When Daryl Morey finally got his man, and the 76ers finally moved on from the long-since-curdled Ben Simmons era, the brake-pumpers among us struck a cautious note about how the post-trade 76ers might look.
Joel Embiid has never played with a ball-dominating guard like James Harden, we said. And Harden has never played with a post-up-demanding big like Embiid. It might take them a while to figure out how to play together.
So, about that:
It’s hard to imagine the Sixers scripting a better start to the new partnership between their two superstars. Embiid and Harden have played two games together; they won both, outscoring Minnesota and New York by a blistering 46 points in the 53 minutes that they shared the court. Philadelphia lineups featuring the former MVP and this year’s front-runner absolutely incinerated the Wolves and Knicks to the tune of 134.5 points per 100 possessions.
That number will come down, if only because it’s about 16 points-per-100 higher than the most efficient offense in NBA history. If you’re going to buy a ticket to Small Sample Size Theater, though, it’s pretty cool when you get to watch the Sixers reenact Godzilla.
In an about-face that surely has Brooklyn fans grumbling (and Houston fans doing their best Pointing Rick Dalton), Harden has hit the ground running in his new digs, averaging 28 points, nine rebounds, and 14 assists per game in his first two outings. He’s been ruthlessly efficient as a scorer: 7-for-12 inside the arc, 8-for-14 beyond it, 18-for-19 from the free throw line. And after a … shall we say … up-and-down half-season with the Nets, the lethal stepback jumper with which Harden helped launch a long-range revolution appears to be back online in Philly:
So is Harden’s elite table-setting: The new Sixer has opened his account in the City of Brotherly Love with a sparkling 28-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio. A handful of those dimes have come in transition, an area in which the largely plodding Sixers haven’t had much juice this season. Harden’s first couple of games suggest he could provide a jolt in that department.
Given his propensity for pounding the rock and his preference for isolation play, you might not think of Harden as much of an accelerant. His Rockets teams did rank in the top 10 in pace in six of his eight full seasons in Houston, though, thanks in part to his ability to grab the ball off the rim—of 185 guards who’ve played at least 5,000 minutes over the past decade, Harden ranks 10th in defensive rebounding rate—and either look to take it to the rack himself or fling outlet passes to streaking teammates.
Before Harden’s arrival, the Sixers averaged 12.3 fast-break points per 48 minutes; over the past two games, they’re up to 20 with Harden on the court. It doesn’t look exactly the same as it did when Simmons would go on his full-court rampages to the rim, but introducing an elite passer who’s willing to push the pace into the ecosystem seems to have incentivized the Sixers to run the floor a little harder:
Whatever low-hanging fruit Harden can help the Sixers pluck on the break is mostly a bonus, though. He was brought to Philadelphia to turn what had been a top-10 half-court offense into one of the league’s very best, and to ensure that the team doesn’t capsize whenever its MVP-contending center takes a rest. So far, so good: Philly scored a scorching 118.5 points-per-100 in the half court in Harden’s first two games, according to Cleaning the Glass—for reference, the Jazz lead the league for the full season at 100.9 points-per-100—and the Embiid-Harden two-man game has needed no time at all to assert itself as one of the league’s scariest pairings.
Embiid has established over the past couple of seasons that he prefers to pop to the perimeter after setting a screen than dive hard to the rim, but he’s looked plenty willing to mix in more rolls with Harden. Doc Rivers has also added some variety to the tandem by having his new point guard curling around an off-ball screen into a dribble handoff with Embiid, getting both Philly playmakers on the move and putting the defense on its heels at the start of the action.
The combination of shooting, finishing, playmaking touch, and court vision is enough to give opposing head coaches insomnia:
If you want to switch the pick-and-roll, you’d better have a pair of Bams or Giannises, because otherwise you’ll wind up watching Harden cook your big or Embiid smash your small. Play a pure drop coverage, and you give Harden the space to walk into a pull-up 3. Play closer to the level of the screen and try to stay connected, and you’ve got to deal with Harden downhill one-on-one; shade the big man over his way, and you risk leaving open the lob to Embiid.
Crank up the pressure and try to trap Harden up top, and you let a deft driver who’s one of the league’s best passing big men and most dangerous midrange shooters rumble into a four-on-three around the free throw line, typically with only a smaller help defender between him and the rim. Sell out to keep Harden from turning the corner, and you give Embiid, shooting a tick under 36 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, a wide-open look at a triple from the top of the key.
And if you mess up any part of your coverage, well, chances are that the players who rank no. 4 and no. 8 in free throw rate over the past six seasons (minimum 5,000 minutes played) are going to create contact and get themselves to the line. Embiid and Harden have drawn 36 personal fouls and shot 59 free throws in their two games together; the Sixers have spent nearly 46 percent of the past two games in the bonus, according to PBPstats.com. That might not make for the most thrilling watch in the history of sports and entertainment, but it sure makes it hard to stop an offense that’s looking awfully tough even without the whistles.
“It’s ... I have no words for it,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey told reporters. “[Opposing teams] can’t do anything. If they don’t foul them, they’re going to score.”
As was the case when Harden first touched down in Brooklyn, dishing dimes and paving the way for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to score by the truckload, his arrival hasn’t cut into Embiid’s offense at all. The big fella has scored 57 points in their 53 minutes together, and his already stratospheric usage rate is actually up with Harden on the floor. It has, however, made the process of generating that offense look much, much easier.
Without a facilitating partner capable of consistently bending coverages, drawing defensive attention, and feeding him, Embiid has developed into a shot-creation machine out of necessity. Between 45 and 52 percent of his buckets have been unassisted in each of the past four seasons. Enter Harden: 14 of Embiid’s 17 made field goals (82.4 percent) over the last two games have come off an assist, with the former MVP notching the helper on 11 of them.
“I’ve really never been wide open like this in my life, seriously,” Embiid told reporters after the win over the Wolves. “The passes, I wasn’t even expecting it, and it was just coming. Usually, I’m not used to getting those types of passes … but that’s what he does.”
Embiid’s been the biggest beneficiary of Harden’s skills, but he’s not the only one; the focus that Harden demands on every possession has already made a notable difference in the class of looks the other Sixers get. Before the trade, according to PBPstats.com, the Sixers ranked 22nd in shot quality; what they’ve managed through two games with Harden would lead the league for the full season. All eyes on Harden and Embiid means Matisse Thybulle can roam the baseline and cut with impunity; dudes like Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Georges Niang, and Furkan Korkmaz will get to step into some of the cleanest shots of their careers.
So will Maxey, who, as my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor noted Monday, has looked extremely comfortable moving off the ball to make room for Harden, scoring 38 points on 15-for-21 shooting in 53 minutes alongside his new backcourt partner.
Rather than recede to accommodate Harden’s arrival, Maxey has maintained the same aggressiveness he displayed in establishing himself as a primary playmaker before the All-Star break. He’s sprinting the floor in transition and staying on his toes away from the action, relocating along the arc to put himself in position to take advantage of the attention Harden draws by firing off the catch or blowing past off-balance closeouts:
Harden also brings the toolkit to carry bench lineups when Embiid takes a seat—which, with the brief exception of the Jimmy Butler Experience, has been a serious struggle for the Sixers throughout Embiid’s career.
Long pilloried for his reluctance to stagger his best players, Rivers has thus far kept one of Embiid or Harden on the court for all but seven minutes—all of which came in the second half of a blowout against the Wolves. The early returns on Harden-led bench lineups have been positive: plus-8 in 22 minutes, still scoring at a torrid clip, with Harden dramatically ramping up his usage rate and the degree to which he looks to score.
It’s unclear whether fellow newcomer Paul Millsap will bring enough playmaking juice or defensive acumen to merit minutes over the sort of springier lob threat/shot-blocking presence—reigning G League MVP Paul Reed, rookie Charles Bassey, 10-day contract signee Willie Cauley-Stein, maybe the not-so-springy-anymore DeAndre Jordan—with whom Harden has frequently found success with in the past. Who’s at the 5 for those brief stints might not matter all that much, though; give Harden the ball and some shooters to pass to, and the second unit’s got a pretty good chance of staying afloat. And if the starters play this well, “staying afloat” in those non-Embiid minutes will be all Philly needs.
Spoiler alert: They won’t keep playing this well. They won’t keep shooting 65.5 percent on 2s in Embiid-Harden minutes. Maxey won’t just put up 25 a night on 76.1 true shooting from now on. Shit, there might even be nights when Harden and Embiid don’t combine for 30 free throws.
They’ll run into opponents better equipped to gum up the two-man game than the Knicks and Wolves, who have ranked 20th and 21st in points allowed per possession since the middle of January. For example: This weekend’s back-to-back against the Jarrett Allen–and–Evan Mobley–led Cavs and the ass-kicking, East-leading Heat. They’ll face high-octane offenses with multiple wing scorers—and Thybulle can guard only one of them. (Probably.)
Maybe Embiid will get a little tired of all the rolling; maybe Harden’s hamstring will start barking (again); maybe Harris, who’s missed 13 of 18 shots since Harden’s arrival, won’t quite get comfortable as a fourth option. Honeymoons invariably end; there will be moments of truth, if not over the next six weeks, then once the regular season gives way to the playoffs, where Embiid’s yet to advance beyond the second round and Harden’s résumé features more valleys than peaks.
Even so: This should work. A version of Embiid that doesn’t have to post up 95 times a game should have more energy to expend on dominating defensively. A version of Harden that can spend most of the game setting up an all-time big man and spraying the ball all over the court should have more gas in the tank in the fourth quarter. Maxey and Harris should thrive attacking lesser perimeter defenders in more space. The role players who struggle to create shots for themselves should play up now that they’ve got someone to create for them. It’s only two games, but it’s a proof of concept, and a reason to dream big; sometimes, when the honeymoon ends, what comes next is “happily ever after.”