Daryl Morey recently dubbed James Harden a “basketball genius,” and he’s absolutely right. Very few players in the NBA have mastered the game offensively to the extent Harden has. It has been a difficult season for Harden, bogged down by injuries and vague unhappiness, but now he’s in Philadelphia — and, if game one was any indication, he’s out to prove a point.
Harden’s debut happened to coincide with the Sixers‘ most efficient offensive game of the season. Coincidence? I think not. After the game, Joel Embiid said it was the most wide-open he’s been in his entire career. Harden’s gravity, playmaking skills, and dynamic shot-making were on full display.
With 27 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists on the night, Harden managed to produce both for himself and for teammates. He looked healthy, he looked engaged, and most importantly, he looked in control of every single aspect of the game.
James Harden is a ludicrously smart player, and that will benefit the Sixers’ entire roster.
The Sixers acquired James Harden with the explicit desire to maximize Joel Embiid’s title window and bring home a championship. There have been (valid) health and age concerns related to the 32-year-old’s future, but in the panic over Harden’s hamstring, many seemed to overlook just how good Harden is when he’s playing at full speed.
Harden won MVP as recently as 2018 and he was an All-Star this season despite his well-documented struggles in Brooklyn. He may have lost a step, but Harden’s game has never been predicted on outright explosiveness. He doesn’t have the same downhill momentum he once had attacking the basket, but Harden more than makes up for it with incalculable skill.
NBA circles have long considered Harden something of a grifter. He gets to the free throw line more proficiently than any NBA guard, and sure — he has his share of outright flops on the ol’ resumé. But more than a grifter, Harden is a master manipulator. He reads and processes the game at the highest level, and in turn has the skill to leverage that intelligence against less disciplined defenders.
Rather than dribbling aimlessly along the perimeter, Harden lulls his defender to sleep. He sizes up his man, using changes in speed and direction to gain angles to the rim and compromise the defense. Rather than blow by his man, Harden simply evades him. He puts the defender on his back heel, keeps the defender guessing, and then exploits whatever advantage comes his way.
The Minnesota win was a prime example of Harden picking and choosing his spots as a scorer and playmaker. Harden didn’t simply dominate possessions. For every long-winded isolation (most of which ended in made baskets), there was a razor-sharp kick-ahead to transition dynamo Tyrese Maxey, or a perfectly placed pocket pass to the rolling Joel Embiid. To put it simply, Harden processes the game quicker than anyone on the roster. If he’s taking his time, it’s for good reason. He’s waiting for the defense to make a mistake, not simply over-dribbling.
Friday was a truly mesmerizing experience for Sixer fans. The ball was pinging around the floor like we’ve hardly ever seen in the Embiid era. Harden can make passes no teammate of Embiid ever has. Whereas Ben Simmons thrived on speed and physicality in transition, Harden is an absolute maestro in the halfcourt. Jimmy Butler was a competent pick-and-roll guard, and he even shares some of Harden’s patented patience. But Butler focused more on pull-up jumpers and simple reads coming off the screen. Harden is, simply put, a much more advanced passer and downhill creator when he’s locked in (again, locked in has not been Harden’s state of performance all season, but he was locked in against the Wolves).
Questions about Harden’s fit with Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle were instantly quelled. There will likely be more difficult games and matchups in the future, but Harden’s ability to instigate transition possessions helped both Maxey and Thybulle, who were well rewarded for streaking up the court and out-running the defense.
Maxey is particular looked right at home next to Harden. He finished plays, rather than starting them. He had more space to attack off the catch due to Harden’s gravity, and his lightning-quick cuts to the rim will be far more valuable with Harden captaining the offense.
The primary question coming into Friday’s game, of course, was whether Embiid and Harden would mesh. The early returns are quite strong. There simply aren’t many players more difficult to guard individually than the Sixers’ two stars. Embiid rolled harder to the rim and was the recipient of many well-placed passes in the middle of the paint, where he’s at his best. Harden played unselfishly and made a concerted effort to set up Embiid, especially in the second half. The 7-footer scored an almost quiet 34 points because he just didn’t have to work as hard as we’re accustomed to. Yes, the Wolves’ defense was in shambles, but a lot of that comes back to Embiid and Harden being a particularly tricky duo to guard.
Harden is going to elevate the halfcourt offense to an entirely new level. That has long been the Sixers’ achilles heal. And, for those concerned about the transition game post-Simmons, Friday night marked the Sixers’ most prolific transition game of the season, all because of Harden. Not every game is going to go as smoothly as Friday’s win, but there’s every reason to believe Harden will take Philadelphia to the next level of contention.