The James Harden era in Philadelphia is about to begin.
As expected, Harden is set to make his debut with the 76ers Friday night against the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic. Harden had been recovering from a tight hamstring — he missed the All-Star Game and several games before that because of it — but he has medical approval and is scheduled to suit up.
Harden has said Philadelphia is where he wanted to be and believes he and Joel Embiid can win a ring together. After multiple stops and pushing away multiple other elite co-stars, Harden needs this stop to work for his legacy.
But will it work?
That answer starts with this question: Which Harden did the 76ers get? Is it closer to peak Harden from Houston, such as the 2018 Harden that averaged 30.4 points a game with an insane 61.6 true shooting percentage, plus dished out 8.8 assists a night? Brooklyn didn’t get that Harden this season, although he still averaged 22 points and 10.2 assists a season, but the elite, efficient Harden was gone. His slightly-above-average 57.6 true shooting percentage didn’t tell the story: Harden shot 41.4% overall, 33.2% from 3, complained about not getting calls from the officials and shot just 53.9 percent at the rim (stats via Cleaning the Glass).
Were those down numbers because Harden was passive-aggressively playing his way out of town, or at age 32 is Father Time starting to win the race with Harden?
The next question is Harden’s fit with Embiid — two high IQ players, they should be able to figure it out, but it’s not necessarily natural. Harden is most dangerous in isolation or with a rim-running big who can also pop a little off the pick, and neither of those are really Embiid’s strengths. Also, Embiid — playing at an MVP level this season — needs touches both on the block and 18 feet out where he can go to work, and Harden tends to lose focus when off the ball.
None of this touches on maybe the most pressing question: The 76ers defense with Harden getting heavy minutes.
This could develop into a championship fit and pairing for Philadelphia, but the stars have work to do.
That work starts Friday night against Minnesota.