3 players who could make or break 76ers in first round vs. Nets

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

1. James Harden

Not to state the obvious, but Philadelphia’s title aspirations hinge largely on the version of James Harden that shows up for the next month. Does Harden look like he did between December and March, or does he look like the Harden who showed up in the 2022 playoffs — or, more recently, like the Harden who has been hobbled by a lingering Achilles injury for the past month?

If the Sixers can’t get superstar, top-20 production out of Harden — the driver of the bus, so to speak, for this offense — it will make it much harder to overcome obstacles like Boston and Milwaukee. It may even make the Nets a particularly tricky out.

While Brooklyn doesn’t possess the offensive firepower to withstand Philadelphia on paper, what they do possess is a bevy of rangy wing defenders and one of the best switch bigs in the NBA in Nic Claxton. Defenses who can throw multiple athletes at Harden and switch every screen have been his kryptonite in the past, especially when his burst isn’t at 100 percent.

The Sixers’ offense revolves almost entirely around Embiid and Harden iso possessions, with the occasional infusion of Embiid-Harden pick-and-rolls or a stray Tyrese Maxey flourish. If the likes of Dorian Finney-Smith and Mikal Bridges can prevent Harden from turning the corner and pressuring the rim, it will unavoidably stagnate the Sixers’ halfcourt offense. Embiid is an amazing individual defender, but even he will have trouble single-handedly winning a series if Harden is relegated to a contested jump shooter and entry passer behind the 3-point line.

Even if the Sixers do survive Brooklyn, a half-speed Harden would be a death knell for any hopes of beating Boston or Milwaukee further down the line. The version of Harden who shows up in round one could give us a good idea of Philadelphia’s competitive ceiling. If he’s wheeling and dealing on drives to the rim, even the best teams will have trouble stopping Philly’s offense.