It is no coincidence that the Philadelphia 76ers’ current six-game winning streak has coincided with the return of James Harden.
Harden has come back strong from a 14-game absence due to a foot injury and the Sixers are now only 3.5 games out of the top seed in the Eastern Conference with an 18-12 record. Their 5-7 start to the season is now a distant memory and they are ready to challenge for home court advantage in the East.
Philadelphia’s current run has coincided with their seven-game homestand and they can complete a sweep with a win in their next outing against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The 33-year-old Harden’s reinvigorated play since his return has allowed his numbers to recover following a shaky start and they are now similar to what they were last season. He is averaging 21.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 3.8 turnovers in 15 appearances so far.
While things have improved over the last few weeks for the Sixers, there remains much room for improvement. The on-court chemistry between Harden and last year’s NBA Most Valuable Player runner-up Joel Embiid leaves much to be desired as they still default to a “Your turn, my turn” strategy on the offensive end. The glimpses of a potent two-man game have been quite tantalizing though and the hope is that they can use these next few months to grow more comfortable with each other before the postseason rolls in.
Their individual talent might be enough to win them games in the regular season, but come playoff time, it will be a challenge for them to get past the top tier teams in the East–especially when considering that the current first and second place teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics, are defensive-minded ones.
However, what is particularly promising about this Philadelphia team is that they too have become a defensive juggernaut. After finishing 12th in defensive rating last year, the offseason additions of veteran forward P.J. Tucker and defensive specialist De’Anthony Melton have paid off immediately. The Sixers have jumped to second in the league (107.9) this season behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers (106.8).
Despite the scoring capabilities of Harden, Embiid, and Tobias Harris, this team is only 17th in offensive rating. Once these Sixers figure out their offense, they should become a two-way juggernaut and the sky will be the limit for this team. The return of starting shooting guard Tyrese Maxey in these next few weeks from a foot injury will be a major boost as well.
Philadelphia is set to face three teams over .500 in their next four games which will be a challenge for their current streak of wins. They have the talent to compete for the title for the nth consecutive season and it will be interesting to see if this can be the year that they finally pull it all together.