James Harden Teases Improvements to His Play Style in Preseason

James Harden, Sixers

Getty James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during the first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Wells Fargo Center on October 12, 2022 in Philadelphia.

All eyes seem to be on James Harden as the NBA season prepares to tip-off. While expectations around the Philadelphia 76ers are high, there is a great deal of pressure and curiosity about what version of the former MVP will take the court. Sixers fans were given the biggest opportunity to evaluate his play in the preseason finale as Doc Rivers gave the starters extended time on the court. It will be determined in the regular season if he is truly returning to form, but the early signs of Harden’s offseason work look promising.

In the 99-94 victory over the Hornets, Harden played 27 minutes which is the most he has all preseason. He ended with 17 points, five assists, three rebounds, and a steal. The shooting performance from the field was not perfect, 6-15 from the field overall, but he shot the ball with confidence and connected on four of his eight three-point attempts. It was still only preseason, but the signs of increased burst and willingness to attempt shots from the midrange are encouraging.

Harden Finding His Fit on Sixers

While it would be nice if the MVP version of Harden was still there, this simply may not be in the cards this season. Considering his role and level of play, this should be a dream wiped from Sixers fans’ heads.

It is important to note the decreased opportunity Harden will have this season compared to the historic numbers he put up in Houston. During the 2018-19 season, Harden led the league in scoring with 36.1 points per game while also adding 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. He also recorded the second-highest usage rate in NBA history over the course of a season at 40.47%.

Now in Philadelphia alongside Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who are also ball-dominant in their styles of play, this type of impact just isn’t feasible. The 13.6 shot attempts Harden averaged during his 21 games with the Sixers last season was the fewest he has averaged since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Sixers already have an MVP candidate on their team in Embiid and do not need Harden to fill this role.

With a full offseason to get healthy and more on-court time to find his role, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the 10-time all-star this season. While many were frustrated by the version of Harden that put on a Sixers uniform, finding his place within the team may have played a larger role in this than is acknowledged.

Changes in Harden’s Game

There also have been some notable changes in Harden’s game put on display already throughout the preseason. The biggest swing factor in the type of player he will be capable of being this season is if some of his burst to the basket and ability to create separation returns. It is only preseason and unclear what level of defense he was facing but there have been some promising signs.

In addition, Harden has looked much more comfortable off the catch and shoot which was regarded as a major point of emphasis. The isolation-based style of his game has made him much more comfortable relying on creating his own shot throughout his career. His famous step-back three-pointer is still a weapon, but it can not be his only option as a perimeter shot. Considering the gravity that Embiid demands, there are going to be catch-and-shoot opportunities for Harden to connect on. If he can shoot these at a high rate it bodes well for the Sixers’ chances.

The three-time scoring champion also seems to have reintroduced the mid-range jump shot back into his game. This is a controversial shot due to the growing importance of three-pointers and the analytical indication that it is not an efficient scoring attempt. However, players must still take what the defense gives them and if Harden can connect at a high rate it still is a beneficial shot. It also will save a great deal of wear and tear on his body compared to constantly attacking the basket and seeking out contact.

The true test will begin when the Sixers tip off the regular season against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. He may not be the MVP-level player he once was, but if the 33-year-old can add these scoring varieties to his game while continuing to be the elite playmaker he has proven to be the Sixers will be satisfied.

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