Does Harden help the Sixers make an NBA Finals push?


Milan Varia

Ben Simmons and James Harden swapped teams at the NBA Trade Deadline, but the move has more implications than it might seem. In the article below, the Sixers’ side of the trade is evaluated.

Excitement is rampant within the Sixers fanbase with the acquisition of James Harden on Thursday. The Sixers championship chances climb even higher, and now that Ben Simmons is off the team, the locker room doesn’t have to worry about what is next with him. With Joel Embiid’s MVP-level season, it almost seems like a dream scenario. Despite lofty expectations, there is still a lot to evaluate. Can the Sixers make a Finals push?

To answer this question, the trade itself but first be addressed. To recap, the Philadelphia 76ers traded Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks for James Harden and Paul Milsap. The first pick will be in 2022 but can be deferred to 2023. The other pick, which is a top-8 protected pick, will be in 2027. If protected, it becomes a top-8 protected in 2028. If the Sixers still cap on the protection once again, it will turn into two second-round picks and $2 million in cash.

At first glance, it seems as if the Brooklyn Nets walked away with a steal of a trade, but the deal is far more nuanced than it presents itself.

The loss of Ben Simmons in this deal is relatively meaningless for the Sixers. He’s had no on-court impact the entire season, so dealing him away for anything is a net positive. Losing him is not a loss. However, losing Seth Curry and Andre Drummond are both crucial losses. Curry is one of the league’s best shooters, and Drummond is arguably the best backup center in the NBA. But, this needs to be contextualized.

James Harden can not only fulfill the role of Curry but also adds so much to the team. The elite isolation scorer can work amazingly well in the pick-and-roll with Joel. Even though Harden cannot shoot as well as Curry, he is a far better facilitator and will get the other shooters on the team- Danny Green, Georges Niang, Tyrese Maxey- open more often. Harden’s initial fit with Embiid will take time to fully realize and requires a lot of testing, but the team gains more than what it loses with Curry leaving.

Losing Drummond, though, is less desirable. Embiid is a player who is known to need his rest. Whether it is during a game in which he is playing or a game where he is a DNP, Embiid has questionable stamina. To combat this, the Sixers have employed the use of reliable backups throughout his career. This was lost in the trade. While this can turn out to be a decent blow, consider this: the offensive value James Harden brings to the Sixers will allow Embiid to get more rest and mitigate his energy usage.

Harden can take the offensive load off of Embiid. For the last few years, opponents would double team Embiid towards the end of the game, as he was the team’s only consistent scorer. Although Embiid can still find ways to score, it was incredibly draining. With Harden in the mix, however, the Sixers put the ball in the hands of a player not named Embiid. Teams won’t be able to choose to double one player or the other, and the game can open up for the whole team. Because of this, Embiid can reserve his energy and be better rested in the most important moments of the game.

With all those positives in mind, the question that Harden brings is consistency and fit. Throughout this season, Harden has shown elite levels of play and subpar performances. From December 25th, 2021 to January 9th, 2022, Harden had an eight-game stretch where he scored 27.6 points per game, with 10.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds. In that period, Harden showcased that he still has superstar capabilities, but keep in mind that he has been known to be inconsistent. He’s also a very heliocentric player– meaning he needs the ball in his hands a lot. Over the last few years, Harden has shown he does not do much off the ball. He typically sits at the hash behind the 3-point line, leaving his teams with no off-ball advantage. Harden was not always this way. Earlier in his career (in OKC), he was a cutter. If the Sixers want to elevate and bring the best out of Harden, he needs to bring this back into his game. Otherwise, the fit adjustment might be strenuous.

Those are two sides of the trade, but there is one more important component to this trade that can cement fans’ understanding behind it: the effects on Tobias Harris. Coming into this season, Harris was seen as the secondary option to Embiid. But when the Sixers originally re-signed Harris, the goal was for him to be a tertiary scorer. The team knew he wasn’t able to handle the responsibilities of a secondary scorer, and the acquisition of Harden takes that pressure off of Harris. Moving forward, he will face worse defenders, face less pressure, get more open looks, and will have the chance to contribute far more efficiently than he has all season long. It also gives him fewer expectations.

When all of this is considered, the Sixers seem to be trending in the right direction. All of what Harden adds and what the Sixers lost remains as hypotheses, and it will take time for fans to see what this trade does for the team, but for the first time in years, the Sixers may have a serious shot at an NBA Finals push.