Fantasy basketball: Is Joel Embiid better without James Harden? Let's look at the evidence

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers has scored 101 points in his last two games. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In statistics, we often observe that one event happens at the same time as another event. When that happens, it is called correlation.

What we're often trying to figure out, though, is whether one event caused the other event. That would be called causation.

Just because two things happen at the same time, it doesn't necessarily mean that one caused the other. But it might. And it's typically easier to find two events that correlate, then test with other analysis to see if we believe there to be causation.

Such is the case here.

First, correlation:

  • In six games playing next to James Harden this season, Joel Embiid averaged 27.2 PPG (53.2 FG%, 78.8 FT%, 30.0 3P%), 9.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.0 3PG, 0.5 SPG and 3.7 TO/G in 34.5 MPG.

  • In four games playing without Harden this season, Embiid is averaging 40.0 PPG (54.3 FG%, 86.4 FT%, 16.7 3P%), 11.0 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.8 BPG, 0.8 3PG, 0.8 SPG and 5.0 TO/G in 36.3 MPG.

So, Embiid's fantasy basketball contributions have increased in volume, dramatically in some areas, in the short period that he's played without Harden. But is Embiid producing more because he's playing without Harden? Or could this just be a small sample size correlation, a hot streak from Embiid that just happened to occur with Harden out of the lineup?

There are reasonable philosophies to argue in both directions. Harden can be a high-volume, high-usage player, so if you remove that, then you'd expect there to be more shots and opportunities for teammates to fill the gap. On the other hand, Harden is a floor general who's responsible for getting his teammates the ball in positions to score, and you might suspect that removing the best team-offense creator could hurt teammates' scoring efficiency, and perhaps volume as well.

Which is the case here? Let's play them both out.

Causation: Embiid better without the Beard: After a disappointing postseason that had many wondering if Harden's best days were far behind him, Harden entered this season speaking about being in much better shape and therefore having MVP-level aspirations. He got out the gate in a hurry, scoring 29 or more points in three of the first four games and dishing nine or more assists in the last four games he played next to Embiid. All told, in those six games, Harden averaged 23.3 PPG (16.5 FGA, 6.8 FTA), 7.8 RPG, 9.8 APG and 2.3 TO/G. Those numbers would currently have Harden 21st in the NBA in scoring (just ahead of teammate Tyrese Maxey), second in assists/game and 34th in rebounds/game. He would rank 30th in field goal attempts and 14th in free throw attempts.

According to Second Spectrum, Harden touched the ball 837 times in nine games. That means that Harden was touching the ball more per game (93.0), than Luka Doncic (92.7 in 13 games) or Nikola Jokic (91.2 in 13 games), two MVP candidates who famously have their entire offenses run through them. Embiid has averaged 69.9 touches/game in his 10 games.

So, not only was Harden taking a high volume of shots and having the entire team offense run through him, but he was also crashing the boards heavily from the backcourt. Plus, if you watched the 76ers at all this season, you saw that Harden was dribbling the air out of the ball on many possessions. While this may have been great for the 76ers as a team, Harden's real plus minus (RPM) score of 4.4 suggests he had the 11th-largest impact in the NBA thus far on the season; it could do nothing but hurt Embiid's volume.

Embiid isn't the traditional big man who requires a guard to create a good look for him. He instead likes to face-up and create his own looks off the dribble. According to Second Spectrum, Embiid runs 14.7 isolations per 100 possessions, the fifth-highest mark in the NBA, behind Luka, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Pascal Siakam and... you guessed it, teammate Harden. If Harden is dominating the ball, Embiid can't go to work as often as he'd like. The same is true of assists. If Harden is initiating the majority of shot looks then Embiid doesn't have the opportunity to generate many assists of his own. And this is even true for rebounds, where a heavy-rebounding guard means there just aren't as many caroms for Embiid to collect.

Harden was playing much better this season before he got injured and it was great for the 76ers as a team but lousy for Embiid's fantasy basketball output.

Correlation: Small sample size coincidence, just as good with Harden: Embiid is scorching hot right now but it's not sustainable. He's not going to average 40 PPG and 5.3 APG for the rest of the season, no matter who his teammates are. It just so happens that Embiid caught fire to produce a historic weekend with 101 points and 14 assists in two games against the Hawks and Jazz, and if we were to revisit his numbers in a few weeks they'll have regressed to his actual level. What is that level?

Well, last season at age 27-28, typically peak years, Embiid averaged career-highs of 30.6 PPG, 11.7 RPG and 4.2 APG. That's for the season. But do you know what Embiid's numbers were last season, starting from when Harden made his 76ers debut Feb. 25? Embiid averaged 32.6 PPG, 12.8 RPG and 3.5 APG in those 22 games. That's right, last season, Embiid's scoring and rebounding volume actually increased, by a sizeable amount, once he started playing next to Harden.

And while, yes, Harden started this season looking much better than he finished last, he really wasn't any more disruptive in terms of possessions used this season than last. Harden is taking 2.3 more field goal attempts/game this season, but he's taking 2.7 fewer free throws, generating 0.5 fewer assists and 0.5 fewer turnovers. Factor that all in, and Harden's 26.4 usage percentage this season is only marginally higher than his 24.9 USG% after he joined the 76ers last season.

And Harden's floor generalship makes up for the ever-so-slightly elevated usage. Per Second Spectrum, Harden has passed with 610 of his 837 touches this season, and his passes have generated a sparkling 1.23 points per direct pass. That's one of the best marks in the league, commiserate with the numbers generated by the top assist producers in the league in Tyrese Haliburton (1.12 points per direct pass), Chris Paul (1.31 points per direct pass) and Trae Young (1.31 points per direct pass). So, yes, Harden touched the ball a lot. But the vast majority of the time, those touches ended in a pass, and when he passed Harden was setting his teammates up with dimes. In the long run, that could only be to the good for Embiid's scoring.

Bottom line: After so few games, one can't make a slam dunk case in either direction about whether the correlation between Harden's absence and Embiid's explosion is causative. I suspect that Harden's ability to draw attention from opposing defenses and set up his teammates with good passes would ultimately help Embiid's scoring efficiency but not enough to completely overcome the lesser volume. That while Embiid should put up great numbers either way, his numbers will likely dip once Harden returns.

But there are other factors at play here as well. The ultimate purpose of this exercise was to determine whether to advise FBA managers with Embiid on their teams to hold onto the two-time MVP runner-up, or perhaps to trade him while his value is at a relative max. I'd argue that, when looking at the whole situation, it could be advisable to trade high on Embiid. Embiid has missed at least 14 games in every season in his career, and in the four seasons before last that number was closer to 20 absences per season. He has already missed four of 14 games this season.

So, it's already advisable to consider trading Embiid while he's on a high before he's forced to miss significant time. Plus, you also have to factor in that Maxey has grown into a high-usage player this season as well. With Harden and Maxey combining for almost 35 shots, more than 14 assists and more than 10 boards from the backcourt, I think Embiid's upside is capped once Harden returns.

I recommend that fantasy hoops managers absolutely enjoy Embiid's Wilt-like stretch of video game numbers. But I also recommend you talk those numbers up to your league-mates at every opportunity, to try to deal Embiid for Wilt-like Avengers value instead of holding on and having to settle for a more human-like return once the Beard is back.