James Harden’s Former Coach J.B. Bickerstaff Gives Doc Rivers Advice for How to Unleash the Old James Harden

James Harden was one of the NBA’s most feared scorers just a couple of seasons ago. Now, he’s one of the league’s most inconsistent.

Harden is no longer the player he once was on the Houston Rockets. He’s not dropping over 30 per game any more, and he’s simply having trouble making shots. But with Joel Embiid out (hopefully for just one more game), the Philadelphia 76ers need to somehow find a way to bring back vintage Harden.

The Beard’s old coach has an idea on how to do that.

Former Houston Rockets and current Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff recently appeared on ESPN, and he gave his advice for how Doc Rivers can unleash the MVP-version of Harden.

J.B. Bickerstaff gives advice for how to bring back the old James Harden

Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden, who needs to get back to his old self.
James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers against the Toronto Raptors during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round on April 25, 2022. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

James Harden hasn’t been his normal self at all this season. He averaged over 34.0 points just two years ago but recorded 22.0 per game this season with the Brooklyn Nets and 76ers. It was his lowest scoring average since his Oklahoma City Thunder days. He also shot his worst field-goal percentage (41.0%) since his rookie year and made a career-low 33.0% of his long-range attempts.

Harden is averaging just 18.6 points on 40.2% shooting in the playoffs, and he had an awful game against the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Joel Embiid out due to an orbital fracture and concussion, the 2017-18 MVP had 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and he coughed up five turnovers. Harden also attempted just four shots in the second half and scored only four points, leading to Philly’s 106-92 loss.

J.B. Bickerstaff coached Harden on the Houston Rockets from 2012-13 through 2015-16. He was also the interim head coach for 71 games in 2015-16, in which the team went 37-34. The Beard’s scoring numbers took a decent jump during the season Bickerstaff was in charge. He averaged 27.4 points the season before but scored 29.0 in 2015-16. In fact, he recorded 27.3 per game with Kevin McHale as head coach that year but 29.2 with Bickerstaff.

So, what would the current Cavs coach do if he were in Doc Rivers’ position?

“You have to quickly make him as comfortable as you possibly can,” Bickerstaff said on the May 3 episode of First Take. “By doing that, you have to go back to when he was most successful. You go back; you watch the film of when he was in Houston. And you gotta figure out how you can put him in those positions, and I’m sure Doc is. That team was full of shooters, so it gave him plenty of space. And then they played quickly and early in the shot clock. So you gotta see how quickly you can get back to that and make him comfortable.”

OK, but how can the 76ers do that?

The 76ers need to use a smaller lineup

Philadelphia needs to play small for James Harden to have more success (at least while Joel Embiid is out). That means they shouldn’t start DeAndre Jordan, who has become more of a liability than a force in the paint.

“If you put Tobias Harris at the five at the top of the floor, put James in that opposite corner,” Bickerstaff said. “Now, they’ve gotta guard both guys. James comes off quickly to his left hand; they’ve gotta make a decision on whether or not they want to switch that. Now, you got Tobias Harris popping; you can throw it back; now he can attack closeouts. And he’s got the ability to roll. You can put the ball in him in the pocket, and then he can make the next play from there also.”

So, who would play the four if Tobias Harris were to replace Jordan at the five? The 76ers could use Georges Niang, who shot 40.3% from three-point range this season. That would give Harden four capable shooters in Harris, Niang, Tyrese Maxey, and Danny Green. He would then have more space to drive and either put up a shot or kick it out to one of them for the three.

Will this solve all of Philly’s problems while Embiid is out? No, but perhaps it’s worth a shot so the team can try to steal a game with its MVP candidate off the floor.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference

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