Sixers

Harden confident he'll come back better; should Sixers feel same way?

Sixers

With one sparkling exception, James Harden’s production after halftime in the Sixers’ second-round series loss to the Heat was unimpressive.

In the series’ six third quarters, Harden scored 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting (1 for 10 from three-point range) with seven assists and six turnovers. 

His fourth-quarter numbers were a bit better — 20 points on 6-for-19 shooting, nine assists, five turnovers — thanks to some door-slamming shotmaking in the final period of Game 4. He made four three-pointers in the fourth, posting 16 points and lifting the Sixers’ hope of an Eastern Conference Finals breakthrough before a collective Game 5 no-show. 

The team trailed by a single point at halftime of Game 6 but looked resigned to defeat by early in the fourth. Harden went 0 for 2 from the floor in the second half and attempted no free throws all game.

“We were searching for whatever we could get at that point,” head coach Doc Rivers said of the Sixers running their offense through Shake Milton at times in the second half. “That’s not a good place to be. But it’s the place we were in, and you just try to do what you can do to get your offense going.”

The video above narrowly highlights Harden’s fourth-quarter play in the Heat series. But clearly, with Harden among the most scrutinized figures in the NBA world this offseason, it's natural to analyze everything about his game. He declined his player option for the 2022-23 season on the night before free agency, opening the door for the Sixers to have enhanced flexibility. 

 

Health and aging were always going to matter a great deal once the Sixers traded for Harden and dealt away Ben Simmons in February. After back-to-back seasons with hamstring injuries, his optimism about this offseason following Game 6 was notable. 

“I’m excited, man,” Harden said. “I’ve been trying to get right throughout the course of a basketball season for two years straight. That’s not it. All last summer I was rehabbing and it was a little frustrating, because I’m not used to going through something like that. But it is what is. I’m just happy to be healthy now. I’ve got a full summer to be straight and to do the things necessary to come back even better next year.”

The statistics somewhat speak for themselves, but Harden’s tape is also telling — short jumpers, trouble creating separation off the dribble, and occasional lapses with focus and fundamentals. Effort and toughness-based explanations for the Sixers’ duds in Game 5 and 6 are compelling, but a 10-time All-Star being physically diminished is meaningful. 

“I was getting there, man,” Harden said when asked whether he ever reached 100 percent health this season. “Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me. I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”

One of the tricky questions now facing the Sixers is what aspects of Harden’s performance can’t be chalked up to factors that are likely to improve. A positive, uncontroversial takeaway is that he remains an excellent passer. 

Though Harden’s 7.0/4.8 assist-to-turnover ratio against Miami was disappointing, he still flashed elite vision, touch and timing. His 1.36 assist-to-usage ratio in 21 regular-season contests with the Sixers would have been his career high for a full season, per Cleaning the Glass.

It wouldn’t make sense to create a strict scorer vs. playmaker dichotomy with Harden. Any points per game decline attracts attention because he’s a three-time scoring champion who feasted in isolation with the Rockets, but all parts of Harden’s offensive game work together. When he’s sharp and explosive enough to consistently “win” off the bounce, the world opens up for him. Step-back threes are a touch more comfortable against on-their-heels defenders and passing options expand against collapsing defenses. To officials, perhaps he also looks more like a superstar that deserves borderline foul calls. 

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey knows that version of Harden well and surely isn’t oblivious to anything relevant in projecting his future play.

 

But, sitting alongside Rivers at his end-of-season press conference, Morey wasn’t inclined to directly answer whether the 32-year-old Harden has “higher levels” to access. 

For many reasons, among them Harden's second halves against the Heat, the lack of a definitive response was understandable.

“I think we all know he’s a very skilled player and we’ll figure out how to use him,” Morey said.