James Harden is a Sixer.
And according to the former MVP, he wanted to be one all along.
“Originally, when I was going through everything I was going through in Houston, Philly was my first choice,” Harden said Tuesday. “It just didn’t happen.”
Speaking to reporters for the first time since arriving in Philadelphia, Harden spoke about his desire to be a Sixer, why he wanted to be here, his fit next to Joel Embiid, and so much more.
The Sixers are Harden’s third team in 14 months. Admittedly, it’s not the path he would’ve chosen, but he’s happy to be here now.
But why did The Beard push so hard to get to Philly?
Playing with the MVP favorite and the most dominant post player in the NBA in Embiid was clearly a factor.
“I just knew for a very long time this was a perfect fit,” Harden said. “Obviously you have the best big man in the league in Joel, and then obviously the coaching. Just from top to bottom, it made sense. I’m just happy and blessed that I’m here. As Doc [Rivers] and everybody wants … it’s (about) being the least team standing. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
As was reported by Liberty Ballers over the weekend, a big part of Harden’s desire to be a Sixer was the opportunity to work with head coach Doc Rivers.
“One of the best coaches to ever coach the game of basketball,” Harden said. “Why wouldn’t I want to be led by that? I’ve been doing it for a very long time, but he’s been doing it way longer than me and he’s experienced way more than me. And as the player that I am, I still need to learn. I still need to be helped and taught, and be put in a position to be successful. So, why not?”
The passion and intensity of the fan base isn’t lost on the 10-time All-Star.
“These fans are probably the best fans in the NBA,” Harden said. “A lot of teams say that, a lot of organizations say that, a lot of fan bases say that. But ride or die, probably the best fans in the NBA. I’m just happy they’re on my side and I’m not getting booed as the opposing team. (Laughs) But I’m excited, man — just the love, the atmosphere. Going to that arena, it’s going to be something special.”
What happened in Brooklyn?
When Harden was initially traded from the Rockets to the Nets, it seemed like an ideal marriage. Harden said all the right things and when the trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving played together they were extremely successful.
Harden himself garnered MVP consideration with the way he stepped in as Brooklyn’s true point guard last season. His hamstring issues were a big part of the reason the Nets came up short of the Eastern Conference Finals. The trio was simply never healthy enough to go on a deep run.
Fast forward to this season with Durant suffering an MCL sprain and Irving’s uncertain playing status because of his refusal to get vaccinated, and it’s easy to see why Harden grew frustrated.
But if he wanted to be in Philly all along, why didn’t that happen last season?
“I wish it worked like that but organizationally, you’ve got to do what’s best for their team, present and future,” Harden said. “So it didn’t work like that and I had to go to Brooklyn. Obviously we all know that could’ve been something special, but for whatever reason it was that. And here I am today.”
It’s been reported that there was friction between Harden and Irving, especially pertaining to the latter’s vaccination status. Harden on Tuesday downplayed that, but didn’t dismiss it.
“Very minimal, honestly,” he said when asked of how it impacted his desire for a trade. “Obviously me and Ky are really good friends. Whatever he’s going through or is still going through, that’s his personal preference. But it definitely did impact the team, because originally, me, Kyrie and KD on the court and winning covers up a lot of that stuff. It was unfortunate that we played 16 games (together) out of whatever it was. It is what it is, but here in Philly is an opportunity that I’m looking forward to.”
On paper the fit is perfect — the best big man in the game and one of the greatest perimeter playmakers of all time. But there is more nuance to it, and we’ll undoubtedly all exhaust our time and energy debating how the team’s two superstars should be deployed and how they should adjust to each other.
Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed zero concern about his fit with Embiid.
“We’re both at a high level to where we’ll figure it out,” Harden said. “Joel does everything on the floor. (Laughs) We’ve got guys on our team that are very smart. We communicate, and we have a coach that’s going to put us in positions to be successful. Listen, they have something great already going on. I’m just here to contribute, and I know that I can do that very well. On the court, when you have high-level, skilled guys that know the game and all they want to do is win, we’ll figure it out.”
That was Harden’s overall sentiment on the day: I’m just here to help.
He had a similar answer when asked how he’d fit next to Tyrese Maxey, a young guard that’s blossoming into a potential All-Star-caliber player.
“He’s had an opportunity because of the circumstances,” Harden said. “But his confidence is just going out the roof. He’s always in attack, and then obviously his three-point shooting is extremely improved. His overall, entire game has just improved, and I think his aggressive mentality — to get to the basket, to knock down the shot when he’s open — it explains it all. Obviously he’s surrounded by really good players and the MVP this year to make his job a lot easier. And that’s where I’m coming in — to talk to him, to help him in as many ways as I can. But he’s been doing an unbelievable job and he’s only going to continue to get better.”
While there have been numerous narratives about Harden — some fair, some not — it seems to be forgotten how excellent he was when he first arrived in Brooklyn. He assumed the role of point guard and truly did make everyone better.
I wouldn’t bet against him doing the same for Embiid, Maxey and the rest of the Sixers.
What’s happening now, what he expects and the future
The Sixers announced on Monday that Harden will sit through the All-Star break to rest his sore left hamstring.
While the Sixers don’t have much time to figure it all out, there’s nothing to figure out without a healthy Harden.
“Hamstring feels really good,” Harden said. “Just doing a lot of strengthening work right now. It definitely was a collaborative decision on making sure that after the break, we were full go. Uphill is the only way we can go. To my conditioning, it’s great. I’ve been doing a lot of running, a lot of sprints, a lot of treadmill work, strength and conditioning. But it’s nothing like basketball conditioning, playing 5-on-5 and pick-and-rolls and getting hit and things like that. So that’s something I’ve got to incorporate. But overall, my body feels great.”
It was originally reported that Harden had opted into his player option for next season. That report was later refuted. Harden addressed his option status and his playing future in Philadelphia.
“Yes,” Harden said when asked if he’d be picking up his player option. “Everything happened so fast, I just wanted to get here and take my time, and most importantly focus on the end game, and that’s winning a championship.”
Will he have enough time to get acclimated and make that goal happen?
“Hell yeah,” Harden said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. Obviously it doesn’t happen overnight, but just being here around guys, they have the right mindset. … But after the break, man, it’s go time. As much as I can incorporate and figure things out fast — and it probably won’t be long — the better things will be. It shouldn’t take long at all. I pretty much can fit in everywhere.”
But to hear Harden to tell it, this might actually be the perfect fit.