James Harden continues to cement 76ers as contenders

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the Milwaukee Bucks’ impressive 16-game win streak Saturday night. After the Bucks exerted control over most of the game, Philly mounted a rollicking comeback in the fourth quarter — powered largely by the collective star power of Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and James Harden.

While Embiid’s season-long dominance is nothing new, and Maxey’s recent resurgence has been a serious bright spot, the real storyline of late is James Harden. In the wake of a semi-disastrous 2021-22 campaign (by his extremely high standards at least), the former MVP has relocated his superstardom in his first full season with Philadelphia.

Harden was critical to the Sixers’ victory over Milwaukee, dropping 38 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists. It’s not just the surface-level production, though. It’s the clutch shots, the masterful manipulating, and the unshakable poise.

The 76ers are contenders because James Harden is a legitimate superstar

Last season, Harden was quite good for the Sixers. But the Sixers need a whole lot more than “quite good” to have any hope of contending, especially once Embiid went down early in that Miami series. Harden was too easy to defend, too reluctant to take over the game.

In 2023, Harden looks fresh. Despite playing significant minutes all year and dealing with another lower-leg injury midseason, we’re in the final stretch and he looks better than he ever has in Sixers blue and white. The Sixers don’t win last week’s Memphis game without Harden bailing them out with massive shots late in the fourth. Same goes for the Milwaukee game.

The balance between facilitating and scoring is much better this season. Harden is still focused on generating looks for teammates — his 10.6 assists per game leads the NBA — but far more than last season, we’re still seeing stretches of vintage Harden take-over. The step-back 3s look great out of his hand, he’s leveraging his unique strength on drives to the cup, and he’s still capable of maneuvering his way to the free-throw line despite his diminished burst.

Much has been said about the Sixers’ improved resilience in the face of adversity, especially against the NBA’s top-tier opponents. Philly looked completely lost in the first half of that Memphis game. The same can be said for much of the Milwaukee game. Even the Dallas game from earlier this week featured an impressive Sixers come-back, even if the end result was less favorable. The primary constant in each game was a Harden masterclass.

The Sixers have long struggled to execute in the clutch. Embiid is an all-world talent, one of the best offensive players we’ve ever seen. But, despite marked improvement, he still struggles with decision-making under pressure. Before last season, the Sixers never had a ball-handler of Harden’s caliber to set the table. Especially not one who could simultaneously drill contested shots from all over the floor. Harden’s ability to target mismatches and find teammates in advantageous positions has drastically improved the Sixers’ late-game execution.

Last season was a trial run — Harden running the offense without even knowing the language. Now that he has settled into the system, and now that he knows the personnel, the benefits of Harden are clear for all to see. The Sixers are genuine contenders. They have the firepower to match anyone in the East or West. And the reason for that is Harden’s return to superstardom, however different it may look in comparison to his Houston heyday.