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December 05, 2022

What to watch for in James Harden's expected return game vs. Houston

Barring a cruel act of god or something unforeseen, James Harden will return to the lineup for the Sixers on Monday night. It's a great time to get him up to speed — they play a young and struggling opponent in Houston, and then get a few days off before taking on a Lakers team suddenly looking closer to the expectations that come with employing LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The undermanned Sixers need some extra help right now, and Harden represents much more than that.

A little over a month removed from the foot injury that knocked him out of the lineup, here are a few things I'll be looking for as he works his way back into the team.

How does Harden's burst look post-injury?

The biggest James Harden topic in the offseason was how he would look this year after a full offseason's worth of workouts to get himself right. Harden said all the right things, looked good when we saw pictures and videos pop up, and ultimately opened the year with a pair of bangers against the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. From there, Harden's scoring dove back toward where we saw it to end last year, the veteran guard offering more as a playmaker than anything else.

Well, maybe that's not totally accurate. The biggest surprise of the nine games Harden appeared in to open the season was where his shots came from, and more specifically, how many attempts he took from midrange:

Editor's note: In the chart below, bracketed numbers are stats for the 2021-22 season.

Shot range % of total shotsFG% 
 0-3 feet9.8 [23.1]71.4
 3-10 feet 17.5 [23.2] 36.0
 10-16 feet 18.9 [6.1] 48.1
 16-3P line 7.7 [2.4] 81.8
 3P shots 42.0 [45.2] 33.3

This is a radical departure from any point in Harden's career, full-stop. A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a version of Harden where over 26 percent of his attempts came between 10 feet and the three-point line, and the 10-16 foot shots represent over triple his career averages from that area of the floor. That tracks with the eye test — Harden made a concerted effort to take what was given to him, getting busy from midrange in basically any lineup configuration the Sixers put on the floor.

There were a few noteworthy side effects of that change in approach, albeit in a limited sample. Harden's field goal percentage is up closer to his career averages, but some of that is driven by unsustainable midrange shooting (if he was able to shoot nearly 82 percent on long twos all year, the Sixers would probably win the title). But the cost of that switch in approach has come primarily at the free-throw line, where Harden is averaging his fewest attempts per game (raw averages and rate averages) since his final season in Oklahoma City a decade ago. 

So the Sixers will probably need Harden to find a middle ground between attacking the soft spots from midrange and attacking the rim with the intent to score or draw fouls. That's what puts his explosion back at the center of the conversation because Harden needs to continue proving he can get to the paint and score with regularity. Coming off of a foot injury, that's going to be easier said than done, and we'll see how quickly he's able to accelerate and explode in his first game back on Monday.

His impact on the corner shooters

Hey, have you guys heard PJ Tucker is struggling on offense lately? No? Bless your fortunate soul if you haven't. Teams have begun ignoring him entirely on offense, and Tucker has hardly been equipped to punish them for it.

To illustrate the problem, let's look at another chart, this one comparing Tucker's numbers prior to Harden's injury and following Harden's injury:

Period of season FG% 3P% 
 Games with Harden 59.552.6 
 Harden injury period 28.127.8 

Look, we can discuss sample sizes and factors that don't have anything to do with Harden, and acknowledge that Tucker being in a terrible cold slump isn't all because they lost a guy who sets him up for clean looks. But this is a gargantuan gap, and we know good and well that he has thrived alongside Harden whenever they've played together. It's a symbiotic relationship, Harden getting a reliable floor spacer and Tucker getting a steady stream of open three-point looks.

Tucker is not the only player who stands to benefit from Harden's ability to generate corner threes out of pick-and-rolls and other sets where he receives a ball screen. Here's a number that might be a bit more surprising, given how well he has played of late — Tobias Harris is hitting just 32.8 percent of his threes since Harden left the lineup, a drop of nearly 10 percentage points compared to his hot start from deep. It's an intuitive drop when you consider a larger percentage of his shots are coming on pull-up jumpers, and inherently tougher shot, but Harris' effectiveness as a scorer in the past couple of weeks has probably hidden that the outside shot has been somewhat of a struggle.

Across the board, Philadelphia's corner shooting was terrific to start the year, the Sixers generating 1.26 points per shot from the left corner and 1.5 points per shot from the right corner. They've generated a smaller percentage of total shots from the corners, and attempts from the right corner have taken a huge hit in effectiveness, falling to about 1.06 points per shot. I tend to believe volume is the bigger deal here, because the corner three is such an inherently valuable shot that I think they'll eventually get results regardless of who is playing lead setup man. But Harden has consistently been a corner-three machine as a creator, and his return should help push a few guys back in the right direction from deep.

The defensive question

Since Harden left the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers have been the single-best defense in basketball, clear of their closest competition by 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Shake Milton recently addressed the media and explained why he thought they'd improved as a group, and more specifically, why he thought they'd improved even without defensive anchor Joel Embiid on the floor.

"Guys are just scrambling and we're in that mode," Shake Milton said following last Monday's win over Atlanta. "There's just been a good rhythm overall defensively, covering for one another, talking, and guys just making plays for each other. It's imperative that you do the simple things like keep the ball in front, but you also gotta have that help side and crashing."

That is not a description of the type of player/teammate Harden has been on defense for most of his career. He has put together defensive lowlight reels during the roughest stretches of his career, and the frustrating thing is that he's not an incapable defender. In switch-heavy schemes at his peak, Harden was at least a competent piece of a top-10 group. I don't care too much about his well-deserved reputation as a post defender — it's not really that important in the grand scheme of things — but knowing he has better play in him makes it more frustrating when he loafs around and switches off his mind off-ball, giving up easy buckets to the opponent in the process.

The Sixers have also made some tweaks to their defensive scheme since starting the year in what was basically a switch-everything style, calling on Embiid to switch the same as the rest of the group. Philadelphia is now switching 1-4 while Embiid comes up to the level of the screen and then drops, only switching situationally (primarily in endgame situations). That has helped the Sixers move toward Embiid's stated goal of being the best defense in the league this season.

This could go one of two ways — the current setup gives Embiid a better chance to clean up mistakes and serve as the human safety net for his teammates, which should help Harden when he gets blown by. That's preferable to a team forcing Embiid to switch to a dangerous shooter and then swinging the ball elsewhere, a scenario that led to too many easy trips to the paint early this season. But while their current setup is a simple enough scheme to play (and one that Harden has experience in), it may simply take a few games to re-wire his brain since he missed most of the games where Philadelphia has changed who switches and when. Don't be surprised if he expects to pass somebody off to the big man and creates some unfavorable downhill situations for Embiid to clean up. 

Frankly, the biggest thing here is just buy-in. There were moments this year, including during an awesome small-ball run in their home opener loss to the Bucks, where we saw Harden not just competing but actively winning battles for the Sixers on defense. As long as he contributes to the Sixers maintaining their shape and connectivity, that will be enough.

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