Diving Into Sixers’ Poor Offensive Performances With Harden Out of Lineup

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers were a team many thought would be a juggernaut that would easily cut through the regular season. However, the early results this season have put that notion to rest.

The Sixers are off to a 5-7 start to the season. The offense has stagnated often, with a lack of off-ball movement being at the forefront of their issues. In the nine games before James Harden’s foot injury, the Sixers averaged 110.4 points per game, which would rank 20th in the NBA this season. They play with no pace, averaging 81.6 field goal attempts per game (that would rank dead last in the league). The offense at full strength has been inconsistent at best so far this season.

With Harden out of the lineup, things have only gotten worse. The team is 1-2 and is averaging 99.7 points per game on 38.3% shooting from the field. Their points per game over the last three games would be last in the league by a wide margin. They are also turning the ball over 15.7 times per game, up from the 11.9 per game they were averaging with Harden in the lineup. Adjusting to life without Harden has been a rough go for the Sixers.

Here are two specific areas of concern for the Sixers’ offense for the next few weeks until Harden returns from injury.

Tyrese Maxey’s recent struggles

Maxey has previously shown the ability to carry the Sixers offense, especially on nights when the team is without one of its top two stars. His best game this season, a 44-point performance in a win over the Toronto Raptors back on Oct. 28, came with Joel Embiid out of the lineup.

However, Maxey’s performance in the three games without Harden has been brutal. Over the last three games, he is averaging 19 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists per game. Those are fine numbers on paper, but his shooting efficiency has taken a nosedive. During that stretch, he is shooting 29.7% from the field (21.3 attempts per game) and 26.1% from three-point range (7.7 attempts per game).

The 22-year-old has done a great job handling whatever tasks have been given to him thus far in his young career. His poor shooting, while coming at an extremely inopportune time, is just a temporary thing that he will likely break out of soon. However, until then the offense is in a tough spot. With Harden out of the lineup, Maxey becomes their top shot creator. The offense, with him struggling mightily right now, is going to struggle to put points up on the board.

The more worrying aspect of Maxey’s recent struggles is his poor decision making. There have been multiple possessions where Maxey looks lost and unsure of what his role is. He at times locks in on a certain read at the expense of aggressively attacking and pushing the pace. He has had some success playing out of the pick-and-roll with Embiid, tallying a trio of assists to the big man in the loss to Atlanta.

Over the last three games, those moments of success with Maxey running the offense have been rare. The Sixers are going to need Maxey to regain form if they are to survive Harden’s absence from the offense.

One way the team can get Maxey going again is to make a stronger effort to push the pace and attack in transition. The Sixers currently rank 20th in the league in fast-break points, averaging 13.1 per game. With Harden out of the lineup, they are up to 15.3 fast-break points per game. Maxey is one of the quicker players in the league. The team should be looking to use him to push the pace as much as possible.

Maxey also would benefit from getting more high-quality attempts around the rim. While his outside shot has gone cold recently, the more concerning trend is that he is shooting 31.7% on shots from inside the three-point line. Overall this season, his efficiency on drives to the basket is down as well. According to NBA.com, after shooting 51.1% (409 attempts) on drives last season, that number is down to 42.4% (92 attempts) so far this season. The volume is up, going from 5.5 attempts on drives last season to 7.7 attempts this season, but the overall quality of those looks is down. The increased volume on drives to the basket is resulting in more free-throw attempts, going from 3.3 per game last season to 4.7 this season. However, Maxey needs to find a way to drive more with the intention of scoring rather than looking to draw a foul.

Filling the playmaking void

The Sixers were already amongst the bottom third of teams in the league in assists per game this season. Take out Harden, who was averaging 10 assists per game, and the team has a major playmaking void. In the last three games, Maxey is leading the team in assists, averaging six per game. Tobias Harris slightly increased his assists up to 4.3 per game. De’Anthony Melton has had some success, averaging four assists per game. The team has attempted to fill the playmaking void with a broad mixture of players. The overall results are poor, with their assists per game falling and their turnovers per game rising.

With Harden out of the lineup, the Sixers will have to rely more on Embiid to power the offense. Over the last three games, Embiid is averaging 29.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. He has done a good job scoring the ball, but the Sixers are also beginning to ask him to do more to set up the rest of the offense. The results have been poor, although there was some positive flashes. In the first play from the video below, Embiid tells Harris to cut down to the basket. He then finds Harris for the layup. Against the Hawks, he turned around in the post, read the floor and zipped a cross-court pass to an open P.J. Tucker for a three-pointer.

Against the Hawks, he looked good as a scorer, finishing with 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting to go with 13 rebounds. He finished as a plus-10 in a game the team lost by nine points. However, he was not sharp as a passer. He committed seven turnovers, and they came in a variety of ways. Two of them came from offensive fouls. Two of them came on miscommunications with Melton and Danuel House Jr.. Miscommunications happen from time to time, but what is more concerning is the turnovers that come from stagnation and carelessness.

Embiid undoubtedly needs to take better care of the basketball. The Sixers, especially with Harden out of the lineup, need to have crisp ball movement. Stagnate offense and a lack of off-ball movement have hurt the Sixers all season long. Without Harden’s creation ability to help them overcome it, the Sixers are going to struggle mightily offensively.

The last three games have made a good case for why Harden is potentially the most important player on the roster. The rest of the Sixers roster is simply not equipped with enough playmaking ability to successfully run the offense. That issue becomes exacerbated when issues like poor off-ball movement continue to occur. If the Sixers fail to make some considerable adjustments, the next few weeks without Harden are going to be incredibly rough to watch.