Sixers: Breaking down the fit between James Harden and Joel Embiid

James Harden, Joel Embiid, Sixers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
James Harden, Joel Embiid, Sixers Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Two days ago, I wrote about the pros and cons of James Harden coming to Philly. And now, somehow, James Harden came to Philly. To learn more about the trade and who it most benefits on the Sixers, you can read my teammate’s linked articles via the highlighted text if you want to read about how that affects the Sixers‘ playoff and championship odds.

If you go back and read my pros and cons post, you’ll see that one of the topics I listed in the Pros list is the pick-and-roll opportunities between James and Joel. Let’s take a deeper look at that and the fit between Joel and James in general.

How do James Harden and Joel Embiid fit together for the Sixers?

James Harden is one of the greatest basketball players of our generation. His playmaking, passing, and athleticism are all top-tier, but what makes him as great as he is is his shot creation off the dribble. The Sixers haven’t had a quality off-the-dribble shot-creator in 20 years since Allen Iverson got the closest to a ring that any Sixer has since 1983. Harden is at his best when running the offense, passing and distributing the ball to open shooters, and cutting bigs like we saw when he morphed into a point guard last year in Brooklyn. The year James won MVP is what we should look at as Sixer fans.

In that 2018-19 season in Houston and the one before in 2017-18, Harden was unstoppable. The Sixers are looking to recreate that magic this season and next in Philly, albeit with an older version of James. In those two years, James was at his best in two places, in isolation and the pick-and-roll. Since then, he’s added to his arsenal with his increased playmaking and rebounding in Brooklyn. Those are the big three that I will discuss here; how he can maximize those three skills, isolation, pick-and-roll, and playmaking, in Doc Rivers’ system.

Sixers’ James Harden and Joel Embiid should thrive in pick-and-roll

This is my personal favorite of the three, as you probably could tell if you read my article from Wednesday. Here’s why. In Houston, James was throwing lobs and having screens set for him by PJ Tucker, Clint Capela, and Nenê now and then. In Brooklyn, it was elderly versions of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Now, James gets to throw lobs to Joel freaking Embiid. So it’s something of an improvement, I’d say.

Oh, and another thing, Joel is the best in the league at running those “screen-handoff-3s” with guards, most recently Seth Curry. Sadly we had to give up Seth for Harden, but now we’ll see if James can run those same actions with Joel, along with the high screen pick-and-rolls that he’s so good at.

The most common play I watched from James’ Houston days was a simple double high screen and roll that turns into a corner iso for James. James would bring the ball up, something that he’ll be doing very often for us, and then the first screen is set, probably by Tobias. As Tobias cuts to the rim, away from the ball, Joel would set the second screen, stopping James’ defender again. At this point, the center guarding Joel would have to switch onto James as he drops into the corner, which means Joel can post up whoever switched on to him. Now that leaves James with two effortless options. Break the center guarding him and take the corner 3, or lob the ball inside to Joel where he can body the mismatch.

So that play starts with a double screen, leading into two isolations, which brings me perfectly to my second point.

Sixers’ James Harden and Joel Embiid are both dominant isolation scorers

James Harden is the best isolation scorer in the NBA. I’m not even exaggerating; check the stats. James leads the NBA in iso opportunities per game at 7.6 and averages 1.06 points per those possessions. The only players averaging more points per iso’s this season are Kevin Durant at 1.07 and DeMar DeRozan at 1.13.

Oh, and Joel Embiid leads the NBA in post-ups per game. He also has the highest points-per-post-up of any big with more than three post-ups per game. Joel is also over one point per possession in isolation.

So here’s the question, how does pairing two of the best iso players in the NBA go? Well, all signs point to this marriage going well, exceptionally well. That play I talked about above is a perfect example of how we could have two iso’s in one play.

Another thing is James Harden is famous for getting doubled or even tripled in-game. And so is Joel. Which leaves a ton of open shooters.

Sixers will benefit from James Harden’s playmaking prowess

We know James can pass; he led Brooklyn in assists before he left, same for Houston. Now it’s his job to fill the hole left by a certain Australian.

Coach Rivers has done an excellent job of forcing our team to pass, and it’s led to Joel, Seth, Tobias, Andre, Furkan, and Tyrese averaging above their career average in assists. Now that we’ve lost Seth and Andre, and we’ve gained a natural point guard, it’ll be interesting to watch how those assists numbers change.

Our most likely lineup will be James, Tyrese, Furkan/Matisse/Danny (depending on the matchup), Tobias, and Joel at the five, of course. So if this goes the way I see it going, James will run the offense, and Tyrese, who’s been developing well as a point guard, will move back into his combo/scoring guard position. I would also assume that Maxey will be getting a good amount of minutes with the second unit at the point.

The fit between James and this team will be a fun one, but it’ll require sacrifices from everyone to make it work. James has to play-make and run the offense and move without the ball. Joel will have to set more screens and cut to the basket harder instead of getting post-ups. Those are just two examples of how they will have to change their games to benefit each other, but man, this is going to be fun.

dark. Next. 3 reasons Harden makes the Sixers title contenders