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September 01, 2022

Over/unders on James Harden statistics, assist leader odds for the 2022-23 NBA season

Will the Sixers get the James Harden of old, or just James Harden, old? That’s one of the burning questions entering this NBA season, and the linemakers appear to be just as uncertain as everyone else is, penciling in Philadelphia’s star guard for a year much like last season.

Perhaps that evaluation will be to your advantage, or maybe it’ll ruin you financially and you’ll never recover. Sports betting, baby.

Let’s take a look at some of the big lines for No. 1 heading into 2022-23.

(As always, I am not responsible for your bets, unless you’re giving me credit because you won something. All of these props are currently available at DraftKings Sportsbook.)

Points o/u: 21.7

This number feels genuinely disrespectful to Harden’s body of work. Whatever you think of Harden and the state of his game/body in 2022, you’d have to believe he’s going to plummet even further after not looking quite like himself last season.

To put this number into perspective, Harden would have to average his fewest points per game since he was a third-year guard in Oklahoma City, still coming off the bench as the Thunder’s super sub. Even last season, with Harden struggling to put together consistent results as he came back from a hamstring issue, Harden ended up at 22 points per game for the full season. If you have absolutely any faith that he’s going to be on a revenge tour, you simply cannot bet the under here.

There is context to consider, of course. Harden only averaged 21 points per game with the Sixers after the break last season, his raw attempts down considerably from his offensive peak and even down noticeably from his time in Brooklyn. He has certainly shifted into more of a playmaker-first role over these last couple of years, one who taps into his scoring prowess periodically rather than driving the entire offense himself. There are plenty of touches to go around here — there’s the MVP candidate at center, the ascending young guard in Maxey, secondary creators like Harris and Melton, and so forth. He and the rest of the Sixers will tell you that scoring is not the end all, be all for Harden.

Still, hints are not being dropped throughout the summer about a revenge tour and a recommitment to the work and the grind and his fitness so that he can come out and simply play setup man. Last season, we saw how devastating a Harden-Joel Embiid pick and roll can be even with Harden not at his best. This year, the hope will be that Harden benefits as much from the attention on Embiid as the big man did from his presence and playmaking last season. At their best, they proved infuriating to defend, two free-throw machines who you could either foul or let score. A bit of extra pace and power from Harden is the difference between good looks at the rim and tough shots over outstretched arms in the paint.

I am buying Harden scoring stock. If you’re not sold that he’ll return to form for physical reasons, you can still make the argument his percentages may simply move toward his career averages and bring his scoring up along with it. Harden’s 33 percent mark from three last season was a career low, and though his reliance on step-backs means he’ll never be among the elite efficiency wise, simply getting to average/above-average territory (where he has lurked his whole career) would make a significant impact at his shot volume.

I do not believe Harden is simply cooked. MVP-level Harden may not come back, but I think a better campaign is ahead.

Verdict: Comfortable over

Assists o/u: 10.1

Now here’s a more interesting prop. This one basically comes down to who you think Harden is as a player now, and more importantly, why you think he’s that way. Has his transition to playmaker first been driven by his circumstances and/or a desire to do what it takes to win? Is it a guy recognizing his body isn’t in the same shape it was a few years back and adjusting? Did teams effectively force him to play this way by trying to remove him as a scoring threat with doubles and pressure?

The answer is probably a combination of all of those things, but it’s noteworthy that there was only one pre-Brooklyn season where Harden averaged double-digit assists: 2016-17, a year where Harden spent most of the season playing with a cast devoid of creators. The numbers he put up on a 55-win team that year were absurd — 29-11-8 is a video game line — but the double-digit assists were a clear outlier for his career at that point.

Is 10-plus assists the new rule for Harden? Even before he made this transformation into more of a pass-first player, Harden’s passing talent was abundantly clear to anyone who watches him play. Sixers fans got a glance at it last year, watching Harden thread passes to Embiid in traffic, throw behind-the-back passes to create wide-open threes, and tear apart defenses even (perhaps especially) when they were set up to pressure him. There’s not a pass in the book he can’t make, and though he doesn’t have the pace of someone like Ben Simmons in transition, his passing brilliance got them out and running more last season, hit-ahead passes springing teammates for layups and dunks.

The question for me is whether Harden uses the new and improved roster around him to exploit opponents as a scorer, or whether that improved supporting cast simply makes it easier for him to pile up helpers. Those paths are not mutually exclusive, but there are only so many possessions and shot attempts per game, and if Harden has clear paths to the basket thanks to better spacing, I don’t think he’s going to chase assists for the sake of doing so. Striking the balance between his gifts will be critical for Philadelphia, perhaps the single-biggest factor (save for health) that will determine their ceiling this year.

There’s also the matter of workload, something that has rarely been a problem for Harden but needs to be thought about now more than ever. Since leaving OKC, Harden has been a borderline guarantee to play nearly every game and give you a minimum of 35-36 minutes a night, an iron man whose body only recently started to fail him. It’s just as important to protect Harden from the threat of wear and tear as it is anybody else on the roster, and they do have better options to do so this year. A Maxey-Melton backcourt is not just a decent stopgap on the second unit, it’s one that I think a lot of people are excited to see on the floor together. And with the possibility of three-guard lineups, there will be more situations where Harden gets a hockey assist or ends up as the off-ball threat, lurking as one of the other guards makes their move.

Ultimately, I think Harden ends up continuing on this path of embracing a “point guard” role, whether you want to chalk that up to necessity, evolution, or fear of what he has lost. The ability to shift into that sort of mode and be elite at it shouldn’t be taken for granted, and if it comes with a resurgent scoring season, there will be a lot of happy Philadelphians next year.

Verdict: Lean over

Assist title +125

Harden as the outright favorite to win the assists title is the only one of these that feels like somewhat of a stretch. The aforementioned 2016-17 campaign is the only season in which Harden was the NBA’s top assist man, and the bar has been set pretty high over the last 15 years or so. Dating back to Steve Nash’s MVP seasons in Phoenix, It has taken a minimum of 10.22 assists per game to earn the crown, and that has been closer to (or even over) 11 per game during that stretch. Chris Paul took the crown last year and was about a half assist per game clear of Harden, which is not an insignificant margin.

On the other hand, Harden was pretty well clear of everybody else, Chris Paul is a good bit older than he is and more likely to experience decline, and some of the other contenders for this distinction have factors working against them. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray were third and fourth on the leaderboard, respectively, and now they play for the same team. Russell Westbrook and LeBron James will eat into each other’s ability to pile up assists as long as they’re on the same team. Luka Doncic could be a dark horse, more responsibilities in his hands now that Jalen Brunson is with the Knicks, but he’s already been a high-volume, high-usage player with Brunson, and it’s unclear whether that roster change will mean an uptick in helpers.

I’d probably still lean Paul for as long as he’s healthy, as he is still the quintessential “traditional” point guard. Harden will be in the mix, but at these odds, you might just want to wait this one out.

Verdict: Hold out for better odds

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