There’s something poetic about James Harden being dealt on Halloween morning.
At the height of scary season, there was plenty of fear in Sixers world. How long would this saga linger? Would Harden actually play and disturb the outstanding vibes created by new head coach Nick Nurse? Would he stunt the growth of budding star Tyrese Maxey? How was Joel Embiid handling all of this? Would the Clippers simply move on from negotiations at some point?
In the end, the situation is certainly more treat than trick for the Sixers, who can let Nurse build a culture, allow Maxey and Embiid to coalesce, and give fans hope for the future.
Maxey, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, has looked every bit a star in Harden’s stead. It’s only been three games, but the numbers are preposterous: 30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 56% from three on 8.3 attempts, 68.8% true shooting. Daryl Morey and the front office were banking on a star turn from the 21st overall pick in 2020, and he’s delivered thus far.
On top of the outstanding numbers he’s produced, the adeptness with which he’s run Nurse’s offense has been the most encouraging thing. Maxey has 19 assists to just three turnovers to start the year. Most importantly, he’s shown early chemistry with Embiid.
The biggest thing the Sixers miss in Harden’s absence is the way he ran the pick-and-roll and how he teed Embiid up at the elbow. A bigger role for Maxey and adjustments by Embiid have led to success. Embiid’s numbers are mostly aligned with his recent production while he’s taken on more of a playmaking role.
It’s nearly impossible to replace a guy that led the league in assists with one player. Harden was one of only two qualifying players in the league to average more than 10 assists last season, along with Trae Young. But the Sixers’ current star duo has produced big time in the playmaking department. Maxey and Embiid are averaging a combined 13.3 assists per game. That’s nearly double the amount of assists they combined for last season (7.7).
While those two players deserve the lion’s share of the credit, Nurse’s scheme has also breathed new life into things. Despite losing the NBA’s assist leader, the Sixers are 12th in the league in dimes. The players and the ball are moving. Harden was great at times, but there were also plenty of possessions where he’d seemingly dribble the air out of the ball, killing the pace and flow of the offense. While the team being 20th in pace this season isn’t earth-shattering, that’s up from 27th last season.
Aside from the Sixers being 2-1 and able to move on mentally from all the drama, the future looks a bit brighter than it did 24 hours ago as well.
Morey is one of the most aggressive executives the NBA has ever seen. The downside of that is that his teams often find themselves with minimal assets to trade and no cap room to make a free-agency splash. Now, Morey has both — and that makes him a very dangerous man.
You know Morey will be working the phones ahead of the deadline. Players like Zach LaVine or OG Anunoby could wind up being available. Even if he opts to make a move in the non-star tier of players, there are likely to be many very good players available that could complement Embiid and Maxey.
And now Morey has the assets at his disposal to improve the team enough to get over the second-round hump. If he doesn’t, the offseason awaits. With so much money coming off the books — including Tobias Harris and all of the players that were acquired from the Clippers — the Sixers will have ample cap space. No contender will have nearly as much money to play with. The funniest move would be landing either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Both have player options with L.A. for next season that they’re extremely unlikely to pick up.
So, it’s Halloween and James Harden is returning home. Kind of like Michael Myers. We’ll see if he leaves another bloody mess behind.
As for the Sixers, Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are like Laurie Strode and Tommy Doyle. They survived.
The Boogeyman is gone, and things are immediately looking up.