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Zach Lowe on James Harden “The criticism isn’t unfair, it’s not cherry picking.”

James Harden & Zach Lowe

Zach Lowe believes the Harden criticism actually makes sense

The Philadelphia 76ers acquired James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline in a deal that took the league by storm and immediately managed to thrust the Sixers into the upper-echelon of championship contenders this year. Harden is one of the greatest offensive players this game has ever seen, but this year, he is struggling to find the consistency that helped him win the Most Valuable Player trophy a few years ago. James is averaging 22.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 10.2 assists, great numbers overall for someone not named James Harden. However, what is most striking are the games where Harden is unable to perform in the fourth quarter and lead his team to victory, a concern that dates back to his playoff runs with the Houston Rockets.

“I did the deep dive. Harden’s 4th quarter numbers, in big games, in elimination games, in 2-2 series games, are bad. His crunchtime numbers are bad. Most of his best playoff games are when his team is up 3-0, down 3-0, up 3-1, down 3-1. I watched all of his field goal attempts in the 4th quarters of his postseason career, a lot of his crunchtime baskets are like “Oh GS is up 8, we’ll concede a layup so you don’t get a 3,” and Harden inflates his crunchtime field goal % from zero to something better than zero with essentially a conceded layup.” - Zach Lowe, The Lowe Post Podcast.

We’re not going to do the same deep dive Lowe did. Instead, we will answer the most important question of this trade, which is if Philadelphia is better with James Harden or Ben Simmons? To do this, we are going to compare what each player brings to the table in three facets of the game: Offense, Defense, and Clutch Play.

Offense: Harden’s Shooting vs. Ben’s Transition Play

Harden and Simmons are both excellent at getting their teammates involved in the offense. One might look at their assists numbers and say James is the superior playmaker, but he operates in the Pick and Roll more often and has a much higher usage rate, while Ben is a true point guard that sets the table for his teammates and moves the ball to get the offense flowing, not necessarily generating tons of assists. Both are equally valuable in the game of basketball, and both players create for their teammates in their own ways at an extremely high level.

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Everybody focuses on Harden’s shooting being astronomically better than Simmons’, which is true. However, Ben’s contributions to the Sixers in transition cannot be overlooked when assessing his offensive prowess; everyone likes to focus on shooting to create space for Joel Embiid, but getting fastbreak baskets saves Joel a trip down the court while getting the team a bucket. Harden gives you the shooting but doesn’t necessarily get the team going by pushing the pace for easy looks on the break. That being said, Tyrese Maxey will look to fill some of that void that Simmons has left behind, and in the postseason, when the games slows down, James’ skillset may prove to be beneficial.

Defense: Ben Wins by a Mile

Ben Simmons was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, while James Harden’s defense has been the subject of memes more than opposing scouting reports. That being said, James has a penchant for getting stops in the post, using his strength to body opponents up and swipe the ball for a steal. Against most teams in the Eastern Conference, Harden’s defense will be passable, but Philadelphia could be missing Ben once a playoff series against Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant comes along.

Clutch Play: Do you Need a Stop or Score?

This is where it gets interesting, especially since Simmons’ Game 7 meltdown against Atlanta is still relatively fresh in our minds. Imagine how that small sample size caused one of the longest team-related drama episodes to finally unravel with a perceived happy ending for two disgruntled superstars with shoddy resumés in big playoff games.

For Ben, it was one series that created the narrative after several fourth-quarter duds in the Atlanta series. For James, his playoff reputation comes from a much larger sample size during his time with Houston and OKC before that, which is exactly what Lowe is alluding to in his recent podcast episode. James has not shown up in big games in the playoffs, displaying questionable shot selection and a lackluster effort in close-out games, the same problem that Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid slammed Simmons for after being eliminated by the Hawks.

It’s possible that Philly’s season may come down to one play for all the marbles, and you can be sure that if Joel Embiid gets the ball to end the game, a double team is coming. If the opposite happens and you need a stop to win, Ben Simmons is your guy, not James Harden. However, if you need a perimeter player to come up in the clutch, the Sixers certainly believe Simmons will not deliver. The question is, based on Harden’s track record, can we confidently say that James will be that guy to make clutch perimeter baskets for the Sixers? Well, history says that is certainly not the case. So maybe, Philadelphia still has the same problems, just in a different form.

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