Report: James Harden Hoping to Return During Sixers’ Three-Game Road Trip

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The Philadelphia 76ers, after battling through a slew of injuries, seem to be finally getting healthier. Star center Joel Embiid returned to the lineup in their previous game, and now James Harden is nearing his return. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Harden is “targeting his return” on the Sixers’ upcoming three-game road trip. He also reports the return is likely to come on Monday against the Houston Rockets.

Harden making his return on Monday against Houston would put him right around the reported one-month timetable he was expected to miss with the right foot tendon strain. Being out for a full month from when the injury occurred (Nov. 2) would have put him in line to miss 14 games. If he returns against Houston, he would have missed exactly 14 games. The return in Houston would also be a homecoming for Harden, who spent eight-plus years playing on the Houston Rockets.

The Sixers are about to enter a prime portion of their schedule, at least in terms of travel and rest, to ease Harden back into the lineup. After the game against Houston, the team has three off days before they begin a seven-game home stand. During that stretch, they have no back-to-backs and have two games with multiple days off in between.

Harden, before the injury, was averaging 22 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists per game. His injury and subsequent absence from the lineup was obviously not ideal. However, the Sixers managed to blossom using players stepping up and contributing throughout the roster. The team has gone 8-4 in the 12 games Harden has missed, leaving them at 12-9 on the season. It will be interesting to see how re-incorporating Harden is going to affect the team moving forward.

With both Harden and Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) out of the lineup, Shake Milton stepped up in a big way. Over the last seven games, Milton is averaging 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game. Until Maxey gets back, Milton can slide down to the sixth man role. De’Anthony Melton would remain in the starting lineup due to his defensive abilities. Milton has proven he is capable of leading the offense due to his ability to create for both himself and others. After Maxey returns to the lineup, it will be more difficult to find a consistent role for Milton. Ideally, he should be on the floor for upwards of 25 minutes per game. However, finding those minutes for him will be nearly impossible once the Sixers are fully healthy.

The other big question looming over Harden’s return is how it will affect the Sixers’ defense. The Sixers defense struggled to open up the season, giving up more than 110 points in five of their first nine games. However, the team has really gelled together defensively since Harden’s injury. Over their last 12 games, they have given up just 102.9 points per game. That number, over a full season, would be best in the league by a long shot.

The Sixers’ defense has thrived on effort and communication in recent weeks. Adding Harden back to the lineup, while definitely jumpstarting the offense, could pose some issues defensively. Harden has never been a consistent, high-energy defender. He has shown some flashes, recording multiple steals in four of his nine games this season. However, there is a big difference between showing flashes and doing it consistently every night. If he can continue to make improvements on that end of the floor, the Sixers’ defense should be able to remain among the best in the league.

Harden’s return to the lineup, despite the questions raised above, is definitely going to be a major positive for the Sixers. He already put together a few excellent performances before the injury as he looked a lot closer to the player he was before multiple hamstring injuries slowed him down. The Sixers’ title hopes ultimately rest on what type of performance they receive from Harden. Early on, the results were leaning very much towards the positive side of things. The goal for the rest of the season should be to keep Harden healthy for when things ultimately matter in the playoffs.