Sixers: James Harden’s “decline” needs perspective

The Sixers trade deadline acquisition of James Harden was billed as a rebirth for both a franchise held hostage by one of its former young stars, and for a player desperate to leave his own increasingly volatile situation in Brooklyn. For all intents and purposes, Harden to Philly was a match made in heaven. The sort of get out of jail free card that seemed so improbable during the dog days of Ben Simmons’ holdout, and the soft landing spot that few stars are afforded on their third stop in 14 months.

Fast forward to the heels of an embarrassing—though not entirely unexpected—playoff loss to the Miami Heat, and the media and fan base in Philadelphia are left with serious questions over Harden’s long-term fit with the franchise. More specifically, is he worth the super max salary that he’ll be anticipating for his next (and possibly final) contract?  

I’m not here to answer that question (I’ll hold my opinion until the end). Instead, the focus of this piece is to add proper context to the discussion.  

Harden’s Per100 Impact data

Harden’s impact data doesn’t have any surprises (with the exception of FiveThirtyEight’s oft-puzzling RAPTOR); he continues to be an elite offensive threat whose defense leaves more to be desired. But how does this stack up with peak Harden?  

As if the “eye test” isn’t enough to identify a recent drop-off in performance, Harden’s impact data leaves little doubt. He’s no longer the MVP caliber player that he once was, and for a 32-year-old with a recently torn hamstring that’s not so much a criticism as it is reality. Generally speaking, Harden is still an elite offensive talent (98th percentile O-LEBRON) with a slightly below average defensive impact (40th percentile D-LEBRON), but that latter truth paired with a downward trend on offense is enough to call his overall, long-term value into question. 

Slip in scoring

Harden will always have meat left on the bone in regard to defensive impact—I’m not anticipating a late-career epiphany—but most, if not all of his decline has come on the offensive end of the floor. Specifically, his raw scoring ability has faced the most scrutiny in recent seasons, both at the rim and from beyond the arc. 

It’s worth emphasizing that Harden continues to be elite at putting the ball through the hoop, but the data supports the argument that his scoring isn’t it once was. 0.95 points per possession is the lowest mark of his career, and there’s a number of factors contributing to that slip in efficiency. For me, the conversation starts with his diminished prowess at the rim.  

For a player used to getting to the rim as a matter of will, Harden’s drive rate has taken a dip in recent seasons, and his FGA rate on those drives has fallen even more so.

Harden is penetrating less and passing out of drives more frequently than he has in the past. For comparison’s sake, here’s how his ability to get to and finish at the rim stacks up with his 2019-20 season. 

Harden’s ability to score at the rim remains impressive, but is no longer at the peak of his powers—or at least hasn’t been over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, this concern isn’t limited to inside the arc, with Harden’s perimeter shooting experiencing a similar (if not more pronounced) dip in production.

This past season, Harden’s ability to create his own shot from deep was at it’s lowest level since 2016, and his ability to knock down those shots relative to expectations/shot quality was at the lowest mark of his career (dating back to 2013-14 when data is first available). Pull-up threes have always been the bread-and-butter of his perimeter shooting talent, and while his efficiency on those looks remain stable year over year, his diminished ability to create/take those looks is the main source of his decline from beyond the arc.   

Despite a clear three-year regression, Harden is still one of the better high-difficulty pull-up shooters in basketball, and being a slightly lesser version of that skillset isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Perhaps the more relevant focus for him aging well as a shooter should be on his catch and shoot ability. It goes without saying that increasing his efficiency (and volume) on these looks would better complement Embiid moving forward, and while he’ll never make a full pivot away from a pull-up heavy diet, there’s no reason for his efficiency marks to continue a downward trend as he ages. 

In the name of a better-aging skillset and better-complementing Embiid, another reasonable improvement for Harden is a willingness to contribute as an off-ball scorer—a currently non-existent part of his arsenal. Most ball-dominant players have difficulty engaging off the ball, but Harden takes that archetype to the extreme. 

That data is a sight to behold, and while it’s always satisfying when numbers support the eye test, this is mostly just a bummer. It’s easy to dismiss this as an area where it’s too late for an old dog to learn new tricks, but I’m old enough to remember a younger Harden with a pep in his step off the ball in Oklahoma City.  

It might be foolish to expect Harden’s off-ball activity to improve as he ages—in the same way it is to expect a sudden shift on defense—but these changes are the most straightforward path to adapting his skillset to an aging body. The days of video-game-like scoring-ease appear to be over for Harden, and finding a way to impact the game on both ends or without the ball in his hands would signal an awareness of that fact.

James Harden’s decline is real, but his demise is exaggerated

Harden’s decline is multi-faceted, and very real—the data makes that clear—but let’s not confuse “decline” with “demise.” It’s easy to feel queasy about a long-term contract when comparing James’ recent performance to his former self, but when viewed in relation to the rest of the league it’s hard not to wonder if these anxieties are truly warranted.  

Only eleven NBA players finished last season with a perimeter shooting grade in the 95th percentile and finishing talent in the 90th percentile, and of that group only six paired that rim-and-three talent with a playmaking grade above the 95th percentile—of course, Harden was one of them. Even in a diminished state of being, players of his offensive caliber don’t grow on trees.   

The bottom line is that Harden is still a walking bucket with rare playmaking chops. Don’t let the fact that he used to be a better version of that player distract from his current level of greatness.

On a per season basis, Harden declined from one of the best offensive players in NBA history to merely one of the best offensive players in a given season. That’s a big drop-off, but is it enough to prompt a win-now contender to reconsider a max contract and cross its fingers for a replacement that likely doesn’t exist? That leap in judgement might feel appropriate on the heels of an embarrassing playoff exit, but removed from that emotion and with the benefit of data to put Harden’s decline into context, any argument that the Sixers could reasonably find greener pastures is strained at best. 

At the time of the trade, I had cautioned Sixers fans that Morey jumped the gun on acquiring Harden—given that he was destined to join Philly over the summer regardless—and his brief tenure with the team played out exactly how I had feared: fallen short of unrealistic expectations, and suddenly positioned in the crosshairs of blame. In that sense, there’s something familiar about the “Harden question.” When it came to Butler then Simmons, the Sixers (and the fan base) responded hastily. This time around, for once, the franchise has no choice but to choose patience—and Harden—no matter the price.

All data courtesy of BBall Index

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