The Philadelphia 76ers are going to start the second part of their season this Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Currently, the Sixers are 35-23 and are in third place in the Eastern Conference. The biggest change for the Sixers is that recently acquired James Harden is expected to start his first game for the team. Harden practiced with the team and was on the bench against the Sixers’ 123-120 win over the Milwaukee Bucks last week. There’s a lot to be excited about with James Harden joining the 76ers, but he is going to be even more important to the team than many realize.
Harden is a teacher.
It was obvious from the first glimpses of Harden at the Sixers practices that this was going to be a different player than we’ve seen early in the season. He was engaged, smiling, moving well (while recovering from a hamstring injury), and working with his new teammates. The first glimpses we had of Harden were of him working with Joel Embiid on the mechanics of the step-back jump shot that he’s perfected over the years. In the short video that’s gone around, Harden can be showing Embiid how to come off the dribble properly and get into the best position to shoot. Embiid, it seemed, wasn’t getting it. They were laughing, but they were working on it, and Embiid was trying. Then, Embiid pulled the move out of his back of tricks against the Bucks and hit a three-pointer.
During the game, second-year guard Tyrese Maxey was working on the pick-and-roll, another staple of Harden’s game. Harden was seen directing the young star from the bench and speaking to him on movement while the two were together during a timeout. Shortly after that, Maxey hit two layups and a three-pointer while coming off the pick. After the final layup, Harden was immediately up and off the bench, going toward Maxey and shouting “thank you” as the guard was getting what Harden had shown him, and it instantly paid off in the game.
Harden has been helping, talking, and teaching all of his teammates, even outside of current MVP favorite Joel Embiid or the rising star Tyrese Maxey. After Georges Niang had lost the ball a couple of times while driving in the lane, Harden pulled him aside and told him to shoot three-pointers because that’s what he’s there to do. Niang went 5 for 10 on three-pointers and finished the Bucks game with 18 points.
Harden is a Star
What you expect from James Harden is almost hard to imagine. This year, a huge criticism has been that Harden quit on the Brooklyn Nets and that he wasn’t the same player. It’s a down year for James Harden. What is a “down year” for Harden is currently at 22.5 points per game to go along with 8 rebounds and 10.2 assists. Though 17th in the NBA, Harden’s scoring isn’t what you’d expect when you hear his name; he’s still in the top twenty. The assists? Oh yeah, they’re good for second in the league.
Harden quitting makes it sound like he gave up playing for the Nets. You know, like the way Ben Simmons did for the Sixers by refusing to do pretty much anything, especially showing up and playing in games. Harden, for all of the nonsense, appeared in more games than Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined. Because he didn’t want to be in Brooklyn with a team that has its own issues doesn’t mean he quit. He was hoping to get a championship in Brooklyn with Irving and Durant but injuries and Kyrie being a part-time player had a big part in the team not being successful. Durant, for all of his greatness, has never won anything on his own. When he couldn’t get past the Warriors, he just joined them in the midst of their run as one of the top teams in the history of the game. It’s not a surprise that he’d have a problem with Harden maybe knowing more or being able to add something to “his” team.
Harden is in Philadelphia. It’s where he said he wanted to be all along. The Sixers, with Joel Embiid in the middle of an MVP season, were realistically one really good player away from being a serious contender for the title. Harden is that player. Harden has stated that he wants to win a title in Philadelphia for himself and the city. He’s hungry, and this is the best team he’ll have had around him since the 2018 Rockets.
Harden is What the Team Needs
So, what makes James Harden so valuable to the Sixers? Besides the statistics, Harden is someone that needs to be accounted for at all times on the basketball court. There’s no chance that defenses sag off him, as they did to Simmons over the past few years. There’s no chance they leave him alone in order to double team Embiid. He’s too good, and teams now have to plan for Embiid, who’s the most dominant center the NBA has seen in quite some time, and Harden, who is arguably one of the best players of his generation and one of the all-time greats in NBA history.
In addition to all of that, he’s going to help players like Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang, and Matisse Thybulle just by being on the court. Harris, who doesn’t seem to get anything good ever said about him by the barstool coaches and GMs in the city, is now back in his more comfortable role as the third “star” on the Sixers. His contract, rightly so, is usually the first thing that people bring up. But, statistically, Harris is having a year on par with the past four that he’s had in Philly. His shooting percentages are down, but his points, rebounds, and assists are all consistent with his past few years.
With Harden on the court, Harris doesn’t have to be the second option that he’s clearly uncomfortable playing. He’s going to see more open look three-pointers, more crisp passes on cuts to the lane, and defenses that have to account for Embiid and Harden, so they’ll give him more space to operate. Harris will probably see all of his stats, across the board, go up as the season goes along.
Niang, Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Danny Green are the shooters. The problem this season has been spacing. When they’re not able to get clean looks at the basket, the contested shots fall a lot less than the uncontested ones. Harden fixes that immediately. He’s second in the league in assists and is considered one of the smartest players in the league. This is going to open up a whole new world for Niang, Korkmaz, and Green while also giving Milton and Maxey a better chance to create while moving off the ball. (For all of the noise that you hear about the Sixers losing Seth Curry, on the season, Maxey and Curry are shooting almost the exact same from three-pointers.)
James Harden Is Selfish (And Thankfully So)
James Harden is 32 years old. He’s played more minutes in the NBA over the past ten years than anyone in the league. He’s well aware that he’s not going to be around forever. So, what does he want? The same thing he’s always wanted, an NBA Championship. His best chance was the 2018 Rockets, and that fell apart as the Warriors were in the middle of their historic run. Going to the Nets, while not his first choice, seemed to represent another legitimate shot at a title. It’s clear how that turned out but not by any fault of Hardens.
Now, Harden is in Philadelphia, where he wanted to be a little over a year ago. He’s on a team with the current leader in the MVP race who is also leading the league in scoring and showing the NBA that a center can still dominate the game in ways that some others cannot. He’s on a team with quality shooters; a team with young and talented wing players. He’s on a team that doesn’t turn the ball over; a team that wants to win. He’s on a Sixers team that wants to win together. They will do whatever it takes to win, which at one point was willing to welcome Ben Simmons back if he was so inclined. Lucky for the Sixers and its fans, Simmons wasn’t, and that helped bring one of the league’s absolute best and biggest stars.
Make no mistake about it, James Harden wants an NBA Championship. For the Philadelphia 76ers, they’re getting the best version of Harden that they could possibly hope for. A lethal player on the court who’s willing to work with its younger players in order to make them better. A star that will alleviate some of the pressure that the team may have been feeling. What they’re getting is a player that needs that title, and he’s on the team that he’s thought, all along, would get him there. It’s the most exciting time in Philadelphia basketball in the last twenty years.