Though he’s received criticism, James Harden has elevated Philadelphia’s offense with his playmaking and gravity. Harden’s on ball gravity significantly benefited the Sixers due to his court vision and feel for the game. At times he may be too passive, but his facilitating out of the pick and roll, blitzes, and traps opens up many other options.
Harden’s Fit with Embiid
In the signature pick and roll with Harden and Embiid, teams often play low drop coverage or hedge in the nail. James uses that to his advantage by hitting Embiid with a soft touch pass in the low post for an effortless two. There are many more variations of the Embiid-Harden pick and roll such as the Chicago and pistol action they often run with Tobias Harris or Matisse Thybulle. Those set plays involve a screen for Joel Embiid while he screens for Harden. So, in short, they’re screening the screener. With Harden’s playmaking he’s able to hit Tobias or Thybulle with a cross court pass for a catch and shoot three. That’s just one of many ways Harden’s presence on the floor has lifted Philly’s offensive potential.
It’s very hard to argue against the fact that James Harden made life a lot easier for Joel Embiid in a short amount of time. Before the trade, the Sixers often struggled to get Joel the ball in the post because of the lack of facilitating. That issue was quickly resolved with Harden’s elite playmaking capabilities. James got Embiid many opportunities down low with the bodies he attracts on the perimeter. Harden’s elite passing was also a huge factor in this as he hit Joel with timely pocket passes.
The big fella excelled in the pick and roll with James as well. Like mentioned before, defenses give Harden no breathing room in the midst of the pick and roll. That allows Embiid to effortlessly dominate as the roll man and score in the paint time and time again. People foolishly questioned Embiid’s ability to work in the pick and roll, but the MVP candidate made that go away quickly. With James’ finishing ability and Joel’s dominance, it’s really a matter of picking your poison when defending the pick and roll. Embiid has undoubtedly improved with Harden on the floor, but he’s one of many.
The Sixers when Joel Embiid and James Harden are on the floor this season (603 minutes):— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 13, 2022
125.7 offensive rating
109.1 defensive rating
+16.6 net rating
Tyrese Maxey greatly benefitted from Harden’s on ball gravity. When James got double teamed on the perimeter because of his all-time scoring abilities, Maxey often got left fairly uncontested. Harden frequently detected that and dished it to Maxey for an easy triple. Tyrese also excelled as a back-door cutter off of Harden’s skillful court vision. The second-year guard’s off-ball activity skyrocketed with Harden’s invaluable presence on the court. That’s not even mentioning how James’ teaching has influenced Maxey’s scoring abilities. Tyrese turned into quite arguably the best step-back shooter since the faithful Harden trade. Maxey effortlessly started draining step back triples with a huge amount of confidence. The second-year guard’s overall isolation game has massively improved with Harden’s presence.
Matisse Thybulle has been considered a liability on offense throughout his career and rightfully so. But Harden quickly unlocked what can make the third year forward effective offensively. Teams frequently play off of Matisse and either double Embiid in the post or Harden on the perimeter. They do that because Thybulle is an inconsistent three-point shooter and therefore, a poor floor spacer. However, Matisse proved to be an impressive backdoor cutter because of his quickness, athleticism, and powerful finishing at the rim. Thybulle found consistent success as a cutter with Harden’s court vision and ability to pass out of double teams. He’s even slightly improved as a catch and shoot player off of Harden’s crisp passes, but there’s still a long way to go for him. Nonetheless, Thybulle’s offense has undoubtedly improved next to James.
Harden does masterful things in terms of playmaking, but his scoring is a different story. Unfortunately, James isn’t the same offensive superstar he once was a few years ago. It appears he lost his touch on his signature step-back three and looks more hesitant to score from the perimeter. There’s been multiple instances where he made an unnecessary pass when he could’ve had a better look himself. Harden seems to overthink when he’s looking to score whether that’s stalling on the perimeter or over-dribbling. Sometimes his tendency to lower the pace hurts the offense, especially when he’s struggling to find his shot. It could be his lingering hamstring injury or older age, but he needs to get it together in the postseason.
It’s not all bad as James’ ability to finish at the rim is intact for the most part. Harden is able to use his crafty dribble penetration to split through defenses and beat his point of attack defender. It often results in drawing contact or scoring, but he’s not been consistent as of late. His floater game weakened and because of all this it changed the way defenses guard him on dribble drives. Instead of immediately blitzing off the pick and roll, teams started to switch on him. It’s semi-concerning that Harden struggles to beat bigs off of switches, especially when you consider his age and potential contract extension.
In order for the Sixers to have any post season success, James Harden has to up his scoring. Whether he thinks he has something to prove or not, both his shot creation and playmaking need to be there. The Toronto Raptors will not be an easy opponent whatsoever, so Philly will need as much firepower as possible. Nick Nurse will most definitely throw bodies at Embiid and play his notorious zone defense. Considering that, Harden’s scoring is essential against a highly talented Raptors defense that has versatility and mobility.