After an up-and-down first round, James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Harden was good – 19 points and 10.2 assists in 40.6 minutes per game at 40.5% from the field and 38.2% from deep.
He struggled in Games 2, 4 and 5 but had strong performances in Games 1, 3 and 6 to close the series against the Toronto Raptors.
However, he didn’t have a great performance in the ECSF’s opener against the Miami Heat.
16 points on 5-13 from the field, 2-7 from beyond the arc and 4-4 from the line to go along with 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 turnovers.
Harden’s struggles in Game 5 of the first round and Game 1 of the ECSF are particularly concerning as they came when Joel Embiid was hampered by a torn ligament in his thumb (Game 5) and was not playing due to a an orbital fracture and a mild concussion (game 1).
James Harden has been held under 25 points in 11 straight playoff games, his longest streak since coming off the bench at OKC.
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) May 3, 2022
“The Beard” was brought to Philadelphia to ease some of the stress placed on Embiid carrying the offense.
Harden was supposed to make Joel’s life easier but also maintain his offensive efficiency when he was seated.
So far, that has not been the case.
Early returns from the playoffs and regular season make it clear that Harden can’t carry the 76ers without Embiid.
Harden is no longer the player he used to be
On paper, Harden still puts up impressive numbers.
21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds per game on 60.1% true shooting in 21 regular season games with the 76ers.
The numbers are down slightly in the playoffs — 18.6 points, 9.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds on 57.7% true shooting — but still look solid.
However, the sight test does not confirm what is written in the statistics sheet.
James doesn’t have the same explosiveness he had in Houston.
Whether it’s because of his hamstring issue or just getting older, it’s become a problem.
What made Harden an all-time great goalscorer was his ability to beat his defender in isolation and play.
He could either finish at the rim, lob a rolling cross, or kick an open shooter.
But it all hinged on Harden’s ability to completely get his way with his man.
That hasn’t happened much with Philly and even when it does, his lack of brilliance has limited his ability to finish in the paint.
Outside of a dunk in Game 6, Harden’s half-court finishes have consisted almost entirely of floaters and layups.
~The Hard Dunk~ pic.twitter.com/Z1Fc62ywal
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) May 1, 2022
The defenses no longer fearing him as before, he no longer attracts as much attention.
This led to passing lanes being closed and fewer open teammates.
Adding that to his diminished effectiveness around the rim, Harden simply can’t carry offense like he once did.
Advanced composition statistics
While Harden’s individual stats don’t paint a dire picture, the roster data does.
Here are the regular season roster breakdowns with Harden and Embiid on and off the court, all given per 100 possessions:
- Harden On, Embiid On: 1,214 possessions, 124.1 points, 108.4 points allowed, +15.8 differential (99th percentile)
- Harden On, Embiid Off: 374 possessions, 114.2 points, 125.7 points allowed, -11.6 differential (9th percentile)
- Harden Off, Embiid On: 3,350 possessions, 114.3 points, 109.2 points allowed, +5.1 differential (78th percentile)
And here are those same playoff splits:
- Harden On, Embiid On: 371 possessions, 121.6 points, 106.4 points allowed, +15.1 (90th percentile)
- Harden On, Embiid Off: 150 possessions, 110 points, 118.4 points allowed, -8.4 (21st percentile)
- Harden Off, Embiid Off: 66 possessions, 112.1 points, 124.6 points allowed, -12.5 (11th percentile)
A small sample size caveat exists on almost all of these splits, but they’re starting to paint a picture.
And those aren’t perfect stats — the most common lineups reserved for Harden and Embiid in the playoffs are both overwhelmingly positive.
But overall, it seems clear that Harden can’t carry the Sixers’ offense when Embiid isn’t on the ground.
— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) May 3, 2022
It’s not a massive indictment of Harden.
Anyone who plays without their MVP-caliber teammate will see a drop in the game.
But Philly needs his star guard to tone down the dramatic swing when Embiid is seated.
So far, Harden hasn’t been able to accomplish that.