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Can James Harden Still Score Like An MVP?

For a little while, it looked like the Philadelphia 76ers would get all of the good and none of the bad. James Harden’s opening run in a Sixers uniform, after his deadline-day trade out of Brooklyn, was a rebuttal to the gripes that have lately attended his here-and-there career. Can’t coexist with a franchise big man? Lost a step from his MVP heyday? Harden put up 26.8 points on 59.2 percent shooting (50 percent from 3-point range) over his first four games in Philly — all wins — while still leaving room for Joel Embiid to get 30 a night. The last game of the streak, against the Cavaliers, went the Sixers’ way for good when Embiid drew a double-team and kicked to Harden, who wiggled in for a floater that gave Philadelphia a 6-point lead with 42 seconds left. Embiid was delighted with the honeymoon phase: “We all just fit together.”

But between that first week and a pair of easy wins in their opening-round series against the banged-up Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia labored to a 12-8 record, and concerns have mounted. During that stretch, Harden’s shot attempts fell off and his scoring average dropped to 19.7 points a game on 36.3 percent shooting (29.1 percent from three). After his new star went 2-for-11 in a loss to the Phoenix Suns in late March, Doc Rivers asked him to stop deferring and play the hits: “We need you to think of yourself as a scorer, not the way you were in Brooklyn, the way you were a point guard and trying to run the team.”

Trading for Harden, the Sixers also brought aboard the Harden Dilemma, the question of how to turn his unconventional basketball genius into a conventional basketball championship. During his Euro-stepping prime, this was a matter of proportion: Could he fully capitalize on his gift for one-on-one scoring without turning the rest of the team into mannequins? But his recent swoon adds to a growing body of evidence calling for the question to be amended. Even if team and player settle on what they want Harden to be, is he still good enough to be it?

In broad strokes, Philadelphia has been better for sending an absent Ben Simmons (plus a present, and useful, Seth Curry) off in exchange for the 10-time All-Star. Before Harden’s first game with the Sixers, despite Embiid’s all-fronts dominance, they managed just 111 points per 100 possessions, 14th in the NBA. After Harden shook off the latest in a series of hamstring injuries to join the team on Feb. 25, Philly closed the season with an offensive rating of 117.8, eighth-best in the league during that stretch. (The defense took a predictable dip, but only down from a rank of 11th to a 12th-highest 112.6 rating; Embiid is staunch enough to absolve some of Harden’s sins of omission on that end.)

Harden has, in large part, carried over the commitment to facilitating that he foregrounded in Brooklyn. After joining the Nets, as FiveThirtyEight’s Jared Dubin wrote last season, Harden eschewed his once-trademark isolation plays (which mostly ended in something from his slim catalog: a 3-point attempt, a layup, a foul or a pratfall in pursuit of one) and reconfigured his shot/pass portfolio to make use of whatever of the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving combo was available on a given night. Over 21 regular-season games in Philadelphia, his assist average held steady at 10.5 per game while his shot attempts dropped to 13.6, the lowest mark since his last year as an off-the-bench player in Oklahoma City.

The approach has been a boon to certain teammates. “You’ve seen Matisse [Thybulle] get a bunch of cuts and lobs at the rim; Tyrese [Maxey] is getting out in transition; he’s hitting Joel in pick-and-rolls — all the way down the line of how he plays,” Tobias Harris said of Harden last month. The Harden-Embiid dance required next to no rehearsal, given the former’s knack for reading angles and lofting lobs and the latter’s tendency to mash anything he gets his hands on; the two generate 1.17 points per direct action when Embiid screens for Harden, better than 95 percent of partnerships with at least 200 picks.

Maxey is shooting 52.3 percent from the field (and 48 from three on 5.3 attempts per game) since Harden’s arrival. In his 38-point outburst in the Sixers’ series-opening blowout of the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, six of Maxey’s 14 field goals came off of Harden passes. Some of these were standard-issue drive-and-kick jobs; others were evidence of a player who’s spent more than a decade decoding every possible defensive alignment and sensing when a defense tilted his way leaves an open lane elsewhere.

But the Philadelphia chapter has also prolonged the crummiest scoring stretch of Harden’s career, a chapter when some combination of age, nagging injuries and the odd franchise-escaping bout of selective sloth have sapped his efficiency. At his best, in his MVP season of 2017-18, Harden put up a 54.5 effective field-goal percentage (91st percentile among combo guards) on a 40.4 percent usage rate (100th). Despite taking a load off with his new club — his 30 percent usage rate is his lowest since the 2013-14 season — Harden has managed just a 48.6 effective field-goal percentage, landing him in the 38th percentile among players Cleaning the Glass designates as point guards.

The key differences between Harden and Simmons, in the context of an Embiid-centric Sixers attack, were supposed to be Harden’s willingness to shoot the spot-up jumpers his big man creates and his established capacity for late-in-the-clock shot creation, most famously via the step-back three. But from the trade through the end of the regular season, Harden shot just 33.8 percent on open 3-pointers. Toggle over to what Synergy designates as tight coverage — 2 to 4 feet of space, the sliver his footwork can manufacture as a matter of course — and the number drops to 25.6 percent. (During his MVP season, Harden hit 34.6 percent of those shots.)

Strain your eyes, and you can see a silver lining here. Even in his prime, Harden’s career sat atop a teeter-totter, statistically extravagant campaigns from October to April tipping into ho-hum playoff appearances. (In 2020, ESPN’s Zach Lowe laid out Harden’s postseason crunch-time performance over his Rockets tenure: 38 percent shooting overall and 18 percent on threes, even preceding that year’s 4-1 bubble loss to the Lakers and the next season’s injury-hobbled Nets bowing out against the Bucks.) In the scrutiny of a long series against a team studying tape for two straight weeks, a limited catalog of go-tos can be a weakness, no matter how well you execute them. Harden’s more deferential approach this season and last — brought on by the presence of superior scorers alongside him — has by definition been a more varied one.

Still, recent playoff history says that a highly efficient second scoring option — a player who can reliably get his own when teams bunch around the star — is a requirement, not a luxury. Since 2016, all but one NBA champion (the 2019 Raptors) featured two players putting up at least 20 points per game in at least 10 playoff starts on better than 50 percent effective field-goal percentage. (The secondary stars on that Toronto team provided other things, namely lockdown defense. Harden, uh, does not.)

“For me, it’s going out there and playing my game, trying to help my team win,” Harden said earlier this month when asked if this postseason felt like a chance to reshape his legacy. “I don’t feel any pressure, I don’t feel any of that.” That may well be, and for now the Sixers are 2-0 in the postseason. But at some point Rivers will likely make his request again, that Harden turn back into the player he was a couple of stops and a couple of years ago. And for all the time spent dissecting how Harden chooses to deploy his considerable talents, now he might have no choice at all. That player looks more and more like a thing of the past.

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Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

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