The Keys To A Successful James Harden Joel Embiid Partnership
With Embiid, Harden is going to need a much bigger buy-in as an off-ball player. Will it happen? I’m dubious.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA. Mike’s writing is brought to you by Body Bio, supplements based on science, focusing on your gut and brain health. Get 20% off E-Lyte and all Body Bio products with promo code RTRS20 at Body Bio’s website.
Ah, sweet relief. Our long national nightmare is over, and Ben Simmons is no longer a Philadelphia 76er. There’s plenty of digital ink to be spilled reflecting on Simmons’ time in Philly – AU has you covered for that – but here in this piece, we’ll be taking a look forward. A new chapter of the Process era is here, and there are many unknowns ahead.
The decision to acquire James Harden was an easy one, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions as to his fit as well as his long term value. Harden has an extensive history of tense superstar partnerships, and has a unique play style that can be hard for stars and role players alike to play off of.
As such, questions loom about just how well Harden meshes with Joel Embiid. As far as how the latter complements the former, I think the concerns there are pretty limited – Embiid simply has to be relatively content to set screens and/or hang out in the dunker spot while Harden does his thing. As for the other way around, though, I’m not as sure how things will shape up.
Harden has never been a prolific spot-up shooter; he attempted less than one catch and shoot 3 per game in Brooklyn this year. But perhaps the bigger concern is his general apathy without the ball in his hands. Playing off of an Embiid post-up requires constant effort and attention – you have to know when to cut, when to relocate, when to set a screen, or when to simply get loose and bail Embiid out of a double team. If Harden is going to simply stand with his hands on his hips 30 feet from the basket, that will ruin possessions for the Sixers and inevitably piss off Embiid.
With many of Harden’s previous teammates – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – it was acceptable to simply take the possession off once those players got the ball. You knew that they were going to isolate from the wing or top of the key, and that there was little you were needed for. With Embiid, Harden is going to need a much bigger buy-in as an off-ball player. Will it happen? I’m dubious.
There’s also the issue that, as a screener, Embiid has historically been far more comfortable operating out of dribble hand-offs from the elbow than he has been with setting screens at 28 feet out and rolling to the rim hard. If I had to guess, I’d say that Embiid is more likely to be the one to adjust in this department, but if Harden is OK with it, I think that they could develop a useful two-man game at the elbows
Of course, Embiid isn’t the only player Harden will have to acclimate himself to. Will he be content to let Tyrese Maxey get enough reps? Will he moan and groan along with the rest of us whenever Tobias Harris goes into a backdown isolation from 17 feet? It’s completely unclear to me whether Harden would prefer to be back in a Houston-type system where he handles the ball 99 percent of the time, or if he’s transitioning to a different point in his career where buy-in on these types of things is more likely.
The defensive fit also has question marks. Harden has always been at his best in switching defenses, largely because that is the system that requires the least effort. He expends immense energy on offense, and would prefer not to have to chase offensive players around screens and recover from behind on either end.
That’s all well and good when it comes to one-through-four, but with Embiid, switching isn’t exactly ideal. Embiid is a devastating defender in drop coverages, and is best complemented by defenders who fight hard over screens and can get back into the play from behind. He can switch here and there – especially in the last three minutes of tight games – but he’s going to need Harden to show some type of effort when fighting through pick and rolls.
I don’t mean to sound any alarm bells – this is still an awesome fit – but my point here is that the success of this partnership is going to be directly tied to Harden’s buy-in. Can he get (and stay) in shape? Will he stay locked in off the ball? Will he gripe when Maxey gets his touches? Can he make an impact in a defensive system that doesn’t revolve around switching?
Beyond Harden’s buy-in, there are also some questions about how the rotations should be structured this year, and how the team should be built moving forward. For this year, the starting lineup should unquestionably be Maxey-Harden-Green-Harris-Embiid, in my mind. I understand the urge to start Matisse Thybulle, but Thybulle-Maxey-Harris is a devastating lack of shooting around Embiid and Harden. Green simply has to be in the starting lineup, given that he’s the only player in that lineup who shoots without thinking twice about it.
From there, Thybulle and Niang should be the first subs off the bench for Maxey and Harris, and Harden will play point guard – I care more about staggering Maxey and Harden than I do Harden and Embiid. Rounding out the rotation would be Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and the backup center of choice.
Again, it hurts not to start Thybulle, but the Sixers have to be extremely careful about keeping adequate shooting on the floor. Harden, as I mentioned, is not a catch and shoot threat. Thybulle can’t shoot a lick. Maxey could come down from his 40 percent figure. Harris is attempting fewer 3s per game than many centers (including Embiid). There is a very real balance to be struck of how many of these guys can share the floor at once.
Aside from Green, the only players who launch 3s without hesitation – Niang, Korkmaz, and Isaiah Joe – are all question marks in terms of whether or not they can stay on the floor in the playoffs. If anything holds the Sixers back this year, it will likely be their lack of two-way wings.
That said, they will have multiple cracks at this thing. Harden, Embiid, and Maxey will form the backbone of a contender for years to come. Even if Harden gradually declines over the next few seasons, I still like their chances at contending. Stop me if I sound crazy here: I see a similarity here between the Spurs trio that carried them to titles in the 2000s. A fast, young point guard (Parker/Maxey), a crafty left handed shooting guard (Ginobili/Harden), and a dominant two-way big (Duncan/Embiid). This run certainly won’t last for 20 years, and the play style won’t be anywhere near the same, but the skills of the core pieces are somewhat alike.
One final observation: I like what this trade means for Doc Rivers. While Rivers has plenty of flaws as a coach, he does certainly have the caché to coach star players. I get that he’s had his issues of late, but I trust his ability to get through to James Harden more so than I would, say, Brett Brown with Jimmy Butler. Additionally, Rivers’ late game decision making issues will matter less with Harden – the playbook will simplify to “give Harden the ball and get the hell out of the way,” rather than Rivers feeling the need to constantly outsmart himself.
All things considered, this is a home run deal for the Sixers. There are questions as to the rotations, and Harden’s general buy-in. But you simply cannot win without talent, and you can’t win without elite perimeter shot creation. Harden provides an instant, maximum-possible boost in those departments, and the result should be thrilling.