I must admit, I’m still a bit drunk on last night’s game.
Watching James Harden — perennial All-NBA candidate, surefire Hall of Famer, oftentimes MVP contender, James Harden — play for the Sixers felt so impossibly right.
A common refrain in the days and weeks since the trade which brought Harden to Philadelphia, and especially as Harden played so tremendously last night — tallying 27 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and a game-high +35 — that I read online from Sixers fans was: oh my god, we don’t deserve him.
Sixers fans, I’m here to tell you: Yes, we do. We absolutely do.
We have been through it all. We’ve put up with just about every last thing you can imagine, and even some crap you can’t. I can itemize it all here, but you know it by now. A player forgetting how to shoot, a general manager operating burner accounts to malign their best player and divulge team-sensitive information, sesame allergies, bowling accidents, foot fractures. You name it, we’ve put up with it.
Take the most recent example: a draft pick — a good draft pick! One that worked out! Made All-Star teams! — flatly refused for the entirety of his Sixers career as a lead ball-handler (a designation upon which he and his agency insisted) to even attempt to shoot the basketball or extend or improve his offensive game whatsoever. When ever-so-gently suggested that improvements in this area might help the team achieve its championship goal, he would scoff and belittle said questioner. He’d get figured out when the opponents got good in the playoffs, eventually in spectacular fashion, and eventually it got so bad that for eight consecutive months he told the organization — its players, executives, fans, et. al — to screw off and trade him no matter what.
All of this and so much more happened. Despite it all, we remained Sixers fans. In return, we got the joy of rooting for Joel Embiid, a person and player whom we will never truly deserve.
But throughout Embiid’s career, he has been tasked with shouldering a load a bit too heavy — a team not quite good enough, that didn’t fit his talents, teammates who weren’t on the same page. This isn’t to say that Embiid has been perfect as a player or as a leader, only over the past couple of seasons has his off-court tact caught up with his MVP status on it. He’s also (knock everything) found new ways to protect his body and build up a fitness base to keep himself on the court.
But regardless of whether or not that trade demand was made after the Atlanta series, it was clear to me that Embiid needed a new, real co-star if the Sixers wanted to win a title with Joel Embiid as their best player. Because the other guy was simply not serious enough about getting better.
And while many around the league (including the two players in this focal trade) have a penchant for switching addresses, possibly my favorite thing about Embiid is his commitment to us. He is in the foxhole with us. So it was time for Daryl Morey to find a teammate befitting of the talent and dedication he’d bestowed upon the city of Philadelphia.
Early this month, the basketball gods smiled down on us for all our years of putting up with all the crap that we have and rewarded us with the right guy wanting out and wanting Philadelphia at just the right time.
All the usual caveats apply, I know. I don’t want to sound like the guy talking about how his new goldfish is going to live forever. But the seriousness with which Harden, Embiid and Doc Rivers seem to be going about this partnership is incredibly exciting, especially after watching the way the team gelled in its first night together against a solid Timberwolves team on the road last night.
“Yeah, for sure. That’s what I expected [from Harden],” Embiid said to reporters in Minnesota. “Just like I told you this morning when you asked the question about the fit, I just said, two smart basketball players and we all want to win. And we’ve got great people around us — the coaching staff, our teammates. That’s what I expected. Going back to what he said, I’ve really never been wide open like this in my life. Seriously. The passes, I wasn’t even expecting it and it was just coming. We’ve just got to keep doing the same thing and get better every single day.”
Harden singlehandedly changed the complexion of the offense. For so much of the season it seemed that the Sixers’ offense was stuck in mud, so few transition opportunities, so few easy buckets. Rivers noted the increase in these opportunities against Minnesota.
“I thought the biggest difference was [in transition] early on,” Rivers said. “It’s funny, guys aren’t used to running and getting the ball. And he threw a bunch today. Matisse [Thybulle] got a couple. And the one thing we keep telling Tyrese [Maxey] is, ‘We can get you out in the open court.’ If you just run, he’ll get you the ball. Tobias [Harris] got a couple. That will be the biggest change in us, just because of James’ ability to see the floor.”
Watching the game, I was so impressed and heartened by the way Harden seemed content to defer to Embiid and the rest of his new teammates, especially at the beginning of the game. He talked about those first few minutes.
“I know how good Jo’s playing right now, so if anything I want to make sure he continues that, keeps going,” Harden said. “I know once he gets going, that’s going to make the game easier for everybody else. And then me personally, just letting the game come to me. I’m very good at that. I can be a playmaker, I can be a scorer. Just take the shots when I need to.”
And about in reference to their budding partnership:
“We’re just trying to figure each other out, get to know each other. This is a relationship. I’m here to help, man. That’s all I keep saying. I’m here to help and make life easier for everyone in this organization.”
It was a hell of a night. We’re on to the next one.
He’s a legitimate star player who wanted to be in Philadelphia and made sure that he got here. He and Embiid are on the same page, and their games complement one another. They have a legitimate chance to win a title.
Joel deserves a partner like James Harden, and we deserve to root for the two of them in Philly.
All quotes courtesy of the NBA Content Network.