Reminder: James Harden is an Excellent Facilitator and Not a “Ball Hog”

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If God wills it, James Harden will make his Sixers debut Friday night in Minnesota.

Seems like a dumb question, but what version of Harden are the Sixers getting? There are different versions of the 13-year veteran. The most recent version is a facilitator who throws double-digit assists per games. Previous iterations of Harden were high-usage pick and roll and iso guys. Those statistical fluctuations in Houston are interesting because he was paired with some unique players during his time there, and also went through a stretch where the Rockets just decided to say “fuck it” and fire up three pointers without using a center at all.

Let’s first take a look at his statistical table:

Right, so he broke out that first season in Houston, back in 2012-2013. That was his first All Star appearance for a Rockets team that had Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin in supporting roles. There were some Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard years as well, and Harden was always the top shooter and top scorer for those squads, about 18 FGA per game and 26 points on average. Clint Capela really took the next developmental step in that 2016-2017 season and provided Harden with a solid roll threat on the offensive end.

2017-2018 was the first Chris Paul season. 65 wins, 17 losses, and a 4-3 series loss to Golden State in the Conference Finals. They would have taken out the Warriors with a healthy Paul, or if they could hit a damn shot in Game 7. But that was the season Harden really stepped out as a legit superstar, taking more than 20 shots per game and averaging more than 30 points. He actually had a career high of 11.2 assists the year prior, and then let Paul do more of the facilitating while swapping out for pure volume shooting instead. 10 threes per game that year, then a whopping 13.2 and 12.4 threes in the following two seasons.

2019-2020 was the year Daryl Morey did the Paul/Russell Westbrook trade, and it only lasted one year. Capela played 39 games that season, was traded the following year, and Houston turned into the small ball team that chucked three pointers while Harden hunted fouls, getting to the line a ridiculous 11.8 times per game. It was a fascinating experiment, even if short-lived.

So when the Brooklyn trade happened, Harden actually took a back seat. His FGA dropped to 16.6 that first half-season, and he instead was back to throwing more than 10 assists per game. His turnover numbers dropped slightly. Three pointers per game dropped below eight. More of what you saw was link play in deference to the high-usage Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who were combining for 37 shots per game. Caris LeVert even took more shots than Harden that season. In two years with the Nets, he finished fourth and third in FGA per game, respectively.

You wonder, then, if the higher volume Harden shows up in a Sixers uniform. Joel Embiid is the second-highest usage player in the NBA, and shoots 19.3 field goals per game while getting to the line 11.3 times per game. But behind Embiid, you’ve got Tobias Harris taking 15 shots a game and Tyrese Maxey on 13.4. It’s not the same as Harden trying to assimilate with Durant and Kyrie.

It makes me wonder if we’ll see more of this in Philadelphia:

Harden really does have great court vision. These are not just pick and roll pocket passes and lobs. He very typically picks out the right pass. He will identify the open man and move the ball. I think sometimes Harden gets this bad rap for being a “ball hog” or being “selfish” based on what people saw in Houston, but those were some unique teams with unique philosophies and oftentimes the main scoring burden was on Harden. He was the guy, and it was actually very different from his time in Brooklyn. There were Houston games I remember watching, bored out of my mind, because it was all Harden iso or pick and roll and foul hunting, but the player of a few years ago isn’t that guy anymore.

Which Harden are Sixers fans getting? Hopefully we find out soon.

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