The reunion between James Harden and Daryl Morey a handful of states northeast of Texas is about more than just getting MVP-favorite Joel Embiid a new running mate. It is perhaps equal parts about filling a void that the Sixers have had for all but one year during the Embiid era — a shot-creator.
Except this time, the incoming ball-dominant star is a high-octane scorer, and there’s no internal battle over floor general responsibilities.
Don’t get me wrong, Jimmy Butler was the proverbial dog that that Sixers team needed.
Capable of finding ways to gut out wins as games slowed into half-court paces. He was the safety valve for a team that mostly scored on transition playing, off-screen shooting, and Joel Embiid doing what he does. But, Butler wasn’t the prolific one-on-one point generator that Harden is now and has been throughout his career.
The Butler that played for the Sixers scored .99 points per possession on 98 isolation possessions in 55 games with Philadelphia, according to Synergy. That ranked in the 76th percentile of the league. Butler scored at least 1 point on 45.9 percent of his isolation possessions. His point-per-possession efficiency ranked second best in the league for players who logged at least 80 possessions as both guards and forwards. The sample size of possessions paled in comparison to other high-ranking guards/forwards.
Butler’s ability to pass the ball out of isolation wasn’t that inspiring, either. The Sixers averaged .857 points per possession in which Butler passed out of an isolation, according to Synergy. That ranked in the 25th percentile of the league. The Sixers scored at least 1 point on just 35.7 percent of those possessions in which Butler passed out of an isolation.
Butler could beat defenders in a one-on-one environment. But, he wasn’t the “put the ball in his hands and get the [bleep] out the way” savant that Harden is. Part of that was Philadelphia’s utility of Butler isolations. He only isolated in 11.3 percent of the possessions in which he was involved. The other part was simply that he just wasn’t good enough at it to warrant inundating the opposition with such play.
Two and two-thirds seasons later, enter James Harden.
The 10-time All-Star leads the NBA in isolation possessions this season, taking defenders one-on-one in 31.8 percent of the possessions he was involved in as a Net. And the volume of possessions is supported by efficiency. Harden scored 1.057 points per isolation possession this season, good for second best in the NBA, according to Synergy. Harden scored at least 1 point on 43.8 percent of his isolations this season. He’s, been rewarded with free throws on 20.2 percent of his isos.
Harden has always been a ball-dominant, high-usage guard. As such, he’s going to suffer from bouts of turnover-itis. It’s inevitable, and it’s damaged 8.9 percent of his isolations for self-provisioned shots this season. The equivalent figure for Butler was 3.1 percent. Turnovers are also a product of being both a willing passer and an isolation-heavy player. Butler turned the ball over on 9.5 percent of the 42 possessions in which he passed out of isolations with the Sixers. Philadelphia scored on 35.7 percent of his passes out of isolation. Meanwhile, Harden passed out of isolations 134 times as a Net this season. Only 3 percent of them resulted in turnovers. Brooklyn scored on 38.1 percent of the possessions in which Harden passed out of an iso.
There is some reason for concern.
You can’t ignore the difference in sample size, but Harden is shooting 37.8 percent on isolations. Not great. His effective field goal percentage on isolations, which factors three-point shooting into field goal percentage, is 47 percent. Again, not great, but closer to league average in its respective category. Butler, on the other hand, hit 42.4 percent of his field goals and registered an effective figure of 45.3 percent on his isolation scores with the Sixers. Those two figures — similar in nature but different in message — indicate that Harden may be a more efficient shooter, but Butler was the more efficient scorer.
The other concern is that Harden has shown linear decline over the last two seasons. His scoring dropped from 34.3 points per game in 2019-20 to 24.6 points per game last season. This season, that figure is down to 22.5 points per contest. Given Harden’s well-documented off-court habits, there’s a very real — if not likely — chance that the decline is legitimate. In that case, his future with Philadelphia may be characterized as few bang for a lot of buck. But, perhaps it’s not. Maybe the Harden we’ve seen over the last one-and-two-thirds seasons struggled with injuries and was unmotivated due to a desire to play elsewhere. Maybe the Harden coming to Philly is reinvigorated by a situation he likes better. If so, the Sixers will be there to catch the tail of his prime.
An elite shot-creator is not defined by his ability to make things happen out of a pick-and-roll or as a slasher out of a ball-swing. Rather, they bend defenses to their wills, manipulating the opposition just enough to concede exactly what the ball-handler wants. And James Harden is not just elite at creating shots, he may very well be the best in the world at it.