After just 2 games, the new Sixers, led by the duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden, have been met with a spectacular reception. Not spectacular in praise or admiration — rather, spectacular in hatred.
You don’t have to scroll that far through social media feeds to see fans and media personalities express how they despise the newest iteration of the team. It isn’t at all unexpected. In fact, what has occurred was predicted well in advance of the duo’s debut.
Everyone knew that two players — one massive in size and murderous in skill and the other marvelous in execution and equally murderous in skill — who were amongst the most elite in the league at drawing fouls would get to the free throw line with inflated regularity.
In the first two contests of their partnership, the Sixers have attempted 40 free throws per game. As you might’ve surmised, that leads the league over that microscopic sample size.
In those two games, the Sixers are 3rd in offense at 124.6 points per 100 possessions. They’re scoring at a true shooting efficiency of 66.1% — best in the league over the last two games.
Before Harden’s debut, when the Sixers attempted 22.1 free throws per affair (8th in the league) over 58 games, those figures were 111 points per 100 possessions (tied for 11th) and 56.7% true shooting (9th).
Free throw volume, by itself, does not have a linear relationship with either offensive rating or true shooting. But at the end of the day, both are means of expressing scoring. The charity stripe represents free scores. So, both metrics are indicators of how getting to the free throw line at such an inflated rate can change your offensive output.
Still, skeptics point to the postseason. “They won’t get those calls in the playoffs,” critics opine.
That’s fair, by the way. If anyone knows that regular season success means nothing if not translated to the playoffs, it’s the Sixers and their fans.
And perhaps it’s true to an extent. The Sixers played at a pace of 96.25 prior to Harden’s debut — 4th slowest in the league this season. Since he stepped on the court in Minnesota, Philadelphia has operated at a pace of 103.25. That is tied for 7th fastest in the league over the two game span.
The pace has to be discounted when translating to the playoffs. Opponents make more shots. They commit fewer live-ball turnovers. They have the discipline to get back quicker on transition defense. The game slows down. When the game slows down, the defense makes fewer mistakes and is faced with less pressure to resort to contact to force misses or crack under the urgency of downhill attackers.
But the benefit of a point guard of Harden’s caliber, besides the elite skill, is that you’re not limited to being effective mostly in transition like you were with Ben Simmons. All the good in Harden’s on-court reputation has followed him to Philadelphia. He has handled the ball in pick-and-rolls or isolated on a disadvantaged opponent in 24 of his 38 offensive possessions in a Sixers uniform thus far, according to Synergy. He has scored 39 points in those 24 possessions. I’ll qualify that efficiency for you — outstanding, albeit on small sample size.
You can take the pace away from Harden and the Sixers. You won’t take away Harden’s ability to manipulate a half-court defense with surgical precision as both a scorer and passer.
If Embiid buys into being a consistent roller, the critics will be silenced. The first two games have taught us one thing — an Embiid that is committed to plunging to the basket after setting screens is an inevitable foul.
It’s partially because of Embiid’s size and power. Defenses are forced to rotate and recover to the MVP frontrunner, who is sitting right at the basket — unattended — with the ball in his hands.
But it’s how the Sixers arrive at that moment that is sustainable. Harden’s shooting gravity forces individual defenders to play up on him. He can blow by with swift dribble moves and a quick first step to turn the corner. If he’s navigating a pick-and-roll, they’re blitzing, hedging, or switching. In any of those scenario, there’s a pocket of space for Harden to find Embiid running to the rim.
Harden’s genius isn’t in making the right decisions in those moments, though. It’s in bending the defense exactly enough to get what he wants. His passes are not a moment too soon or too late. He forces helpers into no man’s land by probing driving lanes before diming his cutter or his big man. He pins the defense between giving up an easy dunk or sending the shooter to the free throw line to earn the points.
Harden has single-handedly create free throws for his teammates on multiple occasions through two games. His gravity as a scorer — and, by relation, his gravity as a passer — is sustainable for as long as Harden can dribble and run.
As for reciprocation, Embiid developed into a brilliant passer in just one offseason. But, time will tell whether Harden is interested in cutting off the ball or relocating as a spot-up shooter while Embiid posts up.
What Embiid will do is impose himself enough to force defenses to try to contain him with two guys. And if two guys are on Embiid, it’s going to be very difficult to double-team Harden when he has the ball or deny him individually as he tries to retrieve it.
Perhaps Embiid won’t be the passer to Harden that the guard is to him. But, Embiid’s dominance is going to pull secondary defenders away from Harden, keeping his ability to tango with just one opponent in tact. As long as The Beard is crafty enough to dance with just one partner, he’ll be able to outpace them to the point of a misstep. And the first two games indicate that he’s not slowing down any time soon.
Calls don’t really change in the playoffs — defenses do. According to NBA[dot]com, history suggests that both Embiid and Harden have been able to translate the foul-drawing to the postseason.
The exact volume of free throws varies for both players. The important trend to take note of is that the capacity to get to the free throw line relative to other playoff participants has remained somewhat static. Perhaps you see a slight correction or curve on whistles to bring down the free throw volume, in general. But, neither Embiid nor Harden suffers a dramatically worse whistle from the regular season to the playoffs.
So, that leaves us at the variable that is defense. As you advance in the playoffs, you face better — and different — defenses. Some will compliment your strengths. Others will exploit your weaknesses. Joel Embiid and James Harden represent the perfect storm of imposing physicality around the rim and finesse on the perimeter. Neither has ever had a teammate like the other. Their different styles, on the court at the same time, is a mixture that no defense in the NBA can consistently keep off the free throw line. The more they get to the line, the more the game pauses. And the more they can rest while in the game instead of taking separate shifts on the bench.
Regular season or playoffs, it doesn’t matter. Free throw grifters or not, points are points. And points get you to the winner’s circle when all is said and done.