The Philadelphia 76ers must solve the “Harden Paradox”

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Philadelphia 76ers
Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden reacts after making a basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers have a choice ahead of them and the results of their decision could very-well decide the fate of their season.

Through the NBA’s young tenure in this world, a few of the sport’s most dedicated philosophers have discovered and coined hypotheses that have helped explain the game throughout its history. Take Bill Simmons’s — or rather his friend, Dave Cirilli’s — “Ewing Theory.” The idea behind this postulation was that “Patrick Ewing’s teams (both at Georgetown and with New York) inexplicably played better when Ewing was either injured or missing extended stretches because of foul trouble.”

Simmons has since taken that idea and applied it to many a great player whose teams happened to put out a high-level performance during their absence. Athletes such as Christian McCaffery, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo have all been potential victims of Bill’s Ewing Theory.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ own James Harden has been the subject of this accusation, although the jury quickly returned with a “not guilty” verdict on that one.

While he’s been cleared of that charge, I’m here to bring you a new theory. One that is not a detraction of the Beard’s greatness but rather an acknowledgment of his dominance.

Presenting: The Harden Paradox

James Harden has proven to be a historically dominant singular offensive force. Through his individual greatness, teams can win a lot of games relying solely on his brilliance with the ball in his hands. More often than not, letting Harden take over and commandeer the offense will lead to a better result than running an actual play on any given possession.

However, this overreliance on him can be detrimental to a team, in the long run, leading to disinterested teammates, predictable attacks, burnout on Harden, and the absence of a playoff-ready offense. 

In summation: If a team falls into the habit of letting James Harden dominate the offense, then they will never be a title-caliber contender, even if they experience acceptable levels of both regular season and postseason success.

The Danger for the Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers and Head Coach Doc Rivers are in danger of falling for this paradox right now. Through five games and a 1-4 start, not much has been working for Philly on offense besides Harden. While many of the NBA’s media members have been quick to blame the Beard’s ball dominance for the Sixers’ early struggles, those who have actually watched the games would know that he’s been taking over out of necessity, not out of preference, nor out of habit.

And when he does take over, it’s led to some great results for the Philadelphia 76ers. So far this season, Harden’s averaging 1.49 points per possession on isolations which puts him third in the NBA behind only the Houston Rockets Jalen Green and the Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard, according to NBA.com. He clears both of them easily, though, in total isolation points per game at 11. He’s also tied for ninth in efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler at 1.00 points per possession, on par with other great guards such as Kyrie Irving and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

For comparison, the Philadelphia 76ers only score 1.12 points per possession, with Harden off of the court and 1.14 overall as a team. It’s easy, then, to see why they’ve been leaning on him so heavily through this early part of the season. After all, it’s mathematically more efficient to let the Beard cook than to do literally anything else so far.

With the team falling into a 1-4 hole and Harden’s elite play so far while totaling his second-lowest usage rate since 2011-2012, it can be argued that the Philadelphia 76ers need to lean on him even more to right the ship. There’s a strong possibility that foregoing the high-post touches that they’ve been drawing up for Joel Embiid and nixing the Tyrese Maxey on-ball possessions while Harden is on the court would lead to some highly successful early returns. Handing the keys to the entirety of the offense over to the Beard may even save Doc Rivers from his current hot seat.

Whether Rivers is the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers at the end of the season or not, though, he needs to avoid falling into this trap. Kevin McHale and Mike D’Antoni have both fallen victim to the Harden Paradox, and it ultimately cost both of them their jobs.

Becoming a carbon copy of those old Rockets teams might be a quick fix for this offense, and it could even lead to 50+ regular season wins. Hell, it might even win a couple of playoff series. Ultimately, though, if Rivers plans on folding to the Harden Paradox, he may as well resign now. Simply put, the Philadelphia 76ers will not be a championship squad if they completely become James Harden’s team, at least in the old sense of the term.

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