In the span of just one transaction, the Philadelphia 76ers transformed from a potentially frustrating team that was threatening to waste an MVP caliber season from Joel Embiid and into that of a legitimate championship contender.
Caveats, both that it's been just two games and against mediocre competition on top of that, obviously still apply. But regardless of what your expectations were for the James Harden era, the Sixers have wildly exceeded them in the early going.
The Sixers followed up their 133-102 win over the Timberwolves last Friday with a 125-109 victory over the Knicks in a matinee game at MSG on Sunday. The Sixers haven't trailed by more than five at any point in either game and, save for a brief hiccup in the fourth quarter against the Knicks that was quickly rectified, have otherwise been in control following the opening few possessions of each game.
In all, the Sixers have outscored opponents 152-106 in the 53 minutes that Embiid and Harden have shared the floor. That's good for a 134.5 offensive rating, 91.4 defensive rating, and a +43.1 overall net rating. Obviously, that will normalize a bit, but they've toyed with opponents so far.
Over these next two days I'll explore eight observations – four likes, and four dislikes, broken up into two articles, with today's being the first in a two part series. In reality, "dislike" is too strong of a term for some of these, but "four likes and four slight imperfections that could be improved upon" just doesn't flow quite as well. #ColumnNamingFlow
Before we get to that, though, let's get some more eye-popping stats out of the way, with an acknowledgement that these are all on an exceptionally small sample size.
- James Harden has just a 15% usage rate when he shares the floor with Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid. Embiid (39.3%) and Maxey (17.8%) are both higher.
- During those minutes, Harden has 22 assists to just 13 field goal attempts. And it's not because he's been living at the line, either: Harden has just five free-throw attempts during those lineups as well.
- Maxey is shooting 72.2% (13-18 overall, 4-6 from 3) when sharing the floor with Embiid and Harden.
- The starting five of Embiid, Harden, Maxey, Thybulle and Harris have outscored opponents 102-74 in 38 minutes.
- Harden's usage rate goes from 15.3% with Embiid on the floor, to 37% when he's running the offense with Embiid on the bench.
- Harden's scoring 21.2 points per 100 possessions, on a 74.1% true shooting with Embiid on the floor, compared to 69.6 points per 100 possessions on an 88.1% true shooting with Embiid on the bench. Both of the true shooting numbers are, obviously, excellent (and unsustainable). The impressive part is how seamlessly he can switch between being a focal point and a facilitator, depending on what the Sixers need at the time.
- The Sixers have remained strong defensively with Embiid on the floor (98.6 defensive rating) but have struggled (106.3) when he's on the bench over these last two games. Harden has kept the Sixers afloat offensively in the non-Embiid minutes (114.3 offensive rating), so they've been a positive overall even with Embiid out of the game, but they need more from their backup center rotation specifically, and their bench in general.
- Again, reminder: all of these are exceptionally low sample size and should (at most) only be used to describe what has happened in these two games, and not what will necessarily continued.
With that out of the way, let's get to the likes and slight imperfections.
When the James Harden rumors really began to surface, there were two questions about how well Embiid and Harden might fit as a tandem. The first were questions over what James Harden will do when he's playing off ball, a role that he hasn't traditionally embraced with much enthusiasm. We'll get to that a bit later. The second question was how much Embiid would thrive as a roll man, a role that he's never been used in all that frequently prior to Harden's arrival.
Embiid is not a pogo-stick like athlete, and he doesn't fit the mold of someone like Clint Capela, the bouncy big man that Harden found so much success with in Houston. In 2018-19 Capela averaged 16.6 points per game for the Rockets and shot 64.1% on shots as a roll man off of pick-and-rolls. Capela was elite at that.
Embiid, for all of his many talents, isn't elite at getting off the ground quickly. He doesn't break out of the screens as quickly or as decisively as Capela did, and he frequently needs to come down with the ball after receiving a lob, giving defenses a chance to recover.
Embiid also never had a ball handler that defenses truly feared coming off of a screen, though, and he has a big advantage that Capela never did.
As time wore on, teams increasingly defended the Harden/Capela pick-and-roll by trapping Harden 30 feet away from the basket, forcing the ball out of his hands and into the diving Capela. Since the trapped Harden was now giving the ball up out beyond the 3-point line, rather than after taking one or two dribbles off the screen, Capela was now being asked to gather the ball near the foul line, turning him into a decision-maker rather than a pure lob threat.
Sure, the opposing team was caught in an odd-man rush, but with Capela not having a midrange jumper to worry about, nor capable of making consistent, quick reads to find the open shooters, that was the concession defenses were increasingly willing to live with.
The center of the court just so happens to be the area where Embiid thrives in. The improvement of his midrange game, and how much better he sees the floor and can make decisions out of it, puts the defense in a real bind in defending the Harden/Embiid two-man game. If this were 3-4 years ago, before Embiid, Drew Hanlen and select Sixers assistants spent their summers refining Embiid's perimeter skills, this might be a different story. But it's 2022 Embiid that Harden is building chemistry with, not the 2017 version.
Embiid at the foul line is way scarier for defenses than Capela at the foul line, for obvious reasons.
(The last clip in the above video I'm including even though Embiid sort of flubbed it, hesitating a bit on the wide open shot, then throwing an off-the-mark pass on the kickout. But it shows how much attention Embiid will draw from the defense, and how many options will be available to him, even if he's not rolling all the way to the rim).
Being able to effectively take away all the things that Embiid and Harden do well is going to prove to be almost impossible for opponents, especially for defenses as undisciplined as the Knicks and Wolves are.
If they drop on the pick-and-roll to worry about Embiid, Harden will pull up from 3, or methodically slither his way inside for a floater, layup or to draw a foul.
Trap Harden on the perimeter, and then worry too much about Embiid, and you leave the corners wide open. You're only allowed five defenders, after all, and double teaming both Embiid and Harden will leave multiple shooters open in the corners.
And for all that's been said (myself included) about Embiid not being a great lob threat, he's still bigger and stronger than virtually anyone in the league, with soft hands and all-world talent. It might take him a second to gather himself, but any time he gets the ball near the rim it's a good possession.
It might not look like a lob to Clint Capela, but if a defense pays this much attention to James Harden (and by the way, they should pay attention to him, IT'S JAMES HARDEN), good things will happen more often than not. For a player in Embiid who has had to self-create so much offense over the course of his career, it's no wonder he's all smiles so far in the James Harden era.
My stance coming in on the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll pairing was that it was probably going to take some time, but that Embiid and Harden were too talented, and too smart, to not figure it out eventually, at least to some measure of success. Apparently, it took about two practices.
Again, the Knicks and the Wolves aren't the world's most disciplined and capable defensive squads, so we'll need to see what this looks like against Miami or Milwaukee before getting too excited. But there's a lot of talent here, and a defense can only take away so much.
If there was one player that y'all knew would show up on the negative column of the ledger, it's Tobias Harris.
Harris has played exceptionally poorly over these past two games, averaging just 9 points and shooting just 27.8% (5-18) from the field. And with averages of just two free-throw attempts and three assists in 32.3 minutes per, it's not as though Harris is doing much to offset his shooting slump.
The funny thing is, I thought Harris actually got off on the right foot against the Wolves. On the opening possession of the Harden era, Harris' man was caught cheating over to help cut off Embiid, who was rolling to the rim following a pick-and-roll with Harden. Harris caught the ball and decisively drove to his left. He missed the contested layup, but it's the kind of "quick decision-making" that Rivers has been harping on for the better part of two seasons. Moments later, Harris fired off a three in transition early in the shot clock, and this one rattled in. Decisiveness for the win.
Then Harris struggled, missing five of his next six shots, and that decisiveness was a thing of the past.
This is why I'm sort of sick of talking about the Sixers needing a more decisive version of Tobias Harris. It's true, of course. They do. But I don't know why you would have confidence that his decisiveness will persevere through a shooting slump when history suggests that he's always just a couple of missed shots away from hesitating to pull the trigger on the next one.
With Harris, it is success that leads to decisiveness as much as it is decisiveness that leads to success, and when Harris starts second-guessing himself it leads to his worst instincts.
The Sixers do everything right on this possession. Harden made a great pass to Thybulle, penetrating Minnesota's zone. Thybulle then made a touch pass to Harris in the corner, and while the pass didn't hit Harris right in the shooting pocket, he had more than enough time to gather and bring the ball up. Instead, it was pump fake, jab step, and dribbles to nowhere in particular.
In this next one, Harris sets a screen for Harden in transition, then pops out to the 3-point line. Both defenders predictably follow Harden with the ball, which leaves Harris with two great options: either take the open catch-and-shoot look or easily split the defenders and drive to the rim. If Fournier challenges him at the rim, Harris is left with the easiest dump off pass imaginable. If Randle rotates over, it's an easy kickout to Harden in the corner. Win-win-win-win.
Virtually every decision Harris has available to him has a high expected value. Except the one he chose: pump fake, pointless dribble, pointless dribble, then a hand-off to reset the possession.
Harris is in a bit of a weird spot. He will, on the one hand, have a smaller role in the starting lineup, and also should spend virtually zero minutes with none of Embiid, Harden or Maxey there to shoulder the offensive load, even when Rivers starts going to the bench. Harris will have fewer pick-and-roll and post-up opportunities in the new-look Sixers, which were previously his bread and butter, and were ways to get him going when he hits a shooting slump.
On the other hand, Harris will get more wide-open looks in the half-court, and more opportunities against an unset defense in transition, and Harris needs to make the most of those advantages if he is to remain productive in his new role. Ideally, you would want someone in this spot who has no problem missing five 3s in a row, a version of Georges Niang who can competently defend his position is more what you need out of Harris than the role he previously played, and that is not the game that Harris is most comfortable in.
On the season, transition opportunities account for just 13.8% of the Sixers' possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology, which ranks 24th in the league in terms of frequency. By contrast, the Sixers ranked in the top-10 in frequency in each of the previous four seasons.
We can all draw a Ben Simmons-sized line connecting the dots on reasons for the drop-off, as even Simmons' biggest detractors will acknowledge that he's good in the open floor. Everything – from forcing turnovers, to grabbing rebounds, to pushing the ball up the court to having the court vision to find his teammates – took a hit with Simmons out of the lineup, especially as injuries started to force players like Seth Curry and Furkan Korkmaz into ballhandling roles.
What a revelation James Harden has been.
Harden's teams in Houston were up and down in terms of where they ranked in pace leaguewide. Typically, they were a fast-paced team, ranking in the top-10 in six of his eight full seasons in Houston. But that slowed down during the Chris Paul era, as the Rockets went to a more methodical, pick-and-roll heavy half-court attack.
Harden's presence alone isn't necessarily guaranteed to make the Sixers, who currently have the 4th slowest pace in the league, all of a sudden the seven seconds or less Suns. But Pace as a statistic can be misleading, as there are two aspects to it: how well a team generates, and takes advantage, of transition opportunities, then how quickly they attack when a game is confined to the half court.
It's the former that Harden is likely to help speed up, and in a big way.
Harden and Embiid have already connected on a couple of highlight plays in transition. Which, again, whenever you can get the big guy easy points, it's a good thing. For all his faults on defense, Harden has quick hands, is willing to crash the glass, and is more than comfortable leading the break.
But it's not just Embiid who stands to benefit from Harden's presence. Harden has already found Harris for a number of early, open looks in transition before the defense has had a chance to set itself. Given what we just talked about above, getting Harris some of those easy looks in transition that he lost with Simmons out of the lineup could help offset Harris' decreased role in the half court.
But having a plus passer and decision-maker just helps all around. Harden's benefit in transition isn't just when he's pushing the ball down a team's throat. Sometimes, it's just having your head up for a nonchalant kick-ahead pass off a made basket when the opponent falls asleep. This is an egregious mistake by the Knicks, but it's one the Sixers often didn't capitalize on before. Harden helps exploit mistakes.
Harden's impact on the team is sort of similar to Embiid's on-off numbers over the years: he is both legitimately elite at what he does, and it's in areas that the team has been so borderline inept at that Harden's brilliance stands out even more.
Passing, creativity and decisiveness just help in so many different ways, and this team has been sorely lacking in all of them this season.
We started this off with the two concerns about the Embiid/Harden pairing that many had coming in. The first – Embiid's lack of comfort as a roll man – has seemingly been quashed rather quickly. The second – what Harden does when he's off the ball – is still something to watch.
Harden has never been particularly committed to moving off the ball, and that's certainly been the case so far. I'm not talking, like, JJ Redick flying a million miles per hour to free himself of his defender level of commitment, either. I just mean making an effort to reposition himself to give Embiid an easy outlet when he's going to work in the post.
Is it nitpicking? For sure. I committed myself to a "likes and dislikes" column when they're 2-0 with Harden and have a +43 net rating with both stars on the floor, so you're not going to get many code reds here. But it's also the kind of thing that may not matter against the Knicks in February, but could against the Suns in June.