, so pairing him alongside Harris without much of a break there was going to push that dynamic to the limit.

Harris has put up over four catch-and-shoot threes in his 34 minutes per game since Harden first suited up in Minnesota. Tobi is knocking them down at a 36.5 percent clip. He might be coming on late here too. He deserves a ton of credit for adapting and playing pretty well in a new role. But for contrast, Georges Niang gets up 5.3 triples in his 21.5 minutes per game. There’s willing snipers and then there’s unconscious ones. Harden gets along well with these sociopathic-shooting personalities.

But what if we tried mating our duos the other way. How about if we paired Harris and Embiid instead of Maxey and Embiid?

Harris and Embiid have combined for 627 possessions and a +1.1 differential. Now you can probably infer that includes a whole bunch of Seth Curry. If you remove Seth, the sample plummets to 108 possession and a -12 differential. We think that may be noise because there’s nothing that screams “Embiid and Harris without Harden and Maxey is destined to fail.” Embiid’s on/offs have been nearly indestructible. Joel and the current NBA on TNT crew might even smash.

What about Maxey?

We don’t want to be too data driven right? Any couch-scout can tell you when Embiid has needed a rest game, Maxey has stepped up and played the hero.

Mad Maxey dropped 28 in a huge win over the Heat without Embiid in the lineup. Dude put up 33 points out dueling Ja Morant in a win vs. the Grizzlies in another non-Joel game.

Maxey has come up large both with and without the rightful league MVP out there. At the very least, that’s an intuitive stagger to at least try, Harden and Maxey on, when Harris and Embiid catch a blow, right? But the Sixers don’t do that. They play Maxey with Embiid a ton.

Harden and Maxey have only played 19 possessions with neither Embiid nor Harris on the floor. Surprising. What if that’s your winning ticket?

Maxey averages 15 points per 36 with Embiid on the floor, a 59.9% true shooting. When Embiid sits Maxey’s average goes up to 23.7 points per 36 on 58.6 TS.

Maybe there’s a lineup to be found when Harris and Embiid sit that allows Harden, Maxey, shooters, (definitely Green) and perhaps Reed (or even Paul Millsap, who can space the floor a little) to just play some blazing offensive basketball. Maxey in that Houston Eric Gordon role, shooters in the corners, and a big? Maybe there’s room for both Thybulle and Green here, another combo they haven’t tried much yet?

But Dave, it’s too late to experiment. Meh, I think as long as it’s intuitive it’s worth a shot. For example, if Harden is out there with Maxey and Green, you’re already in the ballpark.

Final analysis

Between the two options, I’d lean towards the latter. I see the merits of the first one but I fear the downside of the non-Harden-Embiid minutes. I can’t help but imagine the benefits of a completely Harden-optimized bench mob.

I think there are some lineups yet to be tapped that offer Harden some unfettered, five-out looks. I’d like to see some small-small, Maxey screens for Harden action between the flashy backcourt duo, like our resident tactician Jackson Frank has suggested.

(This entire pod below is awesome and around 40 minutes our Paul Hudrick gets into some rotation talk and wonders where Georges Niang may fit into this series vs. Raptors):

Harden has made key accommodations to help bring out the best version of Joel Embiid. He still has room to grow as a spot-up shooter himself. But the Sixers may not have yet turned over every stone while exploring ways to tap the best version of Harden as a scorer.

When he played the best basketball of his career, he spent huge portions of a ballgame with the rock, surrounded by players whose first instinct upon the catch was to shoot. Now he routinely shares the floor with three or more players who would prefer to dribble. That’s tough.

They could still jam in 30-plus minutes of Beard-Process two-man lethality. But then maybe they could help tap some temporarily bridled potential in their point guard who happened to lead the league in scoring three times in a row not all that long ago. They may not get his scoring burst back next week. But they could improve some spacing and lineups around him for a few crucial minutes.

Hat tip to Cleaningtheglass, NBA.com, and FantasyLabs.com for the data utilized in this post.