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February 10, 2022

The Sixers finally got James Harden. Now what? Answering big questions about the move

How will Harden mesh with Embiid? What will the starting five look like? And is Philly now the favorite in the East?

After months of this saga dragging out and plenty of dashed hopes along the way, you would be forgiven for almost not believing James Harden is a member of the Sixers. But the Ben Simmons trade was indeed agreed upon, and you are now living in the reality where Harden and Joel Embiid control the Sixers' fate.

From keeping tabs on what all of you think over the last couple of years, that's not as exciting for some of you as maybe it is for those of us who no longer have to write trade rumor stories four times a week. And there are definitely concerns about how this thing will come together, what Harden will look like on the back end of a mega-deal, and where the Sixers fit into the power structure over the short and long-term.

But before we go too deep into the future, I wanted to take a look at some of the most immediate points of intrigue, starting with the one at the front of everyone's minds.

What does an Embiid/Harden partnership look like?

Everyone understands just how good both of these guys are. One has been an MVP candidate the last two seasons, the other has actually won the award and was in the running for the top honor for years on end. What's less clear is how their styles mesh when push comes to shove.

There are some immediate on-paper concerns to consider heading in:

  1. Harden's interest in off-ball offense has dropped considerably over the years. It was one of the big points of criticism leaking out of Brooklyn toward the end of his time there, and between his lethargic activity and dwindling catch-and-shoot volume, the evidence strongly suggests he needs the ball to be his best self. And historically, he does his best work while playing with a rim-running big.
  2. Embiid likes to have the ball quite a bit himself, and while he has shown flashes as a pick-and-roll big both this season and when Jimmy Butler was in town for a year, it's not his preferred way of doing things on offense. He's not a vertical lob threat in the mold of Clint Capela, and it's unclear how many possessions per game he'll be willing to effectively be a decoy for the Harden show.

Here's why I think you can set a lot of those concerns to the side — Harden is comfortably the best offensive player Embiid has ever played with, and Embiid has the deepest skill set of any big Harden has ever played with. If anyone can figure out a way forward, it's these two, a pair of the league's most talented and versatile offensive forces.

I am less concerned about the Embiid end of this equation, mostly because I think reducing Harden's pick-and-roll genius down to "He throws lobs!" is a major disservice to his talents. He has a wonderful handle, excellent passing vision, and can hit guys anywhere on the floor from anywhere on the floor. Harden can split haphazard traps, thread passes through traffic, and skip passes over the top to shooters, picking apart weaknesses when defenses present them.

Let's roll through a couple of examples of where I could see Harden and Embiid teaming up in Harden's preferred set, the pick-and-roll. The first one is simple — Embiid doesn't have to dunk lob passes in order to be the beneficiary of Harden attacking teams off-the-dribble. Teams have to play Harden high coming around ball screens, especially when the initial defender gets wiped out by a screen. If you can simply get Embiid moving toward the rim with his man shading too far toward Harden, Harden is capable of dropping passes where only his big can come up with them. Embiid's size will allow him to preserve the seal after he catches the entry, and from there it's either a dunk, layup, or foul taken by the defense.

Getting all the way to the rim is also not necessary for Embiid to benefit from Harden's pick-and-roll operating. Early offense drag screens are a good way to get Harden some separation from his man and to put the opposing big in troublesome spots. If teams choose to show high to stop Harden from turning the corner, it leaves Embiid in an advantageous spot on the floor — around the free-throw line with a smaller defender between him and the basket. Sometimes, that catch will be even closer, and if Embiid is getting guard-sized players in help positions under the basket, you can just forget about it.

The much bigger question is what Harden's value and interest level will be when he's not the guy outright leading the possession, especially when Embiid is demanding the ball in the post and directing traffic around him. With a group filled with role players around him, it was easy for Embiid to get buy-in from the entire group, his demands answered when he wanted a player in this spot or that spot, one side of the floor vs. another. Harden will likely be a bit harder to convince. Don't expect him to be an active cutter or do a ton of movement away from the play, judging from his body of work.

But having Harden as a strong-side option for Embiid out of a post-up still figures to be helpful for the big man. The Nets (and Rockets for that matter) were not exactly running a lot of designed posts for their bigs, but Harden is more than capable of feeling out a defense and pinging the ball back and forth with his big man. When Embiid feels pressure, he can feel comforted knowing the ball is in reliable hands with Harden, who will beat any lazy closeouts and end up in a lot of two-on-ones that ultimately end with easy finishes for his partner.

Frankly, the Sixers are probably going to have to reimagine big chunks of their playbook now that Harden is here, which is a big ask in the middle of a season. The good news is that they have the upcoming All-Star break to work on changes to their approach. For whatever you think about Doc Rivers as a gameday coach, he has overseen a lot of very good offenses during his time in the league. Even this year's Sixers are already tied for 10th in offensive efficiency, just a tenth of a point per 100 possessions behind the ninth-place Timberwolves, before getting Harden to juice up that unit.

Defense is another story, obviously, with Harden's tendency to drift mentally a constant worry when he's away from the play. There are areas of strength, particularly when defending out of the post, but there are far too many available clips of Harden either not caring or not paying attention to detail, blowing up his team's scheme in the process. Even with Embiid to serve as the human safety valve behind him, Harden has to prove willing to compete at a championship level at that end, living up to his end of the bargain even when times are tough.

And that's ultimately what this whole deal comes down to. If the Sixers get true buy-in from Harden, he has considerable gifts to ease Embiid's burden and push this team toward the top. This version of Embiid with more gas in the tank to use on defense is a scary concept, and that version of him is a real possibility if he and Harden can find a way to blend their gifts. Easier said than done, but it's on the table.

MORE: Sixers trade Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and more to Nets for James Harden

Who starts, who finishes?

To me, there are three nailed-on guys in the starting lineup: Embiid, Harden, and Tobias Harris. I think there's a decent case to be made that everyone else should prepare to be moved around depending on the night and the needs they have as a group, though I do think Tyrese Maxey will ultimately remain a nailed-on starter.

The immediate thing that jumps out about the roster is the need for quick-trigger shooters around these two. The Sixers have a small handful of them, with Danny Green the guy most obviously suited to start alongside Philly's core players, but most of their shooting depth consists of players who are a little slow on the draw. Harris and Maxey are the two faces of that problem, though both have been better on that front recently.

The dream has to be the ability to keep Matisse Thybulle on the floor in tough spots, asking him to take every opponent's top perimeter assignment so that Harden, Harris, and Maxey can pick up the less dangerous options from two through four. Keeping Thybulle out of the Harden deal was a priority for Philadelphia, as I reported throughout the process, and it gives the Sixers at least one high-level athlete to match up with the greats on the perimeter. But there are serious questions about how he factors into an offense structured around Embiid and Harden — for a long time, the latter has operated with a big setting the screen and the floor spread around him, spraying passes all over the floor as defenses contort around him. Keeping the area inside the arc as clean as possible for that partnership is a massive priority, so Thybulle's ability to consistently hit an open three (particularly a corner three) will be put to the test.

There are some obvious beneficiaries on the roster with Harden now in town. He's no candidate to start or finish games, but Charles Bassey fits the profile of the type of big James Harden absolutely thrives with, an athletic big with soft hands who can go up and punch one if the lob is there. In the hours immediately following the Harden trade, word coming out of the Sixers' practice facility is that they'd be looking for a vet backup big behind Embiid, but Bassey (or even Paul Reed) might be able to do some damage in limited minutes, even if they only come when Embiid gets a rest game. And the bench shooters who are relatively quick to get shots up — Furkan Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Georges Niang — should thrive with simplified roles around Harden, who can take care of most, if not all of the creating around them.

If the Sixers' "shooters" had better marks from deep this year, Rivers might even consider playing one of those guys in the starting lineup in service of moving someone else to the bench in a spark plug role. If Rivers wants to chain Embiid and Harden's minutes to one another, as he did with Embiid and Simmons, that could open an opportunity for Maxey to have a ton of freedom running the second unit. I tend to think that'd be a waste developmentally and a disservice to the team — Maxey is one of their best players, period, and having another guy who can beat players off-the-dribble and make an open three will be absolutely invaluable when they find themselves deep in the playoff slop.

Ultimately, I think you're looking at Harden-Maxey-Thybulle-Harris-Embiid out of the gate. If Green looked better defensively this season or was simply healthier, I'd give him a leg up, but I can't imagine the Sixers protected Thybulle in trade talks with the Nets just to keep him relegated to sub duty after the deal's completion. Expect some juggling here.

How does Doc Rivers handle staggering?

If Doc Rivers does not stagger the minutes of Embiid and Harden, he should not be the guy coaching this team, full stop. There is all the incentive in the world to hand Harden and Embiid the keys to units structured around their own individual needs, allowing each to thrive separately as they continue to mesh as a duo over time.

When Harden sits, the Sixers already know how to play and thrive in a setup with Embiid as the featured player and the rest of the parts revolving around him. Embiid dominates time and touches in the post, and everything else moves around him. The Harden-centric lineups are a different story, particularly because Andre Drummond was sent packing in the deal to acquire him. They will have to build an identity, and the easiest way to do so is to simply hand Harden the ball and allow him to control the offense for every second Embiid is not on the floor.

While Tobias Harris was floated as the biggest name on the chopping block if the Sixers wanted to get Harden as a free agent, Philadelphia's starting forward is in a much better position in bench-heavy lineups now, lineups he previously was expected to carry. Moving from the first option to the second in bench groups might not seem like a huge deal, but it will allow Harris to focus on attacking closeouts, hitting catch-and-shoot threes, and scoring with off-ball movement instead of trying to isolate and post himself into tough points from midrange. Harris getting to attack lesser defenders with the other team's best perimeter option on Harden should be a huge boon for him, allowing him to continue the run of success he has been on recently.

What simply cannot happen is a lineup hitting the floor without one of Embiid, Harden, or Maxey on the floor at any given time. If you want to put some funky lineups without a real ballhandler on the floor around Embiid, you could probably get away with it, but there is simply no excuse to have lineups on the floor with Korkmaz playing the point, or even Shake Milton for that matter, now that they have a dynamic talent in the backcourt. Maxey can lead the way every minute Harden isn't out there, and it should be that simple.

MORE: Sixers, NBA fans react to blockbuster James Harden trade, end of Ben Simmons era in Philly

Where do Sixers stand in Eastern Conference pecking order?

Until proven otherwise, I would consider the Milwaukee Bucks the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They are the reigning champions for a reason, with a nice blend of players around one of the league's best players, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is in the process of building an all-time resume in his prime. After shedding their demons during last year's playoff run, they look like a threat to beat anyone, anywhere when they are at their best. And now that Simmons is gone, the Sixers are suddenly light on options outside of Embiid to guard the Greek Freak. Using the big man to guard him will put additional stress on everybody else in their matchups, and the Bucks have shared experience together that Philadelphia can't match.

All along, that last part has been my concern with making a swing-for-the-fences move midseason. Putting together a title team on the fly is a heroic ask, and it takes time to build the chemistry necessary to succeed when it counts. It took Seth Curry and Embiid until basically last postseason to put it together in a meaningful way as running mates, and though the Embiid/Harden partnership features quite a bit more high-level talent, it's also a less immediately seamless fit, with both guys needing to do the sacrificing we mentioned up top.

I will offer a dissenting opinion on the Brooklyn Nets, who many around the league are fired up about once again following Thursday's trade — Ben Simmons does not deserve anyone's belief until he proves otherwise. He is surrounded by the proper offensive talent to hide his weaknesses as well as you could hope, but he will be called upon to do things that aren't comfortable regardless. As of this writing, every big man he might play with in Brooklyn is either a defensive liability or a non-shooter, with the Nets forced to choose between which of those they can stomach in order to make this group work. Even with two absolutely sensational offensive talents next to him, a lineup with Simmons and another rim-bound player might still end up with spacing issues as teams cramp one side of the floor. Should the Nets choose to try smaller looks with Simmons (an idea certainly worth exploring), one of Simmons or Kevin Durant will need to prove they are up to the task of protecting the rim, something Simmons never proved he could do in Philly with limited reps as a small-ball center.

At the end of the day, I would put the Sixers in a group of three slightly behind the Bucks, in a basket with the Nets and Heat, though I reserve my right to change my mind once we actually see this group start to play. Miami, currently leading the conference standings with a stellar roster and excellent head coach, deserves to be taken seriously as a threat. This push for the Eastern Conference crown might ultimately hinge on matchups and seeding, which makes the acceleration of Philadelphia's chemistry building that much more essential.

(The shorter version: I think this season is relatively wide open, and it was reasonable to take a crack at winning right away rather than waiting.)

How does this impact Joel Embiid's MVP campaign?

A lesser concern than the rest of these, but a piece of intrigue all the same. You don't see a lot of players as good as Harden get moved, period, much less moved to a team where a guy is already in the midst of putting together an MVP campaign. There's a snowball's chance in hell that Harden can claim this as "his" team, given Embiid's roots in the city and all he has gone through with the fans here, but he is certainly going to change the team's dynamic.

Off of the top of my head, there's only one real comparison I can think of — Kobe Bryant ended up winning his lone MVP in 2008, a year that saw the Lakers pick up Pau Gasol ahead of the trade deadline. Due respect to Gasol, a terrific player, but he was not in Harden's weight class in terms of individual accolades and production. Even then, Bryant's MVP is looked back on with a slight tinge of controversy, with compelling cases being made for other players (Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard) who arguably deserved the award over him. 

(Bryant probably could/should have won an earlier MVP when he was carrying sad-sack Lakers teams after Shaquille O'Neal's departure, but that's a different story.)

Embiid's role will shift in one way or another, but there's a more pressing question to answer in the meantime — will the Sixers continue to win in the short-term? Even if you're convinced they're a true contender now, talent is not the end-all, be-all when making a midseason trade. There might be some hiccups as the team sorts out their structure, their lineups, and how power and touches are distributed. These things take time, and that seems doubly true when considering the styles of both players involved here.

But frankly, I don't think many people around here will care if the MVP trophy goes out the window in service of a Finals run. Individual hardware is nice, but they don't throw parades for an MVP. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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