The Philadelphia 76ers had an underwhelming 2022 playoff run, resulting in a second round exit coming at the hands of Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. Joel Embiid fractured an orbital bone in the first round, and James Harden just didn’t look like himself in the playoffs. When Harden dropped 31 points in Game Four, the NBA called it “a vintage performance.“
However, despite how this season ended, the 76ers have hope coming into the 2022-23 season. They have Embiid, who’s been a top three player in the NBA for the past few years. They have Tyrese Maxey, whose development has come along nicely since the departure of Ben Simmons to the Brooklyn Nets. If Maxey continues to play at his current level, he’ll be an All-Star within the next few seasons.
However, after this year in the playoffs, everyone appears to be sleeping on Harden, whose acquired the nickname “Small Game James.” While Harden has work to do when it comes to showing up in big games, he is on track for a big season next year. Here’s why:
Daryl Morey’s in charge
It’s no secret how much Morey is obsessed with playing the most efficient basketball possible. While heading the Houston Rockets, Morey’s teams shattered three-point record after three-point record while signing shooters like Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Ryan Anderson. He also traded for three All-Stars during his tenure; James Harden, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard (the third of whom we won’t mention further). Harden and Morey were a match made in heaven, as Harden’s shot selection was almost completely dunks, threes, and frees. Paul is a great all around point guard, but his three-point attempts per game increased to a career high 6.3 while in Houston. His career average is 3.1 attempts, which means his three-point attempts per game doubled during his time with the Rockets.
There’s a reason why Morey did this. In 2015 and 2018, the Rockets made the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. In 2019, the Rockets were one game away from the Conference Finals; but then the Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry-led Warriors came back to win the series. Afterwards, the Rockets unraveled with the departure of Morey, but his plan had worked, and pushed the Rockets one quarter away from the Finals. Plus, if a statistical anomaly in 27 missed threes hadn’t happened, there’s a very good chance they would have made the 2018 NBA Finals.
If Morey’s in charge of basketball operations for the 76ers, you better believe he’s going to give Harden the four-year, $233 million contract he’s looking for. While I don’t think it’s a good idea to be paying Harden $61.7 million as a 37-year old (he’ll make Russell Westbrook and John Wall look cheap), he still has some good years left in him. Plus, Morey will make sure Harden’s worth on the court is maximized as much as possible.
Harden will have more time to adjust to Philly
The 76ers need to maximize every year that they have a healthy Joel Embiid; because they don’t know how many they’ll have left with him. Picking up Harden for Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond was good for Philly, even if they paid a heavy price in assets; but they can’t expect Harden and Embiid to make a deep postseason run when they’ve only played 21 games together in the regular season. That’s not nearly enough time to develop chemistry and fully understand each other as co-stars. With a training camp, preseason, and 82 games, Harden will have a lot more time to learn how to play with Philadelphia, and once that happens, we could see them become a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference.
Harden’s numbers haven’t dipped a ton
Since Harden departed Houston, he hasn’t looked the same in many people’s eyes. His level of production went down, and he just didn’t have the same athleticism that he used to.
Or so this is believed.
Yes, Harden’s numbers went down as soon as he left the Houston Rockets. But that was expected, because in Houston, the entire offense revolved around him. When he went to the Nets, Harden had to share the court and ball with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Harden still averaged 24.6 points, 10.9 assists, and 8.5 rebounds, which are All-Star starter numbers. Plus, when he went to the Nets, everyone said that he looked like himself again, not like when he was very overweight towards the end of his tenure in Houston. If Harden ever writes a book about weight loss, I guarantee it will become a best seller because he’s proved whatever he does works.
Unfortunately, a hamstring injury against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks hindered Harden in the second round. We can’t blame him for not coming up big; almost anyone would have had trouble walking, let alone playing an NBA game with a hamstring issue.
Harden would only spend half of the 2021-22 season with the Nets before being traded to the 76ers, but even when he did, he averaged 22.5 points, 10.2 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game. His shooting splits and advanced stats did drop some as well, but let’s not forget; when the Nets’ big three all played together, they went 15-1. If they had continued to play together for a full season and the pandemic hadn’t hit, they would have probably won two NBA championships by now.
Alas, that never happened, and Harden is now on the 76ers. Harden’s numbers did drop even further on the 76ers, to 21.0 points, 10.5 assists, and 7.1 rebounds per game. However, I’m willing to cut him some slack, as he was adjusting to new teammates, a new Head Coach, and a new system.
Throughout a global pandemic and four teams in three years, Harden has had very little consistency on the court. I think once the pandemic settles down and he’s given a consistent role (the Nets overused him when others were injured or underused him), Harden will be in prime position to bounce back with a great season.
Good supporting cast
When Harden left the Rockets in 2020, the team was barely recognizable from the Conference Finals contender it had once been. The best players on the team were John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins (injured), Victor Oladipo (injured), Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and Christian Wood. Doesn’t exactly scream championship, and I can’t blame Harden for wanting to leave.
During his first year on the Nets, the levels of his teammates reduced; because all the good young players had been traded for Harden! Jarrett Allen was off to the Cavaliers, Caris Levert went to the Indiana Pacers, and Spencer Dinwiddie was injured (though he would soon leave for the Washington Wizards). Aside from Irving and Durant, Harden’s best teammates were an aging Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Landry Shamet, Taurean Prince, Joe Harris, and Deandre Jordan. This was a solid team, but most of the players I just mentioned were former All-Stars signed to minimum deals after buyouts. One of the few young talented players was Nicolas Claxton, who played the same role Clint Capela did when he was on the Rockets. The team was good, but did not live up to its potential due to age and injuries.
However, Harden does have some solid talent around him with the 76ers. Obviously, there’s Embiid, and even though Durant is considered the best player in the NBA, Embiid has been considered more valuable in the past few seasons. We’ve already touched on Maxey’s upside, and there’s Danny Green, who can hit threes at a high clip. Matisse Thybulle is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and has Defensive Player of the Year potential. Tobias Harris is overpaid, but still good for 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists per night. Paul Millsap joined the team, and Jordan went from a backup center on the Nets to a backup center on the 76ers.
The amount of good teammates is the same, but the 76ers players are at just the right age; they’re not veterans, but while they’re young, they aren’t inexperienced. These are just the kind of teammates Harden needs, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his assists per game and assist percentage increase next season.
Doc Rivers is good with stars
Rivers is known for a few things: working with superstars, being defensive minded, and somewhat melting down in the postseason. But, let’s not worry about the postseason right now. Rivers has coached the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul, and Antoine Walker, so he has experience when it comes to star players. While the way he talks about stars could use some work (Doc, do you think Ben Simmons can still be a point guard for a championship team like the one you guys want to become? “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”), he can make guys buckle down on defense, as he did with Paul and Allen. Don’t forget, Rivers won a championship in 2008 with the number one defense in the NBA. The Celtics’ anchor that year was Kevin Garnett, who won DPOY, and the 76ers current equivalent of that could be Embiid.
I’m confident in Rivers’ rotations and what he’s done with past shooting guards to believe he can help coach Harden to a great season.
But what do you think? Let me know in the comments below, don’t forget to follow the NBA Blog, and as always, have an awesome day!