How James Harden Will Fit Alongside Joel Embiid In The Sixers’ Offense

The Philadelphia 76ers finally landed star guard James Harden. On Thursday afternoon, the Sixers and Brooklyn Nets agreed to a deal that sends Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, a 2022 unprotected first-round, and a 2027 protected first-round pick to Brooklyn in exchange for Harden and Paul Millsap.

Two teams with eyes toward a title swapping disgruntled stars in the same season is rare. The history and backstory with these teams and the two headline players here is layered — Philly reportedly put Simmons on the table in an attempt to get Harden to the City of Brotherly Love when the Houston Rockets were shopping him last year.

But narratives have a shelf life of interest. The real kicker is how this reshapes Philadelphia and superstar Joel Embiid’s role offensively. The Sixers now have the lead ball-handler they’ve desperately coveted every year of Embiid’s career outside of Jimmy Butler’s abbreviated 2018-19 stint. The looming question is what version of Harden suits up.

He opened the year quite poorly before finding his rhythm and looking the part of an All-NBA guard, even if he was notably diminished from his MVP-caliber peak. Then, over the last few weeks, he really struggled and did not play like an All-Star by any means. Whether that stems from injury, fatigue, or a desire to leave Brooklyn is tough to know.

The hamstring injury does seem to have sapped a good portion of his fluidity and explosion off the dribble, which required time to acclimate to and tinker with his approach. By relying more on his dexterous handle and footwork, he compensated to persist as a high-level creator during his eight weeks of superstar hooping this season. His ball control and accuracy as a passer have also slipped, though he remains a very good playmaker capable of forging advantages with his dribbling savvy.

And for all the worries about his foul-drawing amid rule changes, his .496 free-throw rate is higher than last season, although he still hunts those calls more than he should and it results in some disastrous offensive possessions. There won’t be a more irksome foul-drawing duo for opponents than Embiid and Harden. That’s good for Philadelphia’s middling offense. Someone else who can fashion easy scoring chances beyond Embiid, which free throws classify as for Harden, is necessary.

Despite the Sixers losing one of the NBA’s best shooters in Curry, their floor-spacing should remain viable. While a presumed starting lineup of Tyrese Maxey-Harden-Matisse Thybulle-Tobias Harris-Joel Embiid doesn’t have one bonafide catch-and-shoot sniper, it has two stars who comfortably breakdown defenses, two ancillary scorers who can rip off the catch, and a player in Thybulle who has his flaws on offense but is a savvy cutter. Harden’s passing allows for the latter two capabilities to shine more often when the previous roster didn’t have a passer of his stature to set the table, and it’s not as if the non-Thybulle players are poor outside shooters.

A much bigger issue for Philadelphia in recent years has been a lack of dribble-drive creation and high-level passing, two areas Harden’s arrival addresses. They’ve been critically short on guys to easily feed Embiid inside, hit open teammates when defenses sell out to deny him position, be comfortable against ball pressure, or consistently get two feet in the paint. Harden, when engaged, checks all those boxes, though passivity has been an issue for stretches since he left Houston. The approach he brings to Philadelphia will be critical, because even with any sort of decline, he’s an impactful player at his best, especially in this context. Someone who can create threes for himself in crunch time is a valuable wrinkle. Embiid, Maxey, and Harris are interior-oriented scorers, and that’s proven to be a limitation in late-game situations over the years.

Another important nugget that wasn’t necessarily the case when Harden-Sixers reports heated up last season: Embiid is the superior offensive player at this stage. Perhaps a change of scenery reinvigorates Harden and he is the better offensive player again, but right now, Embiid is the premier offensive talent on this team. The offense is built around him, and should continue to be. Had Harden joined last season, a case could’ve been made to structure the scheme around him. That’s no longer true.

What’s more is a reported point of discontent for Harden in Brooklyn was his role not being reduced from his days as a Rocket — part of the sell to get him to the Nets, the reporting indicates, was that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would take some of the workload off of him. That has not happened in recent weeks due to the former’s injury and the latter’s status as a part-time player. Now, Harden’s superstar running mate is someone averaging 29-11-4 on a league-leading 37 percent usage rate. Harden’s job is easier, as he desires.

As a result, the focus shifts to how Harden tailors his game to accommodate Embiid rather than vice versa, though maximizing this star-laden partnership requires adjustments for both players. From Harden’s perspective, the bouts of passivity he’s operated with cannot continue. Philadelphia needs him to be the aggressive, ultra-talented initiator that he’s been for years and was generally evident from mid-November to early January of this season. Increased comfort as a spot-up shooter would also be a beneficial development, but banking on that from him at this stage of his career is more wishful thinking than a tenable expectation. At the very least, attacking off the catch when the ball swings his way out of an Embiid post touch instead of his habit of resetting to run something he prefers is needed.

From the Sixers’ and Embiid’s perspective, more ball-screen actions should be in their future. Curry’s staple of an Iverson cut into angle pick-and-roll or dribble hand0ff with Embiid will likely be replaced by high screen-and-rolls between Harden and Embiid. The superstar big man has undoubtedly grown as an off-ball scorer and pick-and-roll big this season. The scope of that growth will be thrust into the forefront alongside Harden.

While Harden is best with a rim-running big, Embiid prefers flaring beyond the arc or sauntering to the midrange as a roller. A happy medium among all three routes, as well as Embiid maintaining his strides as a screen-setter, are paramount. He’s also played with better balance when working downhill this season. That could come in handy if he’s asked to roll more often to amplify Harden’s skill-set. The Sixers can also probably continue to run those staggered screen, loop actions on the wings that previously involved two of Maxey, Harris, and Curry with Embiid as the handoff trigger man. Harden slots in well there.

Ignore the nuances here, though. Take a step back and examine the broad situation at play. These are two stars who wield enormous scoring gravity and serve as two of the best foul-drawing merchants in league. Pairing them in pick-and-rolls or other sets should routinely provide fruitful results and greater versatility to counter stingy defenses. Embiid’s newfound comfort attacking from the perimeter and functioning off the ball cannot be overstated in how it eases this duo’s congruity. Head coach Doc Rivers should also stagger Embiid and Harden to keep one of them on the floor at all times, although that is not guaranteed given Rivers’ history and general reluctance to staggering his stars.

There will absolutely be growing pains and the fit isn’t ideal, but it’s a good one, especially if Harden merely approximates the All-Star tier his season-long performance levels out at. Simmons has missed the entire season and Philadelphia still finds itself 32-22, 2.5 games back of the East’s top seed. The departure of Curry and Drummond, who was easily the best backup in Embiid’s career, matter, yet acquiring Harden is a substantial upgrade and one that turns them into legitimate title contenders.

Lightening Embiid’s offensive workload could have a ripple effect on his defense, which was masterful to open the season but has wavered considerably in recent weeks. The drop-off has been from Defensive Player of the Year quality to simply good, seemingly because he’s carrying so much of the offensive responsibility. Another capable scorer and creator won’t mean the onus is on Embiid to catalyze nearly every offensive possession.

Harden’s defense this season, to put it bluntly, has been brutal. He’s often getting cooked on the ball and zoning out off the ball or gambling for steals without recovering on the play. Many of Brooklyn’s breakdowns on a given possession can be traced to him. The Sixers will probably have to switch 1-4 to mitigate the problems he poses because he refuses to navigate screens. In this regard, retaining All-Defensive wing Matisse Thybulle is a gigantic win for Philadelphia; losing him would’ve been worth it for Harden, but complicated the defense dramatically. Plus, Curry carries his own defensive shortcoming and offers similar positives as Harden with good, swift hands.

Harden’s defensive pitfalls looked worse in Brooklyn when an interior anchor like Embiid wasn’t around to play janitor. Context matters. His impact probably won’t be as damaging. Even if Harden is his same poor self defensively, the Sixers’ insurance policy is dramatically better than the one possessed by the Nets.

However this duo plays out will be fascinating to watch. They’re not seamlessly harmonic like some guard-big men tandems can be. Hurdles exist. Nonetheless, these two excellent players are teaming up, one of which is a leading MVP candidate. Harden’s services fit snugly into Philadelphia’s areas of need offensively and don’t really exacerbate their defensive warts. To what degree he solves those areas of need is unforeseen, of course. Soon enough, the initial answers will surface.