The 76ers are in third place, and Joel Embiid has made another very reasonable case for himself as MVP (so far) for the third year in a row.
Things are going so well in fact, that according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, James Harden, the 10-time All-Star, (go vote for him to make it 11) says he thinks this Sixers squad may just be the best shot to win a title he’s ever had in his illustrious, Hall-of-Fame worthy, 14-year career. THE best!
“We had some really good teams in Oklahoma City, then that ‘18 team in Houston. But this team is definitely the best chance I’ve had to win.”
Daryl Morey even retweeted this:
So if Harden means this, that’s amazing. If he’s just being a good leader, lending confidence to his group, that’s the right thing to do. If it’s a clue that reports of him wanting to leave for Houston have subsided, then hip hip hooray.... we don’t need to overthink this.
But we CAN! Mwahahaha! I’m just going to warn you now that I’m going to totally nerd out trying to figure out if James is actually right here. Shall we dive in?
Here are my top six candidates, from sixth to first.
6) The 2023 Sixers: current odds +1600, finish: ???
I’m coming in low, I get it. Sorry if you’re offended, mad, or crushed. I promise, it’s not a prediction about the future. It’s more an objective attempt to compare complete and incomplete entities. These Sixers would pancake 2015 Harden, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. But they also might lose in the first round so this is all tricky.
To the spirit of his point, we can guess what James is saying here. Sure he’s been to the Finals and final four, but he’s never had a more complementary and dominant costar, along with all this depth before.
Yeah, he’s played with Kevin Durant. But in 2012, the Thunder were young and raw. At just 22, James wasn’t a three-time scoring champ yet, he was a sixth man. Kev was just 23. LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh were in their primes, they were grown a— men. That was a tall order.
Then when he played with KD and Kyrie Irving in 2021, everyone was injured. In 2022, he was injured again. The 2018 Rockets team had Chris Paul but they had to deal with what many regard as the greatest or second-greatest team ever assembled with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala. There’s no single death star in the league today.
“Look, I think Joel and James are the best pair [Harden] has had in his career, and he’s had some really good ones,” was how Daryl Morey (whose had a working relationship with Harden dating back now to the beginning of the 2012-2013 season) put it when he returned to The Ricky with Spike and Mike back in February of 2022.
So why is Harden saying or thinking this? Odds are, to get to where James has climbed in his career, to become perhaps one of the 20 best NBA players ever, you have to be optimistic, possess some sort of Mamba mentality, if you will. And keep in mind, he sacrificed millions to help this team reach the pinnacle last summer. There’s got to be some cognitive dissonance or commitment and consistency principle stuff at play here too. I made a hard decision. It only makes sense that I really, really believe in that which I sacrifice for. He’s being a leader.
Oddschecker has the Sixers at +1600, an implied six percent at most, (closer to 5.4 percent if we account for juice). And with all due respect to the 2023 Sixers, Harden has been much closer than that at several stages of his career.
While there may not be any 2017 Warriors now, while he may never have played with a better fitting two-way talent like a 28-year-old Embiid, the rest of the NBA hasn’t always been so friggin’ stacked either.
A road to the Finals of the Cavaliers or Nets, followed by the Celtics, then Bucks would be brutal. So we can’t put this group higher ‘til they show us more (Mark Jackson voice) with all due respect.
But on the other hand, we know all of these next teams didn’t win the title, and your current group is the only one still alive. So maybe they could be No. 1 after all!
5) 2015 Rockets: odds in February: +2000, odds before WCF: +1000, finish: smoked in WCF 4-1 by eventual champs, GSW
I don’t have strong feelings here. I don’t think this is one of the pound-for-pound best teams James has been a part of. Their February 2015 odds were even longer than this team’s odds are today. But they made it to the Conference Finals and there had to have been some chance that maybe a Warrior or three got banged up at least, right? Both Kyrie and Kevin Love were hurt for that Finals. This one may seem like a stretch being placed higher than a 2023 Sixers team we’d probably all agree was better, but this is simply about Harden’s title odds at different moments in his own life. So the 2015 Rockets odds were easily higher in May of ‘15 heading into the WCF than this Sixers’ group is today.
But if you have a good counterargument here, I’m open to it. I’m sure Doc Rivers, Chris Paul and the rest of the ‘15 Clippers still cannot believe they lost a 3-1 lead to this team.
4) 2019 Rockets (+1500, 3rd best, at All Star Break, +475 prior to Semi’s: finish lost 4-2 to GSW in Round 2)
Because they weren’t as good as the 65-win ‘18 iteration, then lost in round two, in pretty humiliating fashion to boot, people forget just how good this team was. I think they were closer to winning a title than many realize.
Because of some nagging hamstring issues (heard that before) CP3 faced that year, they had to face the dreaded Warriors in the second round this time. And unlike the prior season, they didn’t have home court. Still, they probably could have stolen Game 1 of this series if the officials called a respectable game. Recall, the refs had apparently predetermined to let Golden State get away with a game’s worth of Zaza Pachulia fouls on both Harden and Paul’s three-point attempts.
Here are the 9 free throws the refs missed and according to Mark Jackson because of the same dirty play the warriors used to knock Kawhi Leonard out of a series 2 years ago, these should all be flagrants. Officials choking under the bright lights and failing to protect ⭐️s pic.twitter.com/D5APCamNol— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 28, 2019
But Houston somehow survived that and in a 2-2 series, Kevin Durant would suffer a severe calf strain after draining a pull-up middy, putting the Dubs up 68-65 in the third quarter of Game 5.
Houston would lead by two with 8:52 to go in the fourth. At that moment in time, with the hindsight KD wouldn’t play again that series, I estimate the Rockets had a very solid chance to win the title.
Had they stolen that Game 5 (it wasn’t inevitable that Draymond Green would hit a big three putting GSW up five with just over three to play) it’s back to Houston. They lost the next game, but who knows how differently it might have turned out if that was an elimination game for Golden State rather than for Beard and CP at Toyota.
If somehow they’d beaten that KD-less group, then they would have had to get through Portland (likely) and Toronto (unlikely). Kawhi Leonard and co. would have had home court. Not ideal, but remember, by the end of the ‘19 Finals the Raptors weren’t at 100 percent strength either. Leonard was visibly limping or wincing at times, with guys like Kyle Lowry carrying the show for pivotal stretches. And Toronto defeated a team missing both Durant, and eventually Klay Thompson. The Rockets might have represented a much healthier foe.
If we went back to the moment Durant went down, and simulated the rest of the tourney 10,000 times, Houston is probably winning a reasonable (shall we guesstimate) 23 percent. They started the series around 17 percent, so it would have to be significantly higher than that.
And while I’m at it, you know Leonard’s quadruple-doinking hail mary vs. Philadelphia doesn’t drop in the majority of these alternative 2019 sims, just saying....
3) 2021 Nets Feb. odds: +300, odds prior to semi-finals +175, overall favorites; finished: lost 4-3 in overtime of Game 7 to Milwaukee Bucks Round 2
It’s fun to rag on the Nets for millions of reasons. What people often don’t take note of is that the ‘21 Nets were a low-key juggernaut. The Durant-Harden-Irving trio only appeared in eight total regular-season games but still nearly nabbed the top seed that year. It was a dead heat down the stretch, and Steve Nash opted for some load management over a late push.
All they needed to do was stay healthy and everyone was justified.
You can argue that their injuries were predictable not the freak or super unlucky variety, I suppose.
Harden was a bit over his ideal playing weight and aggravated a troublesome hamstring he’d nursed during a pandemic compressed season just a minute into round two vs. Milwaukee. Irving would later land on Giannis’ foot and badly sprain an ankle.
They steamrolled Boston with Harden leading the charge. Then even without Harden, they absolutely crushed Milwaukee through the opening two games. If you granted the ‘21 Nets either a healthy Harden or Irving they’re beating the Bucks then Hawks, running away, and maybe the Phoenix Suns as well. Add both and it was curtains for everyone.
Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday won a title while sneaking past a Nets unit in OT of the second round while KD was the only healthy member of the Nets Big 3. That’s how big the separation was between Brooklyn and the next best group.
Those Nets could have become the first team to load manage their way through the deep rounds of the playoffs, and they probably should have tried to.
2) 2012 Thunder: odds by Feb. +450, odds before NBA Finals -175, odds after going up 1-0 over LeBron and co? Priceless
Harden says he’d take this Sixers group over that OKC group. Interesting....
Thunder GM Sam Presti was put in a tough spot when he was given the mandate to dodge the luxury tax. But his solution to his owner’s mandate was a death knell to an otherwise inevitable dynasty. Presti could have found a way to keep Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. It would have meant punting pricy front-court options he’d later splurge on. If he did they would have won multiple titles smack dab in the middle of the Warriors dynasty.
With a 1-0 Finals lead over LeBron, Wade and Bosh in Oklahoma, the exciting upstart trio, were heavy Finals favorites, just three wins away from glory. They must have felt they’d be there each year, however that series shook out. In Game 2, with 1:47 to go, a dunk by Russ cut a Miami lead to just three, 94-91. If they’d somehow gone up 2-0, they’d have been massive favorites to win that series. They of course wilted under LeBron’s incessant pressure. But they’d seen the summit. They’d smelled the Cubans. They were close. Closer than this current Sixers team is right now.
1) 2018 Rockets: Odds by Feb: +645, odds before WFC: +248, odds for a five second moment in time? Ask Morey... finish: lost Game 7 of WCF to GSW
When Daryl Morey returned to The Ricky, he estimated that after acquiring Harden a year ago, his ‘22 76ers team had roughly a 13-15 percent shot at a title (up 10 percent from before the blockbuster). So Michael Levin asked him if that was the highest odds he’s ever had:
“I peaked, I’m not even kidding, I peaked at something very close to 50 percent, 90 seconds from the end of Game 5, when we went up five [points over the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference Finals], but before Chris [Paul] hurt his hamstring.”
[There’s actually a tacit stray in this answer because even with a healthy Chris Paul and a 3-2 lead over the Dubs, they weren’t mortal locks to win that series. Which means he probably estimated like a 95 percent chance his ‘18 Rockets eviscerate LeBron’s 2018 J.R. Smith forgets-the-score-meme led Cavs - Lol].
“Last year, we actually got to 18 [percent] when we were in Game 7 at home [vs. the Atlanta Hawks] so that’s depressing....look it’s one of my best shots ever, our 2018 team,” Morey said candidly.
So Morey gives you a sense of how he looks at title odds from an apex moment in time. I’m banging the gavel here because none of these other teams except OKC were close to a 50 percent shot at a world championship. And I think this team was better than all of the others we’ve looked at in a head-to-head sense as well.
It’s crazy but the 2018 Rockets were one of the best teams of all time, could knock off plenty of past champs, but didn’t even win it all.
So I hope nothing more than for my ranking here to look awful in a few months. Maybe James is onto something and this truly is his best shot. But he’s had some pretty good chances. But there’s still time. Morey in that same interview admits the title window for this 76ers team may be smaller than some think. And that’s before they succumbed to injuries vs. the Heat last May.
So hopefully, if this truly is Harden’s best shot, the team does substantially more at the deadline than just dodge some luxury tax fees. Thanks for overthinking this with me, ‘cause really, what else could Harden have answered? ‘No, I don’t believe in this group?’