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November 30, 2022

Report: Sixers' James Harden hoping to return within next week

James Harden is reportedly hoping to return to the court sometime on Philadelphia's three-game road trip, The Athletic's Shams Charania reports, just over a month after Harden was given a month-long timeframe to recover from a foot injury. Calendars — they still work.

Jokes aside, Harden remaining on the initial timeline/schedule that was provided when he first went down is good news in the sense that everything has gone about as expected. He was out of a boot and finally back on the floor at the practice facility as of November 17th. Throughout the past couple of weeks, Harden has been spotted at the practice facility getting work in within Philadelphia's weight room, putting time in on the treadmill in addition to some workouts in the pool.

"The first week was basically letting everything fall back into place," Harden told reporters in mid-November. "Then you kind of just build up from there. You got the rehab, the pool workouts, the AlterG, and the treadmill, but it's helping you run at a nice pace. Once the pain fully goes away, then you start going to the court. Then you got just a week of building the cardio up and things like that. I feel good."

Philadelphia probably feels fortunate that, barring a setback, Harden will be back having only missed around a month of action. There were serious concerns about his foot after he suffered the injury in a loss to the Wizards on November 10th, with Doc Rivers relaying to reporters that he knew something was up when he saw Daryl Morey and the Sixers' head of medical in the training room after the game. Having Harden miss what looks like it will be 14 games total is not ideal, but will look like a small bump if that's all it amounts to in the end.

There are a couple of big questions to answer in terms of re-integrating Harden: how will this impact the guys who have stepped up in his absence, and how will this change the defensive growth they've shown as a team?

With Tyrese Maxey on the shelf, I think it'll be easy enough to work through the rotation in the short-term, sliding Shake Milton into something closer to a sixth-man role behind the backcourt of Harden and De'Anthony Melton. Milton's ability to create for himself and others will be more valuable alongside the members of the second unit, with Melton's ability to defend either backcourt spot making him a natural pairing with Harden. Milton won't get to control the offense and play a volume scoring role the way he did with an undermanned lineup, but there's plenty of space for him to make an impact still, especially when you consider his synergy with Joel Embiid.

The second question is the more important one in the short and long-term. Harden is going to juice up the offense and get Philadelphia trending back toward the elite numbers they hoped to post on that end, making life easier for just about everyone. PJ Tucker should see his average shot quality go up dramatically (and boy does he need help right now), De'Anthony Melton will have more catch-and-shoot opportunities, and Embiid should get some clean looks from all his favorite spots on the floor. The downside is the Sixers adding an often apathetic defender into a group that has thrived on effort and communication in recent weeks.

"Guys are just scrambling and we're in that mode," Shake Milton said following 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."

Off-ball attentiveness has not been Harden's strong suit on defense at basically any point in his career, and with Embiid wanting the Sixers to finish atop the league in defense this season, the onus is on Harden to at least move toward respectability on that end. I think he had some good moments there to start the year, but stringing it together game after game, play after play is a different story.

(One thing to note — Harden is rejoining the team after they've made adjustments to their initial defensive plan for the season. After starting the year with more frequent 1-5 switching, the Sixers are back closer to what we saw with Embiid in past years, bringing him up to the level on pick-and-rolls but asking him to switch situationally, e.g. late-game situations. The crispness of their switches has been good at the other spots, and they've done a better job of tagging bigs/serving as the "low man" in order to dissuade entry passes with Embiid showing higher.)

These are ultimately good problems to have, though, because they come with the boost Harden provides you on offense. He had some brilliant individual showings early in the year, looking a bit closer to the player he was prior to the hamstring trouble in Brooklyn. He will rejoin a group with growing confidence and an understanding of who they are as a team, and that should take pressure off him as he works to get back into proper game shape. Philadelphia's ultimate goal of becoming a title contender hinges on getting the best of Harden in April, May, and June. The less heavy lifting he has to do during his first week or two back, the better.

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