NBA Film Room: Why Has James Harden’s Scoring Struggled With 76ers?

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers, NBA Trade Rumors
NBA Analysis Network

The Philadelphia 76ers looked primed to become a favorite in the Eastern Conference after their blockbuster NBA trade deadline move for James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets.

Though Harden’s numbers have been impressive in Philly with averages of 21.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 10.5 assists, it’s fair to say the Harden/Embiid pairing hasn’t yet lived up to its potential.

Despite near league-leading assist numbers and decent scoring output, Harden has struggled a bit thus far in his Philly tenure. His scoring efficiency has been much lower compared to previous seasons as he’s shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and 32.6 percent on 3s.

NBA fan discourse has been very critical of Harden since the trade, and though there’s reason to believe it may be slightly overblown, it is based on very legitimate concerns with Harden’s game.

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James Harden’s most glaring statistical issue has been his shooting efficiency – Harden is shooting below his career average on both twos and threes. However, the root cause of these lackluster shooting percentages is the same.

Lack of Rim Pressure

James Harden has been having a hard time getting to the rim. If you need a statistical nugget to drive this home: Harden has 0 (zero, none, not one) dunks in his time in Philadelphia. Whether Harden’s hamstring injury that he’s dealt with on and off or simply Harden’s age is the cause, the lack of rim pressure is a concern.

Harden’s struggles driving the basketball are on full display in the above clips. Harden cannot generate space on his drives or lift on his finishes. Harden is, for whatever reason, not as explosive as he used to be.

As a result, Harden cannot manufacture efficient points at the rim out of pick-and-roll or isolation opportunities. This understandably hampers Harden’s FG% on twos – but it also affects his three-pointers. Since defenders are less concerned about him blowing by them off the dribble, Harden is having a more challenging time creating spaces for open threes with his step back.

Two facets of Harden’s game have remained elite: his passing and his foul-drawing. Harden is posting a free throw rate of .667 in Philadelphia, well above his career average. His 40.1% assist percentage is also well above his career average, indicating that he has not lost his passing vision with age.

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Still, if Harden is only finding success driving by either catching a defender reaching or finding an open teammate, the Sixers might get Ben Simmons flashbacks come playoff time.

Lack of Off-Ball Activity

James Harden is, of course, a drastically different player from Ben Simmons – and nothing shows that more than his three-point shooting. Harden is a career 36.1% three-point shooter on 7.6 attempts per game but is shooting 32.6% on 6.7 attempts thus far in Philly.

As mentioned earlier, the drop in attempts and efficiency can partly be attributed to his difficulty getting a clean look from his step back. But Harden’s reluctance to take catch-and-shoot threes has also been an issue.

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Harden’s game hasn’t been predicated on catch-and-shoot threes for a long time. You’d have to go back to his 2015 Houston season to find his last season where over half of his threes were assisted. But here you can see why he’s having trouble this year:

James Harden doesn’t do much when teammates are posting up. Joel Embiid is one of the best post players in the NBA – and a post-centric offense demands off-ball movement. When Harden’s defender steps down to double Embiid, Harden needs to move and force the defense to scramble. Look what happens when he does something as simple as putting his hands up:

Booker has to cover Harden when he makes himself available, which frees a cutting lane for Maxey against a recovering defense. Harden has to make himself a threat even if it doesn’t result in a catch-and-shoot three. Plays like this need to happen every time Embiid gets a post catch.

Lack of Creativity

Activity off of Embiid posts is crucial to boost James Harden’s scoring since it would afford him more catch-and-shoot three opportunities. It would also help by allowing him to drive against a defense that’s not set.

The days of Harden running a pick-and-roll at the top of the key and manufacturing layups and dunks, every possession may be over. However, with a little bit of creativity, Harden can still get into spots where his shooting touch and passing vision can shine.

With something as simple as a pindown for Harden on the wing into an Embiid handoff, Harden can get a head of steam with his defender trailing him and find an opportunity to attack the rim or force an advantageous switch to exploit. Philly does not run many actions to get Harden going like this – they’re letting him pound the rock at the top of the key, which often leads to nothing.

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Harden is still an extremely talented player, he needs to do a little more work to earn advantages. Schematic changes for the Sixers would help, and more activity from him on Embiid post-ups.

Aside from Tyrese Maxey, somehow shooting over 43% from deep this season, Harden is probably the Sixers’ best catch-and-shoot option. That’s an advantage that’s currently going to waste.

As things stand, Harden plays as the focal point of the Sixers’ offense. That needs to change. Embiid is unguardable, with unmatched strength and impossibly soft shooting touch. Embiid needs to be the main focus of the offense, with Harden as an ancillary piece.

Is the Experiment Doomed?

James Harden still very much has MVP-level talents to offer, which, if harnessed correctly, could make him the league’s best second option. Even if he gets his driving groove back – if it were a hamstring issue hampering him, he would still benefit from the advantages a more active role on offense would afford him.

Harden’s days of pick-and-rolling teams to death are behind him, but his days of elite offensive output don’t have to be.