James Harden made it easy on us when reports leaked Monday morning that he would not be attending Sixers media day.
But that didn’t stop reporters in attendance from peppering members of the Sixers with questions about The Beard. Aside from the onslaught of Harden inquiries, we also heard a bunch about new head coach Nick Nurse’s style and where the players believe this team is — with or without their star point guard.
Here are five takeaways from a surprisingly mellow Sixers media day.
The Beard not in the room
After weeks of speculation, Harden was not in Camden, New Jersey, on Monday. Whether he shows up to training camp in Fort Collins, Colorado, remains a mystery — even for one of his best friends.
“That’s a good question,” P.J. Tucker said when asked if he thought Harden would attend camp. “I have no idea. I know he feels strongly about how he feels, and he’s going to handle it according to how he feels.”
The repeated message from Daryl Morey to Nick Nurse to Joel Embiid and everyone on down:
We hope James Harden plays, but we’re ready if he doesn’t.
“That’s my brother, no question,” Tucker said. “Our relationship goes way beyond basketball and the years we spent together. That aside, he has his own thing, and it is what it is ... but the rest of us have to go to work, get ready to play.”
Nurse said there’s a Plan A and Plan B with regard to Harden. It’s safe to say Plan A — where Harden shows up and is the point guard of a team that could contend in the East — is the preference.
But Embiid is what makes any plan beyond that viable. The reigning MVP took exception to a reporter insinuating that teams like the Bucks and Celtics have “surpassed” the Sixers based on their big acquisitions this past week. He believes any team he’s a part of has a chance to win.
“We love him and we want him to be with us,” Embiid said about Harden. “And I think we have a better team with him on the floor. And I think he knows it too. So hopefully that gets resolved. And if that doesn’t change, it doesn’t change the goal.”
Nobody’s role changes more depending on Harden’s status than Tyrese Maxey. The young guard is entering his fourth NBA season — each one with its own unique weirdness to it. Last season, he expressed confidence that he knew exactly what his role would be.
Now, he has to prepare for an off-ball role with Harden or a significant on-ball role without him.
“I’ve prepared for both all my life,” Maxey said. “Just this summer, I prepared in a different way because I knew how important I feel like I am to this team, this organization at this point in my career, and I’m just ready for whatever.
“[Nurse] was saying that he’s ready for Plan A and Plan B — I’m ready for Plan C, D all the way down to Z.”
Maxey, who worked with Embiid’s longtime skills coach Drew Hanlen this summer, said he worked on ball-handling, pace and making reads out of the pick-and-roll. All of those things will play a huge part in his ability to run the team full time.
It was interesting to hear Morey address the situation from a personal standpoint. He’s had a longstanding business and personal relationship with Harden. To hear Harden call him a “liar” publicly obviously bothered Morey.
Though he didn’t offer a response to those claims directly, you could tell they affected him.
“I haven’t responded to that because I think it falls flat on its face,” Morey said. “I mean, 20 years of working in the league, always followed through on everything. Every top agent knows that, everyone in the league knows that. You can’t operate in this job without that. ...
“Obviously disappointing that he chose to handle it in that way.”
Morey said he and Harden have not spoken directly since Harden made his trade request. Harden wants conversations to go through his representation.
The Process and Mad Maxey
No matter what happens with Harden and his trade demand, Embiid and Maxey will be shouldering a large load for the Sixers. Embiid will be expected to carry the team on both ends, as he’s done just about every season of his NBA career. Maxey is being asked to make a leap in Year 4.
Maxey’s game-changing speed and development into one of the best shooters in the NBA has changed his career trajectory. Now, the Sixers view the Kentucky product as a player who can reach an All-Star level.
Danny Green played with Maxey for the first two years of the now-22-year-old’s career. Green believes Nurse is a great coach for this phase of Maxey’s career as he potentially ascends into a franchise cornerstone.
“Nick’s a highly positive guy. Not saying that Doc [Rivers] wasn’t … but it’s two different types of coaching. But I think it’ll allow Tyrese to be who he is. He’ll be the happy, fun-loving guy that everyone sees him to be, and smiling on the court and playing his best basketball. There’s a lot of different factors that come into play with that. We don’t know who will be playing, who won’t be. But I fully expect Tyrese to have a healthy year — stay healthy — and have a great year at an All-Star-caliber level. He’s that type of player. Him as well as Joel will be leading us this year.”
Both Maxey and Embiid talked about how much they believe in this team — with or without Harden. A big reason they feel that way is each other.
Embiid made mention of Maxey multiple times when he was asked about why he believes the Sixers can still compete. Embiid believes Maxey “is ready to take another step.”
Maxey has confidence in Embiid, Nurse and the team Morey has assembled.
“One, we have the MVP,” Maxey said. “We’ve got a really good coach. I feel like we have the pieces around our MVP to be competitive. I feel like guys are going to step up, myself included. Tobias Harris … we have a lot of different guys on our team who I think as an organization, we really believe in.”
The Tao of Nick Nurse
Every coach has their own philosophies and means of motivation. For Nurse, the mantra “Expect to Win” could be seen throughout the Sixers practice facility.
It’s something Nurse has carried with him through stints overseas, in the G League and the NBA.
“It’s been with me as something I’ve done probably since I entered professional coaching, way back 30-some years ago. I think a lot of my training and background is put me in funky situations where guys are in, guys are out, guys are up, guys are down, guys are moving around a lot — minor-league situations. And it kind of trains you to get that mindset of, ‘OK, well, the game’s on here. There’s got to be a way we can put a game plan together, there’s got to be a way we can play hard enough, and there’s got to be a way we can figure out how to win.’ That kind of wraps it up in a nutshell.”
Seems pretty fitting right now, huh?
What’s telling about Nurse is the way veteran players talk about him. Green, back for his second stint in Philadelphia, spent a championship-winning season with Nurse in Toronto.
As much as the familiarity with the organization — and a potential opportunity for wing minutes — drew him back, the chance to play for Nurse again was a huge factor for Green.
“I played some of my best basketball with Nick in Toronto,” Green said, “so I expect you’ll see a lot of guys here having some of their career years and playing really good basketball. With those two factors — and of course the MVP, Joel Embiid — you always have a chance at winning.”
Tucker also spent time with Nurse. In 2017, Tucker was traded back to the Raptors, where Nurse had become an assistant.
“I feel like he’s very good at having different kinds of energies around different teams,” Tucker said. “He does things that benefit his team. It’s not like having a system and just plugging people in. ... He’s a player’s coach, from my short time with him and knowing him, just his personality and how much he cares about the guys — and really, really pushing guys to be great. I think he’s going to be great energy for this team, for sure.”
The prevailing notion with Nurse is that he’s not afraid to experiment and that he shapes his schemes around his personnel and opponent.
That’s a mighty refreshing change of pace from the previous head coach.
A little perspective
Sixers fans are fed up with the second-round exits. It’s understandable. The team hasn’t advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals since Allen Iverson was the MVP back in 2001. They’ve been knocked out in the Conference Semis in four of the last five seasons.
As much as that pain lingers, there are players around the league that don’t experience much success.
Enter the newest Sixer, Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre hasn’t played in the postseason since he was with the Washington Wizards in 2018.
“I don’t want to bash any other organizations out there, but I’ve been on a couple of other teams in my career and this is the most well-oiled machine that I’ve been to. This is my first time actually sitting at a press conference table with this many people. It’s a culture shock, for real. But at the end of the day, I’m ready to adapt. Honestly, man, this team wins every year. The fan base wants them to win more, but I’ve come from days where they had no hope. Zero hope within the whole city, and this is not that at all. I appreciate this fan base, man, for being so hard on the team and wanting to see greatness, because they deserve it. And this organization gives the player the platform to do so with everything. It’s night and day from what I’ve been to, man, and I’m going to just take advantage of it, soak it all in and take it day by day.”
The Process wasn’t that long ago. Before that, the Sixers spent almost a decade in NBA purgatory. Hope can be cruel — and it’s understandable if you’ve run out of hope — but it’s better than the alternative.
A nice mix
Speaking of Oubre, his introduction to Philly was refreshing overall. He seemed truly grateful to be a Sixer. He talked about taking a step back this summer to “re-energize and refocus.” At 27, Oubre is at a bit of a career crossroads on the minimum with the Sixers.
Another key offseason addition was Patrick Beverley. For lack of a better term, he might be one the most “no bullshit” players that’s comes through Philly in awhile (Tucker is in that mix as well). He’s confident in his abilities and there is just an obvious desire to win. No, PatBev hasn’t won an NBA title. but he’s a winning player. Look no further than the impact he made the last couple seasons in Minnesota and Chicago.
“I played in second-division Ukraine,” Beverley said. “I had to take the bus 21 hours. I’m still living the dream, 16 years in.”
Oubre and Beverley have sort of complicated reputations around the league, but both players seem easy to root for.
Speaking of, the Sixers don’t have many young players, but the ones they do have fall into the likable category.
Maxey, Paul Reed and Jaden Springer could all impact the Sixers to varying degrees. All three have been lauded for their work ethic and the extra work they put in. Maxey and Reed have become fan favorites in part because of their charismatic personalities. Springer hasn’t reached that level, but hey, he just turned 21. Maybe he comes out of his shell over time.
The Sixers as a whole skew old. That happens when you’re a team that’s continually trying to win a championship.
But this year’s team mix is intriguing. If Harden comes back or they can find a trade that helps adequately replace his talent, the Sixers might have something here.
If that doesn’t happen ...