The Philadelphia 76ers begin their best-of-seven second round playoff series against the top seed Miami Heat tonight. The Sixers will begin the series without their MVP center Joel Embiid, who is out with an orbital fracture and concussion.
That means trade deadline acquisition and former MVP James Harden will have to be on his game if the Sixers want to avoid going down 0-2. ESPN’s Tim Legler thinks the days of Hardenn being able to carry a team are long gone.
“Without Embiid to occupy that second line defender, James Harden is going to understand how difficult it is,” Legler said on “First Take.” “Now, at this stage of his career, to be able to carry a team through a moment like this against a defense that good, I just haven’t seen enough out of him since he got to Philly to make me think he can have one of those vintage games.”
Legler makes an excellent point. Harden is 32 years old and coming off hamstring injuries during last year’s postseason that rendered him ineffective. Since then he hasn’t looked like the multi-time All-NBA player and perennial MVP candidate he was for his time in Houston and last regular season in Brooklyn.
Harden finished the season +3.8 in EPM his lowest total since 2016. His shooting efficiency, 48% eFG and 59% TS, are the worst since his rookie year in 2010.
The reality is Harden is not the same player he once was. He no longer has the ability to beat every one-on-one matchup in front of him. That explosive first step is gone, which makes him easier to defend.
This playoffs, fairly or not, will be a referendum on his career, and if he’s unable to perform at a level that makes NBA Twitter happy it’s pretty much a wrap.
But we don’t reduce players down to championships and define their individual worthiness based on team success.
Has he had some poor playoff performances? Yes. Does that mean he’s overrated or not a great player? No.
But here’s the thing. Harden doesn’t have to be the Houston version of himself for the 76ers to win.
James Harden on approaching the Heat series without Embiid:
“At this point, man, it’s a sacrifice. I can score 30 something, and we could lose, and score 19, and we win. At this point, I just do whatever it takes to win the game.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) May 2, 2022
Last season with Brooklyn he was a facilitator and scored when needed. Of course he had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to manage the scoring load and won’t have that type of scoring punch without Embiid. But he is still an elite passer and playmaker.
Harden can utilize the hit ahead pass with the lightning-quick Tyrese Maxey for easy buckets. If Maxey, Tobias Harris and Danny Green are moving without the basketball Harden can find them for scores.
Paul Reed will likely play a lot of minutes with Embiid out. Reed can be a lob threat with Harden in pick and rolls.
When great players see their athleticism diminish they use their smarts to continue to impact the game. Harden is a super computer processor on the basketball floor. He knows what spots on the floor are advantageous and what variations to a set will work on a specific defensive coverage.
This is what he will need to rely on now. All those reference points from his 12-year career.
When great players age, it’s not that they can never be great again. It’s just that the amount of times they can be great gets smaller. How often Harden can re-define great will determine how the Sixers fare without Embiid.