It might be too strong to say that James Harden has been “underwhelming” since the blockbuster trade to acquire him from Brooklyn, but Philly fans could have expected a little more from the former MVP.
His shooting has really slumped at times and the drive-and-kick game is not quite what it could have been if he was scoring at the rim at a better rate.
When pairing Harden with Joel Embiid it was thought they would create a lethal pick-and-roll combination and the most potent offensive duo in the league.
Embiid, for his part, led the league in scoring this season and the MVP candidate has been superb all year long for the Sixers.
So far, though, Harden has been disappointed in a few key areas where he would be expected to do better. His shooting of him from within the arc in the three playoff games so far (primarily charging to the basket rather than pulling up from mid-range and admittedly a small sample size) is 37.5 per cent, when he averages over 50 per cent for his career.
Even stretching back to the regular season, his two-point shooting percentage is the worst it has been since his rookie season.
From three-point range, he is shooting a career-worst 33 per cent, 32.6 per cent since joining the Sixers, although that has ticked upwards during the few playoff games so far.
The one thing you could say in his defense is the assist numbers have been strong, but that is not what his head coach is looking for from him. After his new acquisition shot just 2-for-11 in a loss to the Phoenix Suns in late March, Doc Rivers asked him to stop being a playmaker and focus on putting points up.
Rivers said: “We need you to think of yourself as a scorer, not the way you were in Brooklyn, the way you were a point guard and trying to run the team.”
Simply put, Harden cannot get all facets of his game to function in quite the way he and the 76ers would like.
Now, with the news Embiid may have suffered ligament damage in his thumb – even though the big man says it will not stop him playing in Saturday’s Game 4 against the Toronto Raptors, live on Sky Sports Action at 7pm – the Sixers need the real Harden to step up.
Sky Sports HeatCheck pundit Mo Mooncey, @TheHoopGenius on Twitterreckons the fact the Sixers are winning is the only reason we are not hearing more about there being pressure on Harden.
“In Game One he had 14 assists, which was great,” said Mooncey. “But when he’s had 22 points and Tyrese Maxey, the second-year player, is out there with 38, I think a lot of questions would have been asked – but they won that game in convincing fashion, so no one’s going to question it .
“But in Game Two, James Harden comes out and scores 14 points. That’s not the James Harden we’re accustomed to seeing, the James Harden that we’ve known throughout his career as a 30 points-per-game scorer. The narratives are random because if they had lost that game, there was a little glimpse of hope for the Raptors.Credit to Doc Rivers and the rest of the squad, they held out for the win [and then won in Game 3 on the road].
“But if James Harden has another quiet night by his standards, because 22 points in the game is great – but by James Harden standards, if they take the loss, and he’s got anything under 25, I think questions are going to be asked by the media and the fans because as much as he won’t admit it, everyone else is putting pressure on him.”
If it was not for Maxey playing with such confidence and assurance – and also asserting himself as a legitimate scoring option – then it may look different for the Sixers in the series. They have also been fortunate that Toronto have been dealing with an injury to key rookie Scottie Barnes, suffered in Game 1.
In truth, Harden still looks like he is settling into a new team and it is perhaps taking longer than expected given he has now played 24 games with his new crew.
Given the blockbuster move they made to acquire him, Mooncey believes anything less than an NBA Finals appearance would be a disappointment for the Sixers this season and he reckons Harden has a lot to prove given previous disappointments during the NBA Playoffs.
“The Philadelphia 76ers have got what could potentially be the MVP in Joel Embiid,” Mooncey said. “They’ve got Tyrese Maxey who has exceeded expectations. They’ve got Tobias Harris who’s been playing well. They are going to be expected to win the Eastern Conference.
“If they don’t win the Eastern Conference, I believe the fans of Philadelphia will be very disappointed with this season.
“I believe the pressure is on – not only James Harden – but Doc Rivers as well because they’ve got Joel Embiid who is having the best season of his career, a potentially MVP season, and they’ve got Tyrese Maxey, who is playing like a star right now as a third option.
“There are not many other teams in the league right now who have a third option that’s playing like that so if they can’t get out of the Eastern Conference, I believe the pressure is firmly on James Harden, especially with him looking to get that max contract which he will get in the offseason.
“But he’s getting up there in years and I’m not worried about the first-round series against Toronto Raptors, I’m more looking forward to the second round, the Conference finals, to see if he can step up or he has another game like he has in the past when he’s been in those high-pressure situations, where he’s not had a great night shooting from field when there’s a lot of pressure on him in those huge game situations.
“Winning covers up a multitude of sins. So right now, he’s calm, he’s going under the radar, but when the game steps up in the following rounds, let’s see how he performs.”