The James Harden-led Sixers Taking Shape?

James Harden, Sixers

Getty James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers (R) drives past Wesley Matthews #23 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The days of James Harden leading an NBA team may not be over. For the second consecutive game, Harden led the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring with a 30+ point effort and played a pivotal role in the team staying in the game. Through the opening two games of the season, the former MVP has combined for 66 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists. He also has connected on 22 of his 38 field goal attempts (57.9%) and shot 6-16 (37.5%) on three-point attempts.

During last night’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Harden was forced into the lead role due to the massive struggles of Joel Embiid. The reigning MVP runner-up struggled to find his flow throughout the matchup and looked noticeably sluggish on both ends of the court. Embiid ended with 15 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists and shot an ugly 6-21 from the field. If Harden had not been able to answer the call, the Sixers very well could have been blown out in the matchup.

Harden the Mid-Range Maestro?

There are several notable takeaways from Harden’s play through the first two games. Perhaps the largest has been the addition of the mid-range jump shot to his game. Through two games, Harden has shot 11-15 on mid-range attempts. While this is a rate that should not be expected to keep up, he would be on pace for 615 mid-range attempts on the season. In comparison, Harden shot just 220 total attempts from the mid-range last season.

During the matchup against the Bucks, this was especially put on display. So far throughout his Sixers and overall NBA career, the impact of Harden’s play was largely dependent on whether or not his three-point attempts were falling. The former MVP was just 1-7 on three-pointers but still managed to have his fingerprints all over the game. The nine mid-range shots that Harden made were the most he has connected with in a game during his entire career.

While traditionally the mid-range has been a shot that is criticized by analytics, when you connect at the rate Harden has been (73.3% on the season) it cannot be disputed. Adding this to his arsenal to use when the three-pointer is not falling is extremely valuable. It also limits the wear-and-tear on his body that occurs when attacking the rim through contact.

Harden Credit’s His Health

The superstar was asked if the mid-range was an area of his game he focused on during his offseason workouts. Harden downplayed this specifically and instead pointed to his overall health coming back and allowing him to focus on all areas of his game. As he put it, “I’m a workaholic so just not being able to put the work in like I normally do was frustrating…this scoring ability and all this other stuff doesn’t come without work. You know what I mean? So as much as people want to talk about all the other stuff that don’t really matter, I’m a workaholic and I love to be in the gym and I love to play basketball.”

Also during the postgame interview, he re-emphasized how much healthier he has felt to start the season. He was asked if he feels like he has used his strength more to start the season. Harden did not think this was the case and stated, “I can move now.” The eye test matches his claims as there is a new-found burst that has returned to his game.

The Sixers still have a ways to go until they find their stride as a team. This version of James Harden is extremely exciting to see, but Doc Rivers must find a way to get him on the same page as the team’s other star as well. If Embiid and Harden can begin clicking together, the sky will be the limit for this Sixers team. But for the time being, they kick off the year with back-to-back losses.

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