• Tonight on League Pass: Harden makes debut in Minnesota (8 ET, League Pass)
Philadelphia’s official injury report dropped Thursday night with no mention of newly-acquired guard James Harden, which means he’s expected to make his 76ers debut at Minnesota on Friday.
Typically a mainstay on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Harden deserves mention here simply for the impact he might make on the Kia MVP candidacy of Sixers big man Joel Embiid, who remains locked in a tight race with Denver’s Nikola Jokic for the No. 1 spot as we open the second half of the season.
“Well, I don’t want to push for the whole thing, but the way I’ve been playing speaks for itself, especially with everything we went through, the drama this whole year, and obviously missing a big piece, and everything we added to our team, and the way our team is set up,” Embiid said during NBA All-Star weekend. “So, [I] really had to take my game to another level, whether it’s offensively, defensively, or playmaking. Obviously, I’ve got great teammates that give their all, and that’s helping a lot.”
Well, Philadelphia added one more in former MVP Harden, who joined the team at the trade deadline in a deal with Brooklyn that included sending former teammate Ben Simmons to the Nets.
The Beard vs. The Process. pic.twitter.com/wHeMsTZvrK
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 25, 2022
Keep in mind, Harden hasn’t played since Feb. 2 due to hamstring tightness. Still, Embiid expects to build chemistry quickly with Harden, who should lighten the load somewhat for the big man on offense.
“James Harden has been a league MVP and all that, [won] scoring titles, so he has experience,” Embiid said. “I think it’s going to be easy to build that chemistry. Everybody is on the same page. We all are trying to win a championship. So, that’s the goal. I think it’s all about everybody just staying healthy, getting on the floor and us getting together and really playing together.”
Philadelphia embarks on that journey Friday night at the Target Center.
The 2018 MVP averaged 22.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 10.2 assists in 44 games this season with Brooklyn. His scoring numbers represent his lowest production since 2012. Harden practiced with the team Thursday in Minneapolis, and at this point, it’s unknown whether the superstar guard will revert to MVP form once he hits the floor with Embiid, who entered Thursday night’s games as the league’s leading scorer.
As we reset the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder coming out of the All-Star break, you’ll see one change among the top 5, spurred partially by the news that Chris Paul will miss considerable time with an avulsion fracture in his right thumb, and DeMar DeRozan’s amazing recent tear of games with 35 points or more on 50% or better shooting.
DeRozan blessed us with another vintage performance in Thursday’s win over Atlanta that caught the attention of plenty of his peers like Donovan Mitchell, Paul and Harden. DeRozan jumped up five places to fourth from No. 9, while Jokic maintains his razor-thin edge over the surging Embiid.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 26.0 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg
Jokic put up 25 points to go with 12 rebounds and nine assists in Denver’s win over Sacramento on Thursday, before presenting the game ball to Michael Malone to celebrate the coach’s 300th victory. The Nuggets have won four in a row with Jokic collecting 15 or more rebounds in four of his last five games, while scoring 25 points or more in four consecutive outings. Embiid spoke about what he’s gone through this season, but he hasn’t faced the same adversity as the reigning MVP. Four Nuggets sat out of Thursday’s game, and they’ve been missing two starters virtually all season.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.6 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 4.5 apg
Embiid’s numbers in every major statistical category jumped since our last edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, and we’re just waiting to see how the addition of Harden affects the already monstrous production. Sixers coach Doc Rivers plans to keep at least two players between Embiid, Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris on the floor at all times to make sure the team has consistent firepower on the offensive end. That’s a scary proposition for opponents over the second half of the season. Embiid racked up 40 points or more in two of his last three games going into the All-Star break.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 29.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 6.0 apg
The man scored 82 points on 30 shot makes in his last two games going into the All-Star break, including a 50-piece the day after Valentine’s Day. His 21 field-goal attempts ranked as the fourth-fewest in a 50-point game in NBA history. The Bucks won’t open up the second half of their season until Saturday, when they host the Brooklyn Nets (8:30 ET, ABC). That means Antetokounmpo should be well-rested after going hard on the floor at the All-Star Game.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
Last ranking: No. 9
Season stats: 28.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 5.1 apg
Clearly, we ranked DeRozan way too low in our last Kia Race to the MVP Ladder two weeks ago. But we couldn’t ignore the fact that last week, DeRozan became the first player in league history to rack up 35 points or more shooting 50% or better for the seventh consecutive game, only to extend that streak (the greatest Bull of all time, Michael Jordan, never accomplished that feat) to eight Thursday against the Hawks. Chicago captured its sixth-straight win and hosts Memphis on Saturday before hitting the road for matchups at Miami and Atlanta.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 25.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.5 apg
The shooting numbers remain low by Curry’s standards. He hit 42.8% on field goals and 37.8% from deep in the 54 contests before the All-Star break. He then showed us all during the All-Star Game to never count out a true shooter (Curry drilled an NBA-record 16 3-pointers). In his first game back from the break, Curry connected on 5 of 11 from the field and 2 of 7 from range in a win over Portland. But the point guard ramped up his playmaking, dishing a game-high 14 assists, just two fewer than the Trail Blazers produced as a team.
The Next Five:
6. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last ranking: No. 8)
7. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last ranking: T-6)
8. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last ranking: T-6)
9. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last ranking: No. 4)
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat (Last ranking: 10)
And five more (listed alphabetically): LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves.
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