Earlier this season, the NBA world agreed that the Philadelphia 76ers were a much-improved team on paper. Daryl Morey made some smart moves during the offseason. Perhaps the most important was convincing former NBA MVP James Harden to take a roughly $15 million pay cut.

Harden’s decision to go for less money allowed the Sixers to add a few key elements over the summer, including De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker and Daniel House.

Early returns did not look promising; Philadelphia stuttered out of the gate and lost its first three games on the schedule. The Sixers rebounded but were unlucky when Harden injured his foot in a loss to the Washington Wizards on November 10, dropping the team to 4-5.

Without Harden in the lineup, third-year guard Tyrese Maxey began to show why many believed he would be an all-star this season. Maxey averaged just over 20 points per game in the five games without Harden. It looked like the team would be able to play at a high level despite the lack of a starting point keeper, but terrible bad luck with injuries struck again. This time it was Maxey to sideline.

The aura surrounding the Sixers was not a good one earlier in the year. The highlight of the season came when the understaffed Philly squad defeated the Brooklyn Nets in Ben Simmons’ first game against his former team on November 22. That was without Harden, Maxey or Embiid in the lineup.

The good mood lasted about a week before pessimism returned. First the Sixers were mauled by the Cleveland Cavaliers, then the Memphis Grizzlies ran out of the gym. After that, Embiid couldn’t do it on his own and needed help at the All-Star level if Philly wanted to make a splash in the standings.

Harden returned after losing to the Grizzlies. It was one of the worst teams in the league against his old team – the Houston Rockets. The feeling was that the Sixers would immediately get back on track and move up the ranks ahead of Maxey’s imminent return.

Instead, another ugly loss raised questions about the team’s ceiling, which was sitting at 12-12 at the time. Would Doc Rivers be there by Christmas? Can Embiid and Harden coexist at a level that equates to a championship contender?

All doubts have been dispelled in the last 20 games. The Sixers are 16-4 and find themselves third in the Eastern Conference after a 120-110 away win over the LA Clippers on Tuesday.

Defense has been this side’s forte throughout the schedule. But the offensive is finally catching up.

From the season opener to game #24, which took place on Dec. 5 in Houston — which also marked Harden’s return to the lineup after missing 15 games with a foot injury — the Sixers played like a very average NBA team o. Here they ranked in several categories.

109 points per game (27th)
47 percent from the field (14th)
37.9 percent of 3 (4th)
39.9 rebounds per game (29th)
14.5 turnovers per game (11th)
111.2 offensive rating (17th)
+1.7 net rating (10th)
13.8 fastbreak points per game (16th place)
47.2 points in paint per game (21st)

Compare that to the last 20 games.

119.9 points per game (3rd)
49 percent from the field (9th)
38.2 percent of 3 (6th)
41.6 rebounds per game (23rd)
13.4 turnovers per game (11th)
118.3 offensive rating (3rd)
+6.6 net rating (5th place)
15.2 fastbreak points per game (10th)
50.7 points in paint per game (14th)

The Sixers have improved in most offensive categories. The return of a fresh Harden was one of the main reasons Philly have become a deadly team on offense. Harden and Embiid were almost unbeatable in the pick and roll. Even if possession doesn’t lead to a basket, the Sixers are at least getting candid looks that weren’t easy to come by last season.

The Sixers are 11.7 points better per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor. Harden is second to Joel with a 7.7, per Cleaning the Glass. When they’re on the court together, Philly has outscored their opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions.

Her teammates also benefit from the Dynamic Duo. For example, Georges Niang gets some great looks due to the extra attention the defense pays when Harden and Embiid referee the two-man game.

Clippers guard Norman Powell is on Harden in the clip above. He is caught chasing Harden after Embiid’s screen, forcing Ivica Zubac to stay on aid while Powell tries to recover.

Terance Mann guards Niang on the wing and sees this, forcing him to commit to helping out on Embiid. This puts Niang in an excellent position for an open view of a 3-pointer.

The chemistry between Embiid and Harden continues to grow, which is a scary thought for the other teams in the league. Philly is currently fourth in the NBA on 3-point percentage. If the Sixers continue to score from the outside at about a 38 percent clip, the offense should be in great shape for the rest of the regular season.

As much criticism as he’s received, it’s only fair to give head coach Doc Rivers and his staff some credit when it’s due. Rivers has encouraged his players to keep things simple and read and respond to what the defense is giving them. Which largely depends on when Embiid and Harden are on the floor together.

One of the problems with Doc is that he’s too stubborn with his turns. While not perfect, Doc made some good choices during this phase. Getting a perfectly healthy Maxey off the bench was a risk, but it seems to be paying off. Maxey’s chemistry with Shake Milton gave the Sixers some much-needed speed in the second session.

“I want us to play with more tempo,” Doc said after beating the Clippers. “Not that we always look for the fast break, but even work the ball around the outside line.”

We still have a lot of seasons ahead of us, but the Sixers are showing that when they’re at their best, they’re among the teams considered title contenders.

You can hear from Maxey and Doc on my postgame podcast below:

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