James Harden Home Debut Warmup

James Harden’s 5-game Sixers tenure has been a perfect Uber ride. He arrives in style, gets the Sixers’ offense to where it needs to go, and avoids hogging the spotlight by simply driving the car. While most drivers prefer tips after delivering passengers home from a night out, Harden’s ideal payoff is a championship ring.

The superstar guard is averaging 24.6 points, 12.4 assists, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.8 turnovers in his first 5 games as a Sixer. All-NBA numbers no matter how you slice it. Yet, his scoring was loud in only one game — his debut in Minnesota. But, he hasn’t needed to dial up the scoring to make his superstar impact felt.

Despite only playing 5 of the last 6 games, Harden leads the NBA with 33.6 assist points created per game over that span. His assist-per-game figure also leads the league over that span. At 4.43:1, Harden’s assist-to-turnover ratio ranks 4th amongst guards to play at least 25 minutes per game over at least 3 of the last 6 games and register usages of at least 20%. His 50% assist percentage is tied for 2nd amongst guards over the last 6 games.

The less nerdy translation — Harden is dominating games as a passer, and he’s doing it on extremely high efficiency.

It isn’t just the assist-to-turnover ratio or the assist percentage that illustrate just how effective Harden has been. Through his first 5 games with Philadelphia, Harden has attempted 64 field goals and registered 62 assists. 

Let that sink in.

He’s taken 64 shots, and 62 of his passes have directly led to scores. This isn’t Chris Paul or any other legendary pass-first guard. This is a guy who won the league’s scoring title in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Harden is averaging almost 25 points per game, and has only taken 2 more shots than he has served assists. Much more economic than today’s gas prices, I’ll tell you that much.

A big part of what has made Harden so effective in his facilitation is that he’s not focusing on any one teammate. The players next to him change, but the reads Harden makes don’t.

Pass To Passes Per Game FGA FG%
Joel Embiid 16.8 10 46
Tyrese Maxey 14 5.6 67.9
Tobias Harris 13.2 5.4 22.2
Matisse Thybulle 6.2 3.2 62.5
Georges Niang 5.6 3 60
Paul Millsap 4.6 1 40

As the table shows, there are two tiers to Harden’s passing figures. The first reflects passing to teammates in the starting lineup, while the second is scaled to players in the second unit. Harden is subject to Doc Rivers’ rotation patterns, so he’s playing with some teammates more than others. But, the passing distribution remains relatively even.

Harden isn’t just dishing when all of his options are exhausted. He’s leveraging his scoring gravity to bend defenses just enough to create the space he wants for his teammates.

As Harden peels off Embiid’s screen, three Bulls converge. Tony Bradley Jr. drops to protect against a downhill burst from the ball-handler. Derrick Jones Jr. loads up next to the nail at the free throw line to help DeRozan, who is fighting through the Embiid screen. Harden could easily pivot back to reward his screener on the pop. But the simple pass is to a shooter on the strong side of the floor, and Harden’s slow probe baits Jones Jr. into giving up so much ground in help that he can’t recover to Niang in time.

Harden’s knack for slowing the offense down with multiple pick-and-rolls is not as much geared towards him creating angles for his own scores as it is towards him testing the defense.

He’ll snake screens to see how the defense is going to guard him from either hand. Do they switch when he’s pushing left to thwart a downhill attack? Do they soft hedge when he pushes right to protect against a pull-up triple? Something else? If they switch, his screener can slip the screen and Harden can dime them as they plunge to the cup. If they throw a soft hedge, Harden can wait a bit longer before delivering the pass or he can shoot as the big retreats to the diver.

Those slow probes are a key component of the Sixers’ vastly improved three-point shooting since Harden’s arrival. Harden is directly passing to 12.8 three-point attempts per game for the Sixers, and they’re connecting on nearly 41% of those looks. But, his presence is changing the game for Philadelphia. The Sixers are getting up 26.6 threes per game with Harden on the court over the last 6 contests, and they’re cashing in on better than 41% of those opportunities.

By contrast, the Sixers are getting up just 13.2 triples per game when Harden isn’t on the court. They’re hitting just better than 30% of those looks. In that context, it isn’t that difficult to understand why the Sixers average 130.16 points per 100 possessions with Harden and only 111.72 per 100 without him.

Philadelphia has the best offensive rating in the NBA by a wide margin with Harden on the floor. Their offensive rating without him shades outside of the top 10.

The offense is passable without Harden because of Joel Embiid’s MVP-level play and Tyrese Maxey’s emergence as a co-star. But, the Sixers weren’t going to win anything with two credible defenders on their whole roster and an offense ranking outside of the top-10. It’s still very, very early, but the returns suggest that introducing Harden to the mix has turned the Sixers into a well-oiled machine.

I know, you add a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer to an offense already featuring the MVP frontrunner and things get way better. Shocker.

Despite choosing spots to assert himself, Harden has been extremely efficient as a scorer, too. 

He’s shooting 60% on 7 twos per game, and 44.8% on 5.8 threes per game. That’s good for an effective field goal percentage of 63.3%. He’s shooting the ball at an extremely efficient level. Harden is shooting 89.4% on more than 9 free throws per game. That’s helping him to a true shooting figure of 72.6%. So he’s scoring the ball extremely efficiently, too.

The scoring and shooting efficiency is accompanied by an efficient shot diet, too.
Season Team % of Shots at Rim % of Shots in Midrange (Short Midrange) % of Shots from Three
2018-19 Rockets 30 20 (17) 50
2019-20 Rockets 30 20 (18) 51
2020-21 Rockets 38 14 (14) 49
2020-21 Nets 30 31 (28) 39
2021-22 Nets 32 29 (24) 40
2021-22 Sixers 49 14 (12) 37

The table shows that, in a very small sample size, Harden has really cut down on his diet of midrange jumpers since joining the Sixers. It must be noted that 12% of Harden’s midrange attempts with the Sixers are within the free throw line. So, most of them are floaters. That’s a trend that has carried through previous seasons, too. In fact, Harden’s ascension to a scoring champion and MVP followed his movement away from long twos.

The other factor to consider in assessing Harden’s shot diet is his partner in the pick-and-roll. He’s used to having lob threats clogging the lane, thus hindering his ability to get all the way to the rim. So, you wonder how different those numbers look next to a big that can space the floor for him, like Embiid can. But, Harden’s shot diet — one that has seen him hone in on taking threes and getting as close to the rim as possible in recent years — perhaps reflects an alignment with President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey’s analytical philosophies.

You’re not going to change Harden’s nature all that much in his prime.

He’s a ball-handler, and he’s made very little effort to do much off the ball in a half-court environment through 6 games with Philadelphia:

  Frequency FGA FG%
Catch-and-shoot 7.8% 1 60
Pull-Ups 42.2% 5.4 37
Within 10 ft 50% 6.4 65.6

Part of that disparity in catch-and-shoot frequency relative to other shot contexts is surely that his teammates view him as a security blanket. When they get stuck, they look for their teammate to help bail them out of trouble. You don’t really care how often he takes shots within 10 feet because that is ostensibly easy money. But for now, it’s fine that Harden is attempting 5.4-times as many pull-ups as he is catch-and-shoots because of this team’s need for shot-creation.

Assuming Harden is still a Sixer 4 years from now, then you might want him to transition into more of a catch-and-shoot guy if he loses the burst he has off the dribble. It will make even more sense if Tyrese Maxey is still around to assume his position as the lead ball-handler.

Sure, he could do more as a cutter (he’s only registered one possession as a cutter with the Sixers, according to Synergy). But, you’ll concede his lack of motivation as an off-ball guard if Harden does this consistently:

Regardless of whether he’s passing or shooting, Harden has changed the ways in which teams defend the Sixers. In the 5 games he’s played for the team, he’s seen 78 possessions against man defense and just 7 against zones. Harden’s mixed bag of tricks, creativity, and intelligence strike fear in the opposition. His shooting and passing gravities feed off of each other. 

For now, we’ve seen Harden put up universally excellent numbers as a scorer while playing that game conservatively at only 12.8 shots per game with the Sixers. They are 5-0 when he plays, and have a point differential of +83 in those 5 games. They’ve looked every bit of a championship contender.

Harden was putting up 37-point triple-doubles back in late January. There are still 2-3 levels Harden can go to as a scorer beyond what he’s shown in Philly thus far.

And at any given moment, Harden could decide to flip the switch.