By Connor Thomas
Yesterday afternoon, the Sixers officially announced that newly acquired superstar point guard James Harden will remain out until after the NBA All-Star break.
The Sixers say James Harden is out through the All-Star break as he continues to rehabilitate his left hamstring, and that he won’t play in the All-Star Game.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) February 14, 2022
It’s unfortunate for folks who have already purchased tickets to tonight’s game at the Wells Fargo Center against the Boston Celtics, and it’s unfortunate for the Sixers’ odds in their final two games before the all-star break in which they face the aforementioned Celtics (the hottest team in basketball right now), and the Milwaukee Bucks (the defending NBA champions). Dropping two games won’t do all that much to hurt the Sixers’ standing in a packed Eastern Conference playoff picture, but is there real reason to be concerned about Harden’s delayed debut in Philly?
Let’s take a look at the recent history of deadline/major midseason acquisitions by the Sixers and see if there is a trend to identify. Over the past 5 seasons, these are the players that have been traded for at or near the trade deadline by the 76ers:
James Harden, Paul Millsap
Ignas Brazdeikis, George Hill
Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks
Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Malachi Richardson, Emir Preldzic, James Ennis III, Jonathan Simmons
2018: Jimmy Butler, Justin Patton (Both traded on Nov. 12th, not at trade deadline)
That’s a total of 15 players acquired in major/deadline deals over the past 5 years, which gives us a solid sample size to start this study. Now, the question is this: how long did it take those players on average to play their first game in a Sixers uniform after being traded? Don’t worry, I did all the math and research for you. There are some interesting anomalies, showing that each debut is certainly not created equal. The last time the Sixers traded for a player with an injury designation at the deadline was last year when the team acquired George Hill. It took Hill 25 days to first see action in a Sixers uniform. This research also helped me discover one of the funniest basketball reference game logs of ever seen, which is that of Justin Patton, who was included in the Jimmy Butler trade back in 2018. Patton spent 76 games that season listed on an NBA roster, and 73 of those he was inactive, a wild number of nights off. Because of that, he wasn’t considered in the average. With Hill included, because Harden did have an injury designation before being traded, the average number of days between trade and debut over the past 5 seasons has been 5.2. By the time James Harden takes the floor, presumably in the Sixers first game after the all-star break, it will have been 15 days, 3 times the average amount of days for those other players.
In fairness to the situation, Harden does have to wait through the all-star break, which artificially inflates his number of days before he plays meaningful basketball for the Sixers. He has already said that he will not be participating in the all-star game, which could very well mean that this estimate number of days missed would have been accurate even without the break, but just for sake of argument, let’s remove the all-star break from the equation. That would still leave 8-9 days between trade and debut, which is a significant number. Tobias Harris only took 2 days. Jimmy Butler also took 2 days. Even Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, who were memed all over Sixers twitter for taking a long time to report to the team, made their debuts just 3 days after they were officially traded for. So, it is clear from the numbers that what is going on with James Harden is not typical of a player traded for at the deadline or during the season. The question now, then, is why is this situation different?
Both options are equally concerning in my opinion. The first is that James Harden’s hamstring injury, which was the listed reason as to why he sat out his final 4 games as a Brooklyn Net prior to the blockbuster trade to Philly, is more serious than what most people believed. That immediately raises red flags; no team wants to trade for a player that turns out to be damaged goods. Over the course of his career, Harden has been remarkably durable, but he is 32 now. If he is beginning to deteriorate, it causes concern for this year, and the potential huge extension that he could sign with the Sixers in the future. The second possible reason for the delay is that the Sixers would rather rest Harden extra games during the low-stakes regular season to make sure that he is plenty healthy come playoff time. It’s a typical NBA school of thought – that the regular season doesn’t matter – but that sets an awfully bold precedent for a franchise that hasn’t made it out of the 2nd round of the playoffs in 21 years. The argument that the 1 seed didn’t matter for last year’s Sixers because they ultimately lost to the Hawks is nonsensical. They had an easier path than any other team in the East, and just because they choked then, it doesn’t make that advantage any less important. Should there be a healthy level of concern with how the Sixers and Harden are handling this situation? Right now, only a slight level is needed, but it’s a situation worth monitoring. The margin for NBA Finals champions is razor thin, and the Sixers are dancing on that edge.