The New-Look Sixers Are the Real Deal

In Sunday’s NBA matinee, the Sixers showcased their newest weapon against the Knicks: James Harden. In a team-high 39 minutes of action, Harden posted a triple double of 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 16 assists in Philadelphia’s 125-109 victory. Most notably, he went 10-for-10 from the free throw line, combining with superstar and MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid’s 23-for-27 for a whopping 33 points from the charity stripe.


Much to New York’s dismay, the Sixers’ dynamic duo tangled arms with and ripped through the defense, forcing both Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims to the bench after fouling out. It was just his second game in a Philly uniform, but Harden has transformed his new squad into a two-headed beast and surefire title contender.


Philadelphia 76ers superstars James Harden and Joel Embiid celebrate after the opposing team calls a timeout during an NBA basketball game.
James Harden (1) and Joel Embiid | Image via USA TODAY Sports/Wendell Cruz

Harden began the 2021-22 season as a Brooklyn Net, hoping to make a title run with two of the league’s most talented players by his side in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. However, when he rejected Brooklyn’s contract extension offer in October, his lack of commitment began to raise alarms—and questions.


Why was Harden refusing to commit to the team that he forced a trade to less than a year prior? He claimed that he didn’t intend on testing free agency, but it was a confounding move nonetheless.


The first half of the season went relatively smoothly, with Harden and Durant leading the Nets to a top-three seed in the East. But with Irving unvaccinated against COVID-19 and deemed ineligible to play, the pressure began to mount. The weight on Harden’s shoulders only increased in January when Durant went down with a sprained MCL in his knee.


As Harden was further leaned upon to power Brooklyn’s offense, his effort on the court began to diminish. He would take plays off on defense, staring at shooters he was supposed to guard. It became clear that Harden was no longer invested in the Brooklyn Nets.


Those suspicions were confirmed in a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on February 10, the day of the trade deadline. Harden wanted a trade to the Sixers but he didn’t formally request a deal, concerned about public backlash that would come after forcing his way out of his second franchise. That afternoon, just hours before the 3 p.m. deadline, it was announced that Harden was on his way to the City of Brotherly Love.


Former Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, now on the Philadelphia 76ers, voices his frustration during an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Image via USA TODAY Sports/Brad Penner

Analysts deemed the blockbuster deal a massive gamble for Philadelphia, mortgaging their future finances for an aging Harden that would join his third team in 13 months. Embiid was already playing MVP-caliber basketball, and valid concerns arose over how the two ball-dominant stars would mesh.


Though it’s a small sample size, the Sixers have more than dispelled those concerns. Harden and Embiid are two different players with two different skillsets, but they find common ground in their foul-drawing prowess. They understand how to manipulate their bodies in ways that often earn them a trip to the free-throw line. It’s maddening for defenders, but it’s a vital component of Harden and Embiid’s offensive tactics.


Outside of Philadelphia’s two-star nucleus, perhaps the chief beneficiary of the Harden trade is Tyrese Maxey, their first-round draft pick in 2020. He showed promising flashes in his rookie year, averaging eight points per game off the bench. At just 21 years old and in his second year, Maxey has cemented himself as a starter and a valuable offensive piece. And he’s only getting started—the combination of Harden’s gravity and the departure of Seth Curry is going to open the doors for plenty of open looks.


In his first two games alongside Harden, Maxey has averaged 24.5 points on 20-for-30 from the field, including 5-for-8 from deep. His improving playmaking will take a backseat to Harden’s role as initiator when they’re sharing the court, but Maxey will be imperative in the Sixers’ title run.


There’s also Tobias Harris, who is averaging a solid 18/7/4 slash line in his own right. He’s a smooth, consistent scorer who’s hovered between 18.1 and 20.9 points per game since the 2017-18 season. Harris has become Philadelphia’s fourth option, but that’s a great problem to have—it’s a testament to the potency of the Sixers’ offense.


Rounding out the starting five is Matisse Thybulle, whose defensive energy and tenacity is rivaled by few in the league. He’s tied for first in the NBA with 5.3 deflections per 36 minutes and flies around the court to contest shots, sometimes coming out of nowhere.


If they can stay (mostly) healthy and motivated, the Sixers will be a force to be reckoned with as the postseason draws nearer. Harden adds such offensive firepower and will take the load off Embiid, whose usage rate of 37.7 percent leads the league. Daryl Morey, president of basketball operations and longtime friend of Harden, took a serious gamble on the Sixers’ long-term outlook. It looks like it could pay serious dividends.