DETROIT – What happened?
The excitement surrounding the James Harden acquisition vanished Thursday into a Detroit night.
That’s what happens when your perennial All-NBA addition struggles to make shots in an unexplainable 102-94 loss to the lowly Pistons at Little Caesars Arena. It’s what happens when your MVP candidate Joel Embiid commits seven turnovers, probably due to fatigue. It’s what happens when Pistons standout rookie Cade Cunningham slices up Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green and every other Sixer who guarded him. And it’s definitely what happens when fans wonder if things were better before acquiring Harden and Paul Millsap from the Brooklyn Nets for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks.
The Sixers (46-30) looked invincible during Harden’s first few games. He was the bona fide floor leader they coveted. There was great ball movement and solid cuts by teammates as the stellar newcomer was content with just fitting in and setting up teammates.
But the Sixers pleaded with him to be more aggressive. They wanted him to show the firepower that enabled him to become the 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champion as a Houston Rocket.
On Thursday, the stellar ball movement had all but vanished. Same for the cuts. They was replaced by long stretches of teammates watching Harden do his trademark isolation ball moves: dribbling into step-back three-pointers and searching for fouls while driving the lane and plowing into defenders.
The problem is that Harden has had more subpar shooting nights than solid ones as a Sixer. Thursday night was the latest example of losing a step and lacking some of the explosiveness he displayed as a Rocket.
Harden finished with 18 points, 9 rebounds, and a game-high 7 assists. However, he only made 4-of-15 shots, including going 2-for-9 on three-pointers. So a chunk of Harden’s points came from going 8-for-9 from the foul line.
He struggled mightily after intermission, missing seven of eight shots. That included going 0-for-5 on three-pointers.
Harden has been dealing with left hamstring tightness, which could be the reason for losing a step and lacking explosion.
He declined to speak to the media following Thursday’s loss. So we were unable able to ask how much the hamstring impacted his shooting.
Harden is averaging 22.7 points, 9.6 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals through 16 games with his new team. He did finish with a team-high 32 points in Tuesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. But with the game on the line, he was held to three points on 1-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter.
But to be fair, Harden hasn’t been the only Sixer who has had some recent struggles.
Due to offensive shortcomings, Thybulle has to prove each game that he deserves fourth-quarter minutes. Tyrese Maxey went from being the biggest benefactor of Harden’s presence to experiencing growing pains. Harris has shown improvement since Harden has arrived. However, the power forward has come up short several times in fourth quarters. Embiid continues to post 30-point and 10-rebound performances. But he’s making miscues in key situations due to fatigue and/or having to overcompensate to help a teammate.
And the Sixers’ reserves has been relegated to being mostly nonscoring role players. They were outscored 39-8 by the Pistons’ bench. Even that’s a bit misleading, considering reserve power forward Georges Niang scored a meaningless three-point play with 46.1 seconds remaining.
Now, the Sixer take a three-game losing streak into Saturday’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets.
The Harden acquisition was supposed to elevate the Sixers into a legitimate NBA title contender. Yet, the Eastern Conference’s fourth-place squad looks destined for a second-round postseason exit if it advances that far.
To his credit, Embiid is confident the Sixers still have what it takes to win an NBA title this season.
The Sixers have made a number of trades during his tenure. He knows that it takes time to adjust and get everyone on the same page.
During the 2018-19 season, the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler in November 2018 before acquiring Harris at the February 2019 trade deadline. That team didn’t fully figure things out until the second-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. It ended up losing to the eventual NBA champion Raptors in seven games.
But like in the previous two losses, Embiid’s current teammates were doomed by turnovers, mistakes and missed shots in the fourth quarter versus the Pistons.
This has to be concerning for a squad expected to contend for an NBA title, right?
“I mean, yeah, but we’re still really working on the chemistry,” Embiid said. “We’re working on the spacing, where everybody should be. And it’s a work in progress. We don’t have a lot of time.
“But that’s why we have shootarounds and practices every day to try to get on the same page. Hopefully by the time the playoffs come around, we know what to do.”
The Sixers have six regular-season games followed by a week of practice before the playoffs begin on April 16 and 17 to figure things out.