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April 08, 2022

The Sixers should rethink their approach to James Harden's minutes

Sixers NBA

Everyone watching the Sixers can see the same thing right now. James Harden does not have the lift, the burst, the speed that he used to have, and it is impacting the way he goes about his business. The underlying skills that made him a star and the basketball intellect are still there. The tools that help maximize those gifts have faded, though, and it is tough to get around that building the best version of this specific Sixers team.

Doesn't that seem like a crazy thing to think about a guy who has synergized well with their most important player? The Embiid/Harden partnership has worked even better than expected early on, with Embiid's success as a roller leading to some downright dominant stretches for Philadelphia on offense. The numbers with both guys on the floor spell out an important fact — the Sixers at their best can hang with (and outplay) high-level teams.

Unfortunately, even with an uptick in minutes expected for your stars in the playoffs, the title is not won and lost solely because of your starting five. If that was the case, the 2018/19 Sixers may very well have come away with a title. Eventually, Greg Monroe needs to check into a game, and you need to survive when your best player is parked on the bench, getting a few minutes of rest to leave it all on the line down the stretch.

This is where Philadelphia's starry pairing has fallen way short in both of their respective chances to run the show alone. We've written about this before, but the numbers still paint a clear picture:

 LineupPTS/100 possessions PTS allowed/100 poss. 
 Embiid and Harden both on122.3 106.1 
 Embiid on, Harden off104.1 109.8 
 Harden on, Embiid off 109.3120.6 

Staggering your stars is the most basic strategic move any NBA head coach can make. It's something I personally have begged Rivers to do long before Harden arrived here, when it would have meant giving Embiid and Ben Simmons additional time to carve out identities with units built around them. And if Harden were still the guy we've seen hit All-NBA level play as recently as last season, it's still what I would advise doing.

But at this point, the path forward that makes more sense is one built around squeezing every last drop out of that Harden and Embiid combination. Lineup combinations that keep Harden on the floor with Embiid while relying on Tyrese Maxey to carry bench units with Tobias Harris seem necessary to get the Sixers where they want to go.

The offensive and defensive numbers are ugly for those backup units with Harden running the show, but the latter is almost a given with their personnel. The Sixers having an offense roughly equivalent to a bottom-five offense in the league with Harden serving as the lone star is mindboggling for anyone who watched him in Houston. There wasn't a better poison to pick back then. Either Harden was using his first step to get by guys and score or draw fouls in the painted area, or you were sagging far enough back to prevent it that you gifted him a pull-up three.

These days, playing Harden close for the stepback jumper doesn't come with a lot of downside. He's not doing a great job of getting by most guys, and athletes with size on the wing are taking it to a different level. Precious Achiuwa laid out the problem in one second-half possession — he never drops far enough back to find himself outside of contesting range, but when Harden makes his move to the basket, Achiuwa only needs to slide his feet and move with Harden, unfazed as he turns Harden away at the rim.

Harden is in a much different team context now than he was in for the prime years of his career. No one should be expecting him to take 20+ shots a night the way he was during his heliocentric peak in Texas, especially with an MVP candidate plying his trade next to him. But these unsuccessful trips to the basket seem to be eating at Harden, psyching him out of taking chances that might actually be favorable for him.

Forget the athleticism for a second and focus on the lack of conviction. More than I can ever remember seeing during his previous stops, Harden's journeys toward the basket lack conviction. Early in the third quarter, he was able to handily beat Raptors wing Scottie Barnes, finding himself with one man to beat at the rim. But instead of building off of that moment and going at Chris Boucher at the rim, Harden opted to toss up an underhanded scoop that fell harmlessly off of the rim, the Raptors getting a run out with him laying on the baseline.

While these are only a couple of examples (and one with the fully-loaded lineup on the floor to boot), they are a snapshot of Harden's current limitations, which are more pronounced when you ask him to be the primary creator for a backup group where he is the undisputed top dog. Having Embiid on the floor doesn't just make his life easier, it snaps him into focus somewhat, avoiding the long, aimless possessions where he rocks back and forth before shooting a stepback. When he does go to the rim, it's as if he's resigned to his fate, never giving a lot of his attempts a real chance by stopping way short of the goal.

Some of you may have been dialed in and watching Harden cook when he was at his scoring peak, and some of you may be watching him for the first time on a regular basis. For those of you who fall in the latter category, the Harden we see today is jarring specifically because of how different it looks from Harden at his apex. If you allowed him to find a seam, best wishes. Even being on Harden's hip was basically a death sentence, because he was too strong to allow you to make the comeback. Just a few examples:

It's not that he had overwhelming speed, but he had enough speed and enough lift that once he created that advantage, it was over. Now, creating the advantage in the first place is a huge issue. And even when he's able to get to a relatively favorable spot, rising up and scoring at the rim looks like a chore. That being the case, you cannot structure lineups around his ability to win individual matchups and carry your team on offense. A switching defense, as you have seen recently, is enough to kneecap his effectiveness as a scorer, leaving the team reliant on the success of stepback jumpers. Even though he's among the best to ever do it in that respect, it's a high-difficulty shot that lends itself to some ugly swoons if your entire offense is banking on it.

Whether he can reclaim his burst, or something close to it, is the ultimate long-term question. It may very well be a case of Harden needing additional time off and time away from last year's hamstring injury in order to resemble something closer to the man he was at his absolute peak. But anyone saying whether he can or can't get there definitively is just blowing smoke.

That doesn't mean that Harden can't bring significant value to this team right now, obviously. The success of the starting lineup (with or without the unvaccinated Matisse Thybulle) proves that. So instead of asking Harden to be someone he is having trouble being at this moment, doubling down on what's working is the obvious play.

Philadelphia's first quarter was the obvious highlight of the game, and Harden stood at the center of a lot of that. With the fear that Embiid strikes in teams coming downhill — and the bit of separation Harden can get as a result of an Embiid screen — Harden can use his passing to pick apart opponents. 

Harden coming off of a handoff on the right side of the floor going to his dominant left hand is a well it feels the Sixers need to tap into constantly. It is a look Embiid is obviously comfortable with, having run it with offensive players less gifted than Harden, and it takes some of the burden off of Harden. It's a little harder to cheat from the weakside with more ground to cover, and lends itself to open looks there if teams do decide to sell out to protect the paint.

The other half of this equation is the success Tyrese Maxey has had in basically any context. With or without their stars, Maxey is finding ways to produce and oversee good offense. The Sixers have actually come out ahead in minutes with Maxey on the floor and both stars on the bench since the All-Star break, albeit in a paltry 81-minute sample. Still, a unit with Maxey and Harris effectively leading accomplishes multiple things. On top of taking advantage of the Harden/Embiid dominance, it fosters an environment where your brightest young player will attack more. And Harris, who has come on as a catch-and-shoot guy recently, gets a small chance to leave more of an imprint on the game, perhaps playing himself into more of a rhythm for when they need him in a big moment late.

When the Sixers have fallen flat, the messaging in defeat has often centered around connectivity. Harden's takeaway from Thursday's loss, whether it was a deflection from his struggle or a reflection of his true feelings, was all about team spacing:

If the Sixers attach Harden to Embiid at all times, there is no choice but for that duo and the units around them to understand their place. It's never just the Embiid show, or just the Harden show, but a unit that has to buy in, help each other out, and rely on combining their talents to make the best of them. The second unit without them can forge their own identity, perhaps playing a more connected, team-centric brand of basketball that carries over when the shifts change. The jumps in style can be jarring at times right now, and they aren't benefitting from that in basically any way.

But mostly, the Sixers' title path relies on Harden being the most valuable version of himself that he can be. Unless he is playing possum and suddenly finds another gear in the playoffs, which I suppose you can't rule out, the easiest way to accomplish that is to abandon the idea of staggering their co-stars until at least next season. Ride the best option you have for as long as you have, and cross your fingers that it's enough.

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