On Monday, the Philadelphia 76ers begin a new slate of games beginning with a matchup against the Houston Rockets. After hitting the road for a three-game trip, the Sixers will close out the stretch looking to pick up their first win in three games after falling short to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Sixers are expected to get a key helping hand on Monday as the star guard James Harden is on pace to return to the floor after a 14-game absence due to a tendon strain in his foot.
When Harden went down with his injury, the Sixers reportedly anticipated their star guard would miss a month’s worth of games. Monday’s matchup marks exactly one month and two days since the night Harden suffered his injury.
If all goes according to plan, and a questionable Harden returns to the floor after getting upgraded to questionable ahead of Monday’s game, here are a handful of factors to keep an eye out for as the Sixers take on the Rockets.
1. Is There a Minutes Restriction?
Entering the 2022-2023 NBA season fully healthy, Harden pumped out two 40-plus minute shifts and averaged 37 minutes on the floor through his first nine games.
After taking a month off, one would have to assume that Harden won’t see similar playing time, but we can’t be so sure. Last season, Harden missed eight-straight games before and after the transition period when he was traded to the Sixers from the Brooklyn Nets. In his first game back, Harden played for 35 minutes in his Sixers debut.
Doc Rivers and the Sixers will more than likely play it by ear with Harden on Monday night, but the All-Star guard isn’t one to see limited minutes when he’s available.
2. Can the Defense Continue to Find Success?
When the season started, the Sixers struggled a lot defensively. As the team was still searching for its rhythm on both ends of the floor, Philly was a bottom-tier defensive unit. When Harden went out, the Sixers stopped switching frequently. In Joel Embiid’s eyes, that adjustment helped the team start to find its rhythm.
Just like that, the Sixers became a top defense in the league. With Harden back, Embiid anticipates a smooth transition as Harden looks to get settled in once again. Will the system remain the same? Or do the Sixers adjust with Harden back in the mix, potentially affecting the progress Philly has built recently?
3. Will Harden’s Mid-Range Game Pick Up Where It Left Off?
Averaging 22 points in nine games, Harden’s scoring looked much better in a few of his first matchups with the Sixers to begin the new year. One area that stood out was Harden’s success in the mid-range.
Last season, Harden drained just 33 percent of his mid-range shots in Philadelphia. This year, that number saw a boost as he knocked down nearly 50 percent of his shots in the mid-range through those first nine games.
While Harden remains a three-level threat at this point in his career, his sharpshooting in the mid-range was an impressive development for Philadelphia early on. Soon, we’ll see if he can remain consistent in that area.
4. Will PJ Tucker Get a Boost?
As a whole, the Sixers missed Harden. No player might’ve missed him more than PJ Tucker, though. While Tucker’s never been recognized as a high-volume scorer, his scoring average is way down from his time with the Miami Heat last season.
Last year, Tucker attempted six shots per game, averaging eight points in 71 matchups. With the Sixers so far, Tucker’s putting up just three shots per game, averaging three points in 23 matchups. A playmaker like Harden could help Tucker get going again on offense.
In the nine games he played with Harden, Tucker averaged six points while getting off four shots per game. From the beyond the arc, Tucker hit on 53 percent of his shots.
In the following 14 games, Tucker’s scoring average dipped to two points while taking just two shots per game. From deep, Tucker’s hit on just 28 percent of his shots without Harden.
Defensively, Tucker’s been a significant piece to Philadelphia’s recent success on that end of the floor. If Harden’s return could help Tucker get even a slight boost on offense, the Sixers would be thrilled as the veteran continues to search for a consistent role on offense.
Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for All76ers, a Sports Illustrated channel. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.