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Three ways Harden and Embiid can make their new partnership work

Profile Picture: Rory Breasail

Rory Breasail

March 3rd, 2022

After the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers, there was skepticism in some corners of the media about the fit on offense between "The Beard" and Joel Embiid. Through three games the pair have looked dominant on that end, but it remains to be seen just how high they can push Philadelphia's ceiling.

Obviously, the sheer talent of Embiid and Harden sharing the court will often be enough to overwhelm many opponents. Both are used to working as the release valve when nobody else has anything going, facing defenses geared entirely against their individual talents.

Harden and Embiid are both outstanding isolation scorers who generate boatloads of free throws, and both routinely frustrate opponents into making costly errors over the course of a game. But they can also be so much more than just the sum of their parts.

Let's examine three ways that Harden and Embiid can make the most of their new partnership.

3. THE SIDE PICK AND ROLL: PICK YOUR POISON

Along with isolation attacks beginning above the 3-point line, the pick and roll has been the bread and butter of James Harden’s post-OKC career.

That makes him a natural pairing with a rolling big, which is why some didn’t think that Embiid was a suitable partner. That's because in contrast to most bigs who finish 20-30% of their plays as the roller, Embiid only finishes 13.8%.

But that doesn’t make an Embiid-Harden pick and roll any less dangerous. Opposing defenses have to be on high alert the moment Harden receives a screen because he can burst into the lane and cause all kinds of damage or comfortably step into an open 3. For that reason many teams have hedged or blitzed Harden in the past, to force his big man partner to make a play on the short roll instead. That simply won't work anymore.

Unlike most bigs, Embiid doesn’t need to get right to the basket to be deadly. If Embiid catches the ball on the move towards the basket, defenses are forced to either foul or send help immediately because he can turn and score with ease. That means it’s free throws or a good shot for an open 76er.

2. CHICAGO ACTION: THE HANDOFF THAT CREATES CHAOS

Chicago action is a handoff where the player who receives the handoff (in this case Harden) also receives a pindown screen (a screen facing the basket) on his way to the ball. Joel Embiid holds the ball either at the top of the key or near the nail, and as Harden cuts up from the strong side corner the screen frees him up as he approaches Embiid and gets the ball.

Embiid has the option to shoot from the top of the key, handoff to Harden as he flies by, or roll. Meanwhile, if Harden receives the ball Matisse Thybulle or another non-shooter threatens from the dunker spot, ready for a dump-off pass by Harden if the defense over-commits on his drive.

It creates a situation where the defense is inevitably going to be uncertain about where the play is going to develop at multiple points in the action. That uncertainty creates the potential for momentary breakdowns, and the more talented the players running it, the less time the defense has to recover. In Harden and Embiid’s case, a momentary lapse is instant death.

Harden ran this with Nic Claxton in Brooklyn and Embiid has been running this since JJ Redick was a Sixer, as well as more recently with Tobias Harris. Embiid and Harden have already run it together on a handful of plays in their first two games, and it should remain a staple of their two-man game arsenal.

1. ELBOW BOSTON: A REMIX ON AN OLD DOC RIVERS SET

This is a go-to play of the Golden State Warriors, which in turn is a modified version of a set Doc Rivers previously ran as the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Embiid receives the ball at the elbow, Harden cuts by him from the wing and can receive the ball, or Embiid can fake the hand-off.

If Embiid retains the ball, there’s a double screen on the weak side to free up Tyrese Maxey, who cuts hard to the basket. At least that’s one outcome. As you can see in the video below, the play has innumerable permutations and options that keep the defense guessing.

It’s a read and react set, ideal for a pairing like Embiid and Harden as both have an incredible amount of feel, and the built-in options allow for improvisation. As Harden and Embiid grow more accustomed to one another, it will only become more and more potent.

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