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Stats Analysis

Can James Harden help the 76ers get even more out of Joel Embiid?

James Harden (right) has a history of working well with big men such as Joel Embiid (left).Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

The clip of a candid conversation between coach Doc Rivers and star guard James Harden went viral for more than just the rare look at the Philadelphia 76ers sorting through the vision they have this season.

Rivers was trying to drive home a point that resonated to anyone who watched the 76ers last season and saw all the possibilities a point guard/center combination as frightening as Harden and Joel Embiid could create.

Outside of Chris Paul, it’s hard to find a point guard who has gotten more out of big men than Harden did over nine seasons in Houston, whether it with Omer Asik, Dwight Howard, or Clint Capela.


But in Houston, Harden was the center of the solar system. In Philadelphia, everything revolves — or doesn’t — around Embiid.

“I’m just going to stay on it because I get what you’re saying,” Rivers told Harden. “I get it 100 percent. But what I’m trying to get Joel first is to establish himself, be a better post player. We were a horrible — would you agree, horrible? — post passing team last year.”

Harden agreed.

“Horrible,” Rivers went on. “So our objective is getting that first. That why you’ve got to have the right spirit about it. And you’ve got to be a leader. Get them to do it right.”

Embiid averaged 30.6 points per game last year, but his ultimate ceiling could be even higher.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In theory, the 76ers, who open the season Tuesday in Boston, were a team that moved the ball last season. Their 299.5 passes per game were seventh in the NBA, their 3.5 secondary assists were 10th.

But that identity was built long before Harden arrived. Over their first 58 games, the 76ers were fourth in passes per game (306.2). Harden made his 76ers debut Feb. 25, and from that point on, they were a middling passing team, averaging 283.3 per game (13th).


The lowest point was actually in a win over the Mavericks in March. The 76ers made just 230 passes, not only their lowest total of the season but the lowest over the nine seasons of tracking data compiled by PBPstats.com.

The most comical part of that win: Embiid was on the floor with Danny Green for 17 minutes and passed to him once.

It’s not that Embiid is an unwilling passer. Far from it. But he has been honest about why he might be reluctant to share sometimes.

He was embracing the pass going into last season when he said, “In the last few [years], at times, [teams would] double, [I would pass] and you miss a lot of shots, and it gets frustrating. Then you start thinking that you’ve got to do everything by yourself because everybody’s not making shots.”

That instinct can make Embiid a picky passer, left with the choice between passing to someone he’s not completely confident in or doing it himself.

Embiid played at least 100 minutes with 10 different teammates last season, but nearly 75 percent of his passes went to just four players.

When Embiid finished second to Nikola Jokic for MVP, he all but threw up his hands, unsure what else he had to do to make his case for the award. The difference between the two of them is — and always has been — playmaking.


Last year, Embiid made 46.2 passes per game, sixth among centers. But Jokic is on a different planet as a playmaker. He makes 73.4 passes a night, and 7.9 of them turn into assists and 13.9 were potential assists. Jokic’s passing accounted for 19.7 points per game for the Nuggets. Embiid averaged 4.2 assists and 7.0 potential assists and his passes created 10.6 points per game.

Harden forced his way out of Brooklyn and arrived in Philadelphia in February. His first game was a glimpse into how easy things could be for the 76ers with two players on the floor who command so much attention. They hardly had to move to open shots for everyone else. Their presence was enough.

Harden had Karl-Anthony Towns on an island, which sounded the alarm for everyone in a Timberwolves jersey. D’Angelo Russell wanted to help, but he had to keep an eye on Embiid. Embiid didn’t even need the ball in his hands. A half-hearted cut pulled Russell into the paint along with two more defenders. That left Tyrese Maxey open on the wing for a easy 3-pointer.

From that game on, Harden and Embiid were the 76ers’ best two-man pairing, plus-193 in 63 minutes. The 76ers won 16 of their last 24 regular-season games and reached the second round of the playoffs while barely scratching the surface of Harden and Embiid’s potential together.

At the peak of his powers, Embiid can score at all three levels; he can snag a rebound, push tempo, and find scorers on the break; he can perch on the elbow; or he can post on the block and pick apart defenses like a quarterback in the pocket.


What Rivers was trying to tell Harden was that by establishing Embiid, ultimately he wouldn’t have to feel as if so much is on his shoulders.

Could Harden serve as a facilitator for Embiid?Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Harden saw the vision, saw how he could get easy buckets for Embiid.

“Without having to fight for it,” Rivers said. “Y’all are going to get to the point where that’s natural.”

It’ll be scary if they do.

Joel Embiid's passing Last season, 10 players had more than 100 minutes on the court with Joel Embiid, but nearly 75 percent of his passes went to just four teammates.
Teammate Minutes with Embiid Passes from Embiid Assists for Embiid
Harris 1,795 473 62
Maxey 1,786 978 51
Thybulle 1,163 119 23
Curry 1,109 432 46
Green 820 150 16
Niang 692 168 37
Harden 603 455 9
Korkmaz 542 173 18
Milton 404 143 14
Joe 142 33 6
Brown Jr. 78 6 1
Reed 21 0 0
Powell 16 6 0
Drummond 9 1 0
Johnson 7 2 0

Julian Benbow can be reached at julian.benbow@globe.com.