Which James Harden will the Sixers see this season?

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March 23, 2022, Los Angeles, California, USA: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers puts up a layup during their NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday March 23, 2022 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by PI/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire) ****NO AGENTS—NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA SALES ONLY****

James Harden did not make the immediate impact for the Sixers that his trading price tag commanded. The stepback threes, the isolation balls, the iconic stepback turned travel – his “signature” felt missing for the first time in his career. Now with some properly stable reps in Doc Rivers’ system under his belt, James Harden’s role on the Sixers should begin to solidify, whatever that role may be. 

Everyone with working eyes knows that Embiid is the “one” on the team. The Sixers’ franchise center is setting out for his second consecutive MVP-caliber season and possibly the first where he wins the award itself.

But who comes after? It’s not so clear right now.

James Harden, at his peak, at least at this age, is a 1B to Embiid’s 1A. A 38-point average is out of the former MVP’s reach at this point in this career, but a 25-point season with eight assists and eight rebounds would catch much of the Sixers’ fanbase unsurprised. Many of those fans would like to think to themselves that Harden’s second-round playoff no-show was part of the growing pains of being a member of his new team. 

Ball-centric players who utilize their isolation skills and athletic ability as their primary tool for scoring points and winning games use up more energy in the regular season, depleting many of their strengths by the time April rolls around. Now with an offense that centers around Embiid, Harden will have the opportunity to use his ball-centric isolation play more sparingly, allowing for more energy and more consistency.

Yet even with this new structure of offense, Harden’s ceiling might be being the two on what might be the most talented roster he’s been a part of since being traded from Oklahoma City. His underperformance in the playoffs last season might make that reality a softer landing than many fans would have initially expected. That, plus the reasonable statement that 99.99% of NBA players would be second to Joel Embiid.

But what if he’s the three? 

Tyrese Maxey made himself a fan favorite last season with his second-half surge that played a crucial role in the Sixers dominating the Toronto Raptors in the first round last season. Many view him as the future of the team, or at least as much of the future of the team as he can be as long as Embiid is around. Maxey scored 20 points in just 14 minutes in his preseason debut.

And coach Doc Rivers said he likes what he sees from both guards, who are now entering their first full season together. 

“Oh, they were good,” said Rivers after wrapping up training camp Sunday. “Really good. As the week went on, you can see more and more Tyrese exerting himself, understanding the spots, and you can also see James getting him the ball in his spots, so that’s gonna be fine.”

Harden did not play in the Sixers’ preseason opener. 

A “James Harden-like ceiling” is definitely a big ask, but many executives and players view Maxey as someone who can reach something adjacent. It would make sense not to let Harden, who is exiting his prime, take on too much of an offensive load that it stunts the development of Maxey. 

What do Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey do? Do they let Maxey develop organically while trying to get as much out of Harden as they possibly can while they have him on an extended contract? Or do they lean into Maxey to the fullest extent reasonable while someone like Harden is on the team to fast-track his growth?

The answer to that question will likely become clear as the Sixers’ season goes on. If both players come out to a hot start, it’ll be collectively understood as Harden’s backcourt – he’ll get more shots and likely the last ones two. If both start off slow, then expect Maxey’s development into an All-Star player to become the priority, with him getting more overall minutes. 

The question marks surrounding James Harden will start to break apart the more we see from him. He’ll show us early on whether he’s done, that he’s back, or that he never really left.

The Sixers’ next preseason game is tomorrow against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Harden is not expected to play; Maxey’s participation has not been announced.