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Small sample sizes can be the enemy of clarity for nba teams. They are hotbeds for anomalies and illusions. Every so often, though, tiny and immediate morsels of playing time yield results worth taking seriously, serving as reinforcements of the obvious.
This is all to say: The James Harden-era Philadelphia 76ers will be a problem.
The biggest, baddest, winningest problem in the Eastern Conference, perhaps.
Three wins into Harden’s tenure alongside Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and crew have hinted at this much. All of them have come against unspectacular teams, including Wednesday night’s 123-108 victory over the sad-and-sorry New York Knicks, who Philly has enjoyed the pleasure of beating twice over the past four days. But the Sixers are not juuust getting by through this stretch. Their three wins with Harden have come by at least 15 points.
And anyway, the instantaneous synergy and balance the offense has struck is more important than the level of competition it has come against. Some were concerned the Harden-Embiid connection, specifically, would need an extensive grace period. Harden, after all, doesn’t have experience playing beside a ball-dominant big man who prefers to pop and post-up and face-up rather than roll.
Superstar talent has a way of figuring things out, especially over time. It appears Philly’s megastar duo won’t need any of the latter.
Though Harden has thrown some passes that suggest the dynamic will need the slightest of learning curves, he doesn’t look uncomfortable or out of place beside Embiid. If anything, he seems to be basking in the functional simplicity Embiid provides.
More than half of The Process’ 24 made baskets over the past three games have come off dimes from The Beard (13). Harden no longer needs to work as hard to table-set coming around high ball-screens. Embiid can catch tosses from behind the three-point line or with more space between him and the basket inside the arc.
Getting rid of the ball earlier ensures Harden’s downhill attacks don’t always need to last as long—or take place at all. Teensy sample in mind, he has gone from averaging 15.8 drives per 36 minutes with the Brooklyn Nets to fewer than 11 in a Sixers uniform.
Maxey has also streamlined the offensive transition for the new-age Sixers, and not just because he affords Harden a backcourt partner who actually plays in home games. His speed off the catch has given Harden a dangerous outlet away from the ball. And Maxey, for his part, seems to be reveling at the opportunity to operate in a more complementary capacity.
The relative lack of directionality on his drives is a non-issue when he’s attacking more wide-open spaces, and he’s thoroughly capitalizing on higher shot quality. Fewer than 49 percent of his looks were coming with a defender more than four feet away prior to Harden’s debut. That share exploded above 75 percent entering Wednesday.
Playing all three of Embiid, Harden and Maxey together is so far akin to a cheat code that should have 29 other defenses on tilt:
Philly still has questions to answer looking ahead to the postseason and how it matches up with the East’s other heavyweights. Almost all of them lie on the defensive end. The Sixers are sixth in points allowed per possession over the past three games but look a combination of slow and inattentive on the perimeter for dribs and drabs and are registering the foul rate to prove it.
Their backup-big rotation will remain an issue following the departure of Andre Drummond. Signing DeAndre Jordan probably isn’t the answer. Continuing to rely on Paul Millsap isn’t, either—unless he turns back the clock at least two years and, so long as he’s warping space and time, figures out how to grow another two to four inches. The idea of Furkan Korkmaz postseason minutes is also pretty harrowing.
Still, the Sixers have already answered plenty of other questions that carry equal weight.
Head coach Doc Rivers has cobbled together a rotation that will always have one of Embiid and Harden on the floor. Tethering Maxey to the solo-Embiid minutes and Tobias Harris to the Harden-only runs makes a world of sense.
There has been a surprisingly faster cadence to how the Sixers play, as well. They were 27th in average offensive possession time before Harden’s debut, according to Inpredictable. They have been noticeably quicker since.
Matisse Thybulle looks at home and doesn’t feel like an offensive liability when surrounded by so much dynamite. He is shooting 37.5 percent on super-mega-ultra wide-open triples the past three games while ducking between preoccupied defenses for gimme conversions at the basket.
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In the end, though, the new-look Sixers never needed to make good on granular details or disprove what were always bloated concerns right away. Immediately, they turned Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and Ben Simmons’ vacant rotation spot into the gives-a-damn-again version of James Harden. (Draft equity doesn’t win games or contend for titles in the here and now.)
And in doing so, they may have forged the league’s best superstar duo—a pair of might-be top-five players working in concert with a viable, still-ascending No. 3 option (Maxey).
Officially, then, the Sixers have exited “Will this work?” territory, insofar as they were ever actually in it. They are now—and will remain—in the thick of the Eastern Conference title race.
They might even already be at the tippy top of it.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Thursday’s games. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by nba Math’s Adam Fromal.