In what has turned out to be a bizarre twist of events, the Philadelphia 76ers have found themselves linked to the offensive enigma that is James Harden. The reigning scoring champion for the last three consecutive seasons, the current Houston Rocket has seen his name floated around the Sixers organization the last couple of days due to a leak that came out regarding Philly’s perceived interest in head coach Mike D’Antoni.
It could all just be one giant leverage play (as it looks like Tyronn Lue is still the leading candidate for the Sixers job), but for the sake of this exercise, let’s pretend as if the interest is 100% real. If the Sixers were in fact to pull the trigger on a D’Antoni hire, and use his vast influence to coerce Harden to sign off on a move to South Philly, what exactly would the Sixers offense look like moving forward?
Again, for the sake of the exercise, we’re going to imagine a scenario in which the Sixers decided to trade for Harden, as opposed to signing him via free agency in two years. Harden would be 33 years old by the time his current Houston deal expired, and throwing a max contract at a 33-year-old free agent is probably not in the Sixers’ best interest (looking at you Al Horford). This would be a ridiculously huge trade, and one can only assume that either Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons would be included as part of the package to Houston.
Considering D’Antoni’s lack of desire to even utilize a center in his starting lineups, it would only make sense that Embiid would be the odd man out. JoJo would head off to Houston to take over as Hakeem Olajuwon’s heir apparent, while Harden would join Simmons in Philly.
Right off the bat, D’Antoni and the Sixers would field one of the smallest, fastest starting fives in all of basketball, a complete polar opposite from what the team ran under Brett Brown in 2020. A core trio of Harden-Simmons-Harris would make up most of your offense, while guys like Shake Milton and/or Matisse Thybulle filled in at the other wing positions. Considering just how fast D’Antoni likes to play, the offense would be a constant sprint fest of Harden and Simmons running up and down the court together.
Endless pick and rolls
For what it’s worth, Harden is a super underrated passer when operating out of the half-court set. While it never translated to any sort of lasting success, the one-two game that he established with Clint Capela in Houston was one of the best in all of basketball. It really peaked in 2017 and 2018, where Harden led the league in assists one year and Capela led the league in FG% the next. The constant pick and rolls that the duo ran were exhausting on opposing defenses, and it almost always resulted in either Harden going to the free-throw line or Capela getting wide-open looks inches away from the hoop.
Considering Simmons’ ability to operate as a “small ball five”, the potential of a Harden-Simmons duo in the PnR game could easily be one of the best in NBA history.
The Sixers rarely employed pick and roll type sets under Brett Brown, but when they did, it actually worked out fairly well (for Simmons that is). During the 2019 playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets and the stretch of games this past season when Embiid was out, Simmons operated almost exclusively as the team’s center, running all sorts of pick and rolls and back door cuts. The result was an extremely efficient style of basketball where Simmons just caught lobs all game long.
Floor spacing upon floor spacing
Harden has led the league in three-pointers attempted the last three seasons in a row. Obviouslyl that has led to him scoring a ton of points, but it has also led to the Rockets having one of the most “open” offenses in all of basketball. There’s an abundance of space on the court in the half-court setting due to the constant threat of Harden jacking up a triple, embodying what the modern era of basketball has become.
While D’Antoni and Harden probably took their approach to a three-point oriented offense a little bit too far during their time in Houston together, a splash of that extremism could seriously aid the Sixers moving forward. Philly was arguably the least spaced team in all of basketball last season, and it seriously impacted a guy like Simmons in the wrong way.
Outside of his perceived benefit in a pick and roll type system, Simmons would also thrive in a five-out offense predicated on opening up the floor as much as humanly possible. Even someone like Tobias Harris (who likes to attack the basket fairly frequently) would in theory benefit from this set-up.
Who needs defense anyways?
Embiid is a really good defender, Harden is not. As fun as a hypothetical Simmons-Harden offensive scheme sounds, trading a potential DPOY candidate for one of the laziest defenders in the league could blow up right in the Sixers faces.
On top of that, D’Antoni is not particularly known for his ability to implement elite-level defensive tempos. His teams are always predicated around the ability to score an insane amount of points, and it has come back to bite them on numerous occasions in the postseason. It’s possible that with elite defenders like Simmons and Thybulle that his and Harden’s approach to defense could alter, but that’s really getting hopeful.
Fun, but probably not effective
When imagining a hypothetical Harden-to-Philly type scenario, the word that seems to come to my mind the most is simply “fun”. Despite the criticisms that have surrounded Harden in the past, he’s a yearly MVP candidate who averages 30+ a night. The Sixers haven’t had a guy that exciting since Allen Iverson.
In theory, bringing Harden’s up-tempo style of play to Philly would also boost Simmons’ production a whole ton. The partnership those two could create on the offensive side of the ball could genuinely end up as one of the best in NBA history, and they would likely run through opposing defenses during the regular season. Whether it translates over to the postseason, who knows.
As mentioned earlier in the week, the Sixers should in all honesty pump the brakes on some of these wild trade hypotheticals, and instead, just focus on building a strong culture around Simmons and Embiid. They have their two stars, focus on making life easier for them.
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