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James Harden is lurking as an MVP dark horse

With a bounce-back year, James Harden could vault himself into the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race right alongside Joel Embiid.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid has finished as the runner-up for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in each of the past two years, and oddsmakers expect him to be right back in the mix this season. He’s currently a +650 at DraftKings Sportsbook, trailing only Dallas Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic (+425) and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (+600).

Meanwhile, James Harden (+7000) barely cracks the top 20 of oddsmakers’ favorites for MVP. He’s behind the likes of Damian Lillard (+5000), Anthony Davis (+6000), Zion Williamson (+3500) and Anthony Edwards (+6000), among others.

Although Harden deserves to be an MVP long shot heading into the season, he could emerge as a legitimate dark horse for the award.

The Houston Rockets version of Harden—the one who led the NBA in scoring for three straight years from 2017-18 through 2019-20—isn’t likely to come back. The Sixers don’t need that version of him, either. Embiid led the league in scoring last year, and he averaged more points per game after Harden’s arrival in February (32.6) than he did prior to the trade (29.6).

Harden’s main value to the Sixers will be as a playmaker, a role in which he thrived last season. He averaged 10.5 assists per game during his 21 regular-season appearances with the Sixers, and many of his teammates flourished alongside him.

Tyrese Maxey went from averaging 16.9 points on 46.9 percent shooting (39.0 percent from three-point range) prior to Harden’s arrival to 18.7 points on 52.3 percent shooting (48.0 percent from deep) afterward. It took Tobias Harris longer to embrace his new role, but he eventually hit his stride toward the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. Harden even helped Matisse Thybulle become relevant on offense in brief spurts, although that quickly faded away.

With a full offseason, training camp and preseason to continue building upon that chemistry, Harden is poised to hit the ground running this year. The Sixers’ offseason personnel upgrades should only help in that department, too.

Harden played alongside P.J. Tucker for three-plus years in Houston, and those three seasons were the ones in which he led the league in scoring. The “TuckWagon” lineups that featured Tucker playing as a small-ball center were one of the few effective counters to the dynastic Golden State Warriors at the time. With Tucker having knocked down a career-high 41.5 percent of his three-point attempts last year, he should provide Harden with a reliable drive-and-kick option along the perimeter.

Danuel House Jr. didn’t spend as much time alongside Harden in Houston (2018-19 and 2019-20), although he did start 65 games over that two-season span. He’ll likewise serve as a versatile three-and-D option in Philly, and he could be a key contributor to a Harden-led second unit depending on how head coach Doc Rivers staggers his rotation.

Montrezl Harrell spent the first two seasons of his career next to Harden in Houston, although his production jumped under Rivers’ tutelage on the Los Angeles Clippers. Harden has thrived with bouncy pick-and-roll partners in the past—most notably Clint Capela—and he “played a significant role in recruiting Harrell to the Sixers,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

De’Anthony Melton is the only notable offseason addition with whom Harden hasn’t played in the past, but they could similarly forge a productive on-court relationship. Melton knocked down 38.8 percent of his 4.7 three-point attempts per game over the past two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, and his defensive aptitude should help make up for Harden’s deficiencies and/or indifference on that end of the floor.

Embiid will remain the focal point of the Sixers’ offense, but Harden figures to be the one orchestrating the action more often than not. If he’s fully recovered from the lingering hamstring injury that plagued him throughout last season, he should have the burst back to generate offense for himself more easily, too. Rivers and the coaching staff can help in that regard as well, drawing up sets designed to create open looks for Harden.

Harden could also set himself up for a bounce-back year by varying up his shot diet. With Embiid routinely commanding double-teams, Harden shouldn’t have to create for himself as much as he did in Houston. If he begins moving off the ball more and becomes a viable catch-and-shoot threat, the Sixers could have one of the league’s most potent offenses. Adding more midrange attempts and floaters could help, too.

If Harden does have a bounce-back year statistically and helps fuel a top-five offense, the narrative factor could start swinging in his favor. His decision to decline his $47.4 million player option and re-sign for $14.4 million less is what enabled the Sixers to add both Tucker and House this offseason. That sacrifice shouldn’t go unnoticed, particularly if he produces like a max-caliber player this year.

Embiid and Harden might cannibalize MVP votes from one another, which often happens when two stars are on the same team. Some voters might feel compelled to reward Embiid, who has yet to win an MVP, instead of giving Harden his second, particularly if Embiid is the Sixers’ best player.

Even if Harden doesn’t wind up winning MVP, don’t be surprised if he surges up the odds leaderboard at some point this season.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.

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