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How Far Can This Version of James Harden Take the Sixers?

The former MVP has adapted and evolved to become an excellent conductor of Philly’s offense. But the biggest question about Harden remains—and it won’t be answered until the playoffs.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“How good is James Harden right now?” might be the most futile or consequential question of the entire season. At times, he’s credibly conducting an unstoppable offense as Joel Embiid’s overqualified sidekick. Other nights, you can’t help but notice the 33-year-old’s hulkier frame and borderline perfunctory movement, then think back to who Harden used to be: someone who once effortlessly led the league in scoring three years in a row. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.

In 44 games, he’s averaging 21.6 points and a league-high 10.7 assists, while making a career-best 39.3 percent of his 3s. Only four players are logging more than his 36.7 minutes per night. These numbers make for an ideal All-Star résumé. But despite impressive stats, his historical stature, and his critical role on a championship contender, Harden in fact did not make the All-Star team, an honor previously bestowed on him 10 times.

This remains, weeks later, at the very least, pretty curious—especially after Harden was passed over several times as an injury replacement. He was an honorable mention on my fake team, but had that piece been published a couple of weeks later, when the rosters were actually announced, it would’ve been significantly harder to keep him off for a variety of reasons.

Harden’s omission from All-Star Weekend wasn’t close to being received as criminal, let alone odd. There was no real uproar outside of his own Instagram story and some tweets by his teammates. There’s one metric I often use called “what people say in casual conversation,” and Harden was brushed aside there, too. Fair or not, he’s stuck in limbo: Harden could average 40-15-12 for the next six weeks and many would still shrug.

Playoff flameouts and disappearing acts have defined Harden’s reputation. And his chance to rewrite the record with one brilliant, multiweek stretch this spring is all that matters.

This makes analyzing Harden’s season a unique challenge. It’s both understandable and myopic to view him through a lens that ultimately short-sells the year he’s actually having. His name is still a metonym for efficiency. His true shooting in the past 20 games is an astonishing 66.3 percent. Whether Embiid is on or off the floor, the Sixers have an elite offense with Harden, and pretty much every catch-all advanced stat ranks him as one of the 10 best offensive players in the league.

But Harden also hasn’t made an All-NBA team since 2020 and is far from a lock to make it back in 2023. With stakes mounting and a player option to weigh this summer, are we watching a stylistic shift or a setting sun? Harden used to live at the line. Now he’s attempting only 6.5 free throw attempts per game and hasn’t reached double figures since January 4.

Only 16.7 percent of his shots are coming within three feet of the rim, per Basketball-Reference. Last season it was at 23.1 percent, which, at the time, was a new personal low. (His personal high is 32.8 percent.) Watch this play from October below and see if you can identify why it’s so notable:

Give up? This is the only dunk Harden has had all season. One in over 1,600 minutes! There aren’t any others!

Related: He’s averaging only 13.3 drives per game, the lowest number he’s posted in that category since 2014. His blowby rate was 39.9 percent in 2019. This year it’s all the way down to 19.8 percent. Watch clips of a younger, more svelte Harden attacking off the bounce and it’s not hard to understand why he isn’t getting to the cup like he once did. Here are two nearly identical plays, one from four years ago and one from last week. Both feature Derrick White closeouts in similar spots on the court. The difference is jarring:

This isn’t to say Harden isn’t aggressive anymore. If nobody is in the paint, he’s trying to get there, often after shaking his defender with a crafty dribbling exhibition:

Circumstances and surroundings matter, too. Harden is a very different player when he’s allowed to frolic in tons of space. Even with the ability to separate from most opponents when he wants to launch a jump shot, he needs room if he wants to get downhill and collapse help defenders.

Here’s Harden organizing the floor like a chessboard, instructing Jalen McDaniels to flatten out along the baseline, calling Tyrese Maxey up to get the matchup (Sam Hauser) he wants, and then waving Paul Reed out to the corner:

The only problem is, well, Reed has gone 0-for-4 from behind the 3-point line this season. White loads up behind Hauser and Harden is forced to give it up. Turnover. One play later, Doc Rivers calls timeout and subs P.J. Tucker in for Reed. For now, preserving the 37-year-old Tucker makes sense. But in the playoffs, almost all of Harden’s non-Embiid minutes should/will be in small lineups with Tucker at the 5.

Philly’s non-garbage time offensive rating is 117.6 when those units take the floor—and the most used of those (which features Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton, and Maxey) is 125.5—while the lineups with Reed instead of Embiid have been a disaster.

Of course, Harden’s most important teammate is Embiid, an MVP candidate who best functions in a system that orbits and supports his own physical dominance. Embiid isolates more frequently than Harden—who’s still awesome one-on-one—and his usage rate is a whopping 12 percent higher. (Harden’s usage doesn’t crack the top 50 leaguewide, but leaps to just outside the top 10 when Embiid isn’t on the court.)

It’s a team sport, though; the two work well together. Harden has assisted 183 of Embiid’s baskets this season, which is an absurd 55 more than the league’s second-most-fruitful connection (Tyrese Haliburton to Buddy Hield). According to Second Spectrum, they also collaborate on more direct pick-and-rolls than any other duo. This action is mostly devastating. But sometimes Harden almost blunts his own progress by cutting off his drive and dropping the ball back to a stationary, covered Embiid.

These possessions sometimes still end with a bucket because Embiid is incredible. But leveled out in the hothouse of postseason basketball, when stars have to either create open looks for others or make tough ones on their own, they probably won’t cut it.

As a playmaker, though, Harden might still be second to none. He makes life easier for everyone around him. The game is simple when he kicks the ball 40 feet ahead after grabbing a defensive rebound or finds an open teammate for 3 in transition. He’s passing the ball more than ever. Some are brilliant anticipatory reads.

After a scramble in transition, watch him study Jusuf Nurkic and wait for Portland’s center to abort his matchup with Harris to help on whatever action Embiid is about to be involved in. Harden doesn’t go to Embiid, though. He flicks it to Melton on the wing, knowing Harris is about to be open in the corner:

There’s a fine line between selfless and submissive. When Harden walks it well—making extra, borderline unnecessary passes—Philly’s offense sings.

Pressure Harden and he’ll sometimes turn the ball over. But more often than not, he’ll turn that aggression on whoever’s dialing it up to slow the Sixers down. This skip to Maxey in the weakside corner is first-class:

The only player who averages more pick-and-rolls per game than Harden is Luka Doncic, and Harden passes out of them at a higher frequency than just about every high volume ball handler in the league. There’s sacrifice here. Harden hasn’t attempted fewer field goals per game since he left Oklahoma City. Is that more thanks to spacing issues and an offensive system that, at times, feels antiquated and predictable? Or is it because, at this stage of Harden’s career, with countless miles on his legs, he’s nearing his physical limitations?

It’s a weird time for Harden. He’s overlooked next to Embiid, with the third-highest usage on his own team. The man who helped revolutionize basketball in a Rockets jersey is gone and never coming back on a consistent basis. But there are sequences, quarters, and even entire games when, as someone who’s already conquered every defensive scheme in NBA history, he resembles his former MVP self, with fancy footwork, slick pocket passes, and a reliable stepback 3.

To resolve the question that started this article off: Harden is still very good. He should’ve been an All-Star. Can he sustain his very best through a playoff run that lasts more than two rounds? That’s a question the Sixers don’t have an answer for. Yet.