History on the horizon: Joel Embiid, James Harden could lead league in scoring, assists

The 76ers duo could become the first teammates to lead the NBA in scoring and assists since 1981-82.

James Harden and Joel Embiid have formed a dynamic duo for the Sixers and have a shot at making NBA history.

As they try to spur the Philadelphia 76ers to their first championship in 40 years, Joel Embiid and James Harden are on pace to accomplish a feat the NBA has not seen since a year before the last Sixers title in 1983 — teammates leading the league in both scoring and assists in the same season.

The last time the NBA’s annual scoring and assist leader came from the same team was in 1981-82 when San Antonio’s George Gervin won his fourth and final scoring title with an average of 32.3 points per game while his teammate, Johnny Moore, led the NBA in assists for the first and only time at 9.7 assists per game.

Teammates leading NBA in both points in assists in same season

2022-23 Joel Embiid (33.4 ppg) James Harden (10.8 apg) Philadelphia 76ers
1981-82 George Gervin (32.3 ppg) Johnny Moore (9.7 apg) San Antonio Spurs
1973-74 Bob McAdoo (30.6 ppg) Ernie DiGregorio (8.2 apg) Buffalo Braves
1972-73* Tiny Archibald (34.0 ppg) Tiny Archibald (11.4 apg) Kansas City-Omaha Kings
1962-63^ Wilt Chamberlain (44.8 ppg) Guy Rodgers (10.4 apg) San Francisco Warriors
1951-52^ Paul Arizin (25.4 ppg) Andy Phillip (8.2 apg) Philadelphia Warriors
* technically not teammates as the same player led both categories (only time in NBA history)
^ annual leaders determined by totals rather than per game averages through 1968-69 season

Following Moore’s assist title, Hall of Famer Magic Johnson led the NBA in four of the next five seasons. But his teammates didn’t come close to leading the league in scoring. In fact, Johnson was the only Lakers player to finish in the top 10 in scoring during any of his assist title seasons (10th in 1986-87).

Following Magic’s run, Utah Jazz legend John Stockton led the NBA in assists for nine consecutive seasons (1987-88 to 1995-96), but his scoring partner, Karl Malone, never reached the top of the points leaderboard, thwarted by Michael Jordan.

Jordan won seven of his record 10 scoring titles during that stretch as Malone came in just behind, earning four consecutive runner-up finishes (1988-89 to 1991-92).

Over this stretch, Jordan only left his place atop the scoring leaderboard when he retired to play minor league baseball from 1993 to early 1995. But those scoring titles were won by David Robinson (1993-94) and Shaquille O’Neal (1994-95), not Malone.

Since Stockton’s record run, the NBA has seen three players lead the league in assists five times — Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Chris Paul — but the story remains the same: their teams never had a scoring leader coincide with their league-leading playmaker.

But that could all change this season. Embiid is seeking his second consecutive scoring title and Harden is in search of his second career assists crown (and first as a 76er)

Entering Wednesday’s game against Cleveland (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Embiid leads the NBA in scoring (33.4 ppg), while Harden leads the league in assists (10.8 apg).

In a season that has seen scoring levels rival that of the famous 1961-62 season, Embiid leads a crowded field of six scorers averaging at least 30 points per game, which is on pace to be the most ever in a single season.

Scoring Leaders

(through games played March 13)

1 Joel Embiid PHI 33.4
2 Luka Doncic DAL 33.0
3 Damian Lillard POR 32.1
4 Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 31.5
5 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander OKC 31.2
6 Jayson Tatum BOS 30.3

Embiid’s primary competitor for his second consecutive scoring title is Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who is averaging 33 ppg, but has missed the Mavericks’ last two games with a calf strain. Overall, Embiid and Doncic have traded the scoring lead multiple times this season. Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard has emerged as a challenger in recent weeks as his scoring average has climbed to 32.1 ppg. But Lillard was held to 22 points in a loss to Philadelphia on March 10, a game that saw Embiid score 39 points and hit the game-winning fadeaway jumper in the closing seconds.

Assist Leaders

(through games played March 13)

1 James Harden PHI 10.8
2 Tyrese Haliburton IND 10.4
3 Trae Young ATL 10.1
4 Nikola Jokic DEN 10.0
5 Ja Morant MEM 8.2
6 Luka Doncic DAL 8.0

The biggest challenger to Harden for the assist title for much of the season was perhaps his health. He missed 14 games from Nov. 2 to Dec. 4 with a right foot injury that kept him below the minimum games played requirement to qualify as a league leader. But, he’s catching up. Harden has played 50 games this season and is on pace to reach the 58-game threshold (70% of team games) needed to qualify. Overall, he must play in eight of Philadelphia’s final 14 games to clinch that threshold.

Three others are averaging double-digit assists, with Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton just 0.4 apg behind Harden. These two squared off last week in a dime-fest as Harden posted a game-high 20 assists to best Haliburton’s 16 assists in Philadelphia’s 147-143 win.

Harden is the only player to reach 20 assists this season — he’s done so twice — and he also leads the league with seven games with at least 15 assists in 2022-23. Haliburton and Jokic are tied for second with five such games each.

If Harden is able to hold his position and lead the league in assists, he would join former teammate Russell Westbrook as the only players in NBA history with multiple scoring and assist titles.

That ability to vacillate between elite scorer and elite playmaker depending on what his team needs is what makes Harden special. When he needed to carry the Rockets offense as an isolation scorer, he posted the seventh-highest scoring average in league history in 2018-19. When surrounded by scorers in Brooklyn and Philadelphia the past three seasons, he’s averaged double-digit assists every year.

While we’ve looked at Embiid’s pursuit of the scoring title and Harden’s pursuit of the assist title separately, the key to all of this is their synergy together on the court. Harden’s playmaking and Embiid’s scoring have meshed together seamlessly for the Sixers.

Top assist connections this season (all with 100+ assists)

(through games played March 13)

210 James Harden Joel Embiid PHI
135 Tyrese Haliburton Buddy Hield IND
133 Nikola Jokic Aaron Gordon DEN
129 Darius Garland Evan Mobley CLE
126 Jamal Murray Nikola Jokic DEN
125 Trae Young Clint Capela ATL
124 Tyrese Haliburton Myles Turner IND
120 Chris Paul Deandre Ayton PHX
119 Domantas Sabonis Kevin Huerter SAC
116 Jalen Brunson Julius Randle NYK
115 Jrue Holiday Brook Lopez MIL
109 Trae Young John Collins ATL
107 Trae Young Deandre Hunter ATL
104 Nikola Jokic Kentavious Caldwell-Pope DEN
103 Nikola Jokic Michael Porter Jr DEN
102 Marcus Smart Jaylen Brown BOS
100 Darius Garland Jarrett Allen CLE
100 Marcus Smart Jayson Tatum BOS

The Harden/Embiid lead in assists over every other duo in the league is massive — and they’ve played just 43 games together this season.

By comparison, the No. 2 duo (Haliburton and Buddy Hield) has 75 fewer assists in 11 more games played than Harden/Embiid. If we counted only Harden’s assists to Embiid this season, Harden would still rank 36th in the NBA (4.9 apg).

The heartbeat of this dynamic scoring/playmaking duo is perhaps the most unstoppable pick-and-roll combination in the league today. Over their 43 games together this season, Harden (ball handler) and Embiid (screener) have operated through the second-most screens this season and generated the most points — 1,242 total points scored over 888 possessions, good for 1.4 points per possession – of any screener-ballhandler duo in the league.

James Harden Joel Embiid 1242 PHI
Chris Paul Deandre Ayton 1119 PHX
Tyrese Haliburton Miles Turner 1042 IND
Trae Young Clint Capela 894 ATL
De’Aaron Fox Domantas Sabonis 881 SAC

Embiid leads all players in points scored as the roll man (448) in pick-and-roll possessions, building a commanding lead over second-ranked Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns. The 108-point gap between Embiid and Ayton is the equivalent of the gap between second place and eighth place (Dallas Mavericks big man Christian Wood at 232 points scored).

Nearly a third of Harden’s 210 assists to Embiid have come on pick-and-roll sets. Harden’s 67 pick-and-roll assists to Embiid leads the NBA, with Paul’s 55 pick-and-roll assists to Ayton ranked second.

Part of what makes the Harden/Embiid pick-and-roll combo so difficult to defend is that it features two elite scorers, similar to those lethal Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant pick-and-rolls during their days in Golden State. Defenses can’t go under the screen, or Harden will hurt you with the 3-point shot (he’s shooting a career-best 39.8% from deep this season). If the big drops to cut off the Harden driving lane, that leaves Embiid open on either the roll or the pop out for a mid-range jumper or 3-pointer.

The versatility of Embiid’s scoring also can be seen when we drill down into these pick-and-roll numbers. Of Harden’s 67 pick-and-roll assists to Embiid, 19 have come on baskets within five feet of the basket (the full roll). Another six have come on 3-point shots (the full pop) and another 40 have come from outside six feet but inside the 3-point line — aka the mid-range — where Embiid ranks fourth in the NBA with 141 mid-range field goals on 47.8% shooting.

The on-court chemistry between Embiid and Harden has been impressive, especially considering they have still only played 74 games together (21 last season, 10 in the 2022 playoffs and 43 so far this season).

Acquiring Harden and pairing him with Embiid was about getting the Sixers over the hump. Remember, they have four conference semifinals losses and one first-round series loss in the past five seasons. It was also about getting Philadelphia back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001. Can the league’s top scorer and top playmaker make that goal a reality?