The concept was simple. Pair two MVP-caliber players to form a devastating combo that would destroy the league. That was what the Philadelphia 76ers had hoped would happen when they brought in James Harden as Joel Embiid’s partner in 2022. It was a good theory with real success stories. But that hinged on the fact that both players had to be truly elite.
Embiid has proven that he’s one of the top players in the league. Unfortunately, the Harden that the Sixers got was nowhere near his MVP form. When he was in Houston, Harden was truly the system of the team - a heavy load was placed on his shoulders and he delivered crazy numbers.
In nine seasons with the Houston Rockets, he averaged 29.6 points on 44.3 percent shooting. He also dished out 7.7 assists and grabbed 6.0 rebounds per game. In Philly, Harden was more of a playmaker. In two seasons with the team, he averaged 10.6 assists per game. But his scoring average dropped to just 21 points a contest. His efficiency also took a dip, as he averaged only 43 percent shooting.
Harden couldn’t do what he did best during his MVP years. With the Rockets, he got to the line 10.6 times and launched 9.0 triples a game. In Philly, those numbers dropped to 6.9 trips to the stripe and only 7.1 attempts from beyond the arc.
He was also a defensive liability, forcing Embiid to cover up for his mistakes. Last season, when Harden was off the floor, the Sixers gave up only 109.9 points per 100 possessions, a number that would have led the league. With Harden on the floor, they gave up 116.2 points per 100 possessions, a number that would have ranked 22nd in the league.
The truth is Harden was only an MVP by reputation when he was acquired by the Sixers. To make matters worse, his presence was hindering the development of Tyrese Maxey.
When Maxey was drafted by the team back in 2020, he was intended to be brought up slowly, playing behind Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the rest of Philly’s established vets. But Maxey’s talent was too hard to ignore.
He quickly rose the ranks from a promising rookie to the starting shooting guard of the team in a matter of a season. It got to the point where Maxey wasn’t just cementing his place on the team, he was actually supplanting Harden as Philly’s second-best player.
It’s clear that Harden was a better playmaker than Maxey but in terms of scoring, the two were at par with Maxey averaging 20.3 points on 2.7 3s made per game compared to Harden’s 21.0 and 2.8. Maxey was the more efficient scorer, hitting his shots at a 48.1 clip versus Harden’s 44.1.
Maxey was even better when Harden was out. The young guard assumed the lead playmaker role and gave Philly a different, more dynamic look. In the 13 games he played without Harden last season, he averaged 24.8 points and 5.4 assists while hitting 3.2 3-pointers a game at a 43.3 percent clip.
Harden’s antics might have forced Philly’s hand to deal him away, but Maxey’s development definitely hastened the decision. The move to ship away Harden and make Maxey their full-time lead guard is paying dividends so far for the Sixers.
Maxey is not only putting up All-Star numbers, he’s putting up All-NBA numbers this season. He’s averaging a 28-5-7 line on 50 percent shooting and 3.4 made 3s per game. He’s one of the tidiest players in the league, ranking 7th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Maxey is also trying harder on defense, giving up an average of only 111.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 116.8 last season.
His impact on the Sixers is also evident. Maxey just fits so much better with Embiid. Last season, Harden and Embiid played 1,483 minutes together and averaged a 9.0 net rating. In the 236 minutes played by Embiid and Maxey this season, they’re averaging a 12.4 net rating. The two have formed a potent inside-out combo that has played so well off each other. The Sixers are currently the best team in the league with a 7-1 record. That’s because of the stellar play of Embiid and Maxey.
It’s no surprise that Embiid is once again putting up MVP numbers. What’s surprising is that Maxey is not far behind. He has placed himself into the MVP conversation as well with his ridiculous start to the season, which includes a gutsy 25-9-5 showing against the vaunted Boston Celtics and a 50-piece against the Indiana Pacers.
Looking back at the Harden deal, at first glance, it seemed as if the Sixers lost the trade. They shipped away an “MVP” and barely got anything in return. Looking at it now, the Sixers weren’t just trading Harden and all of the baggage he brought with him, they were also making space for Maxey to grow.
It took a few years and one major trade, but the Sixers eventually got the MVP-caliber player they needed to pair with Embiid.