James Harden arrived at Sixers training camp Wednesday, but perhaps not with great intentions. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden wanted to make the Sixers “so uncomfortable, ultimately, they don’t think they’ll get the best out of him and make a trade.”
While the ongoing Harden drama threatens to submarine the Sixers’ vibes before the 2023-24 NBA season even begins, team president Daryl Morey is urging everyone to remain calm for the time being.
“Look, I mean, things need to play out,” Morey said Monday at media day. “We feel strongly we have a winning team. We have a team that can win and make a lot of noise in the playoffs. I understand we need to prove that, but teams emerge. You go into last season and say a Miami and Denver were not even in the top three of teams that people thought could make the Finals.
“Look, we have a lot of questions to answer. Obviously, James is the big one. Coach talked about battles at different positions. But we feel we have the pieces.”
The Sixers are hoping that Harden eventually has a come-to-Jesus moment and realizes his best option for now is to suit up for them and play well. That’s his best (only?) hope of attracting additional trade suitors or convincing the Los Angeles Clippers to give up more than they’re currently willing to offer.
In the meantime, they appear prepared for whatever Harden throws at them.
“We’ve kinda got Plan A, Plan B,” new head coach Nick Nurse said Monday. “We’ve gotta get the team ready regardless. We’re expecting him to show up. If he shows up, we go. If he doesn’t, we go.”
Harden seemingly didn’t make a stink during his first day of practice Wednesday, but there’s no telling how long that will last. Luckily, there’s reason to believe the Sixers can stay afloat even without him for the time being.
The change from Doc Rivers to Nurse at head coach could be a sneaky huge upgrade. His systems and willingness to experiment will be a breath of fresh air for a Sixers team that often grew stagnant under Rivers, particularly in the playoffs.
On Wednesday, Danuel House Jr. told reporters that Nurse’s scheme is “a lot more selfless basketball. It’s not so much of two guys having the ball. Doc is two guys ball-dominant, Nick Nurse is everybody play together, everybody work for each other.”
The Sixers will have to figure out their bench rotation after losing Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton in free agency, but the additions of Kelly Oubre Jr., Patrick Beverley, Danny Green and Mo Bamba give them plenty of options from which to choose. If Harden buries the hatchet and willingly returns at some point, the Sixers might be no worse than they were last season and perhaps even better.
At the moment, it’s hard to see how either path—Harden returning or a Harden trade—would get them on the same level as the new-look Milwaukee Bucks with Damian Lillard and Boston Celtics with Jrue Holiday. Their 2024 cap-space plan looms as a potential panacea as long as Joel Embiid remains on board with it, and this season will provide them some critical information in that regard.
No matter what happens with Harden, the Sixers need to see how Tyrese Maxey handles more of an on-ball role this season. Nurse plans on doing exactly that, no matter how turbulent it might become at times.
“He’s gonna need a lot of reps,” he told PHLY Sports’ Kyle Neubeck and Derek Bodner. “I think there’s gonna be some growing pains, some ups and downs with him, but I’m totally willing to let him play through all that stuff. He needs to.”
How Maxey fares in that role will determine the type of long-term backcourt partner he’ll need. If he makes major strides as a passer and can run Nurse’s offense, the Sixers could target more of a three-and-D combo guard alongside him. If he struggles as the lead ball-handler, the Sixers will need to target a bigger playmaker to pair him with.
Could De’Anthony Melton be that answer? He’s heading into the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024. The Sixers need to play the two together more frequently—perhaps as the starting backcourt if Harden isn’t playing at the beginning of the season—to see how they envision their long-term partnership developing.
Embiid’s future in Philly also might hang in the balance of the next nine months or so. If the Sixers bungle the Harden situation and fail to bring in an impact player in free agency next summer, Embiid might begin to question whether his title window has already closed with them. Those are the stakes that the front office is working under.
Because of the uncertainty with Harden, the Sixers are tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the seventh-best title odds heading into the season. Morey understands why, but he’s urging Sixers fans to be patient as he navigates the situation.
“Look, I understand there’s skepticism,” he said Monday. “I understand there’s a lot of things to figure out. But like I said before, every year is like a, ‘Hey, you guys look good, but let’s prove it in the playoffs.’ Like, give us time for me to work in the front office and get the players here that will help us win, and give Coach Nurse time to figure out how to put together a championship rotation and squad. I think he’s shown that he can do that, and I think we’ve shown that we can have a team that’s right there.”
The next nine months will likely determine the Sixers’ trajectory over the next five years. Given those stakes, Morey is undoubtedly working through all of the possible scenarios to see how they’ll affect the team’s title odds. From there, he’ll have to weigh whether to take the best offer or send Harden to a preferred destination, assuming if the two don’t overlap.
No matter how the Harden saga plays out, seeing Maxey in a lead role, possible level-ups from Melton and Paul Reed and the new-look bench with Oubre, Beverley and Bamba are all reasons to tune into the Sixers this year. They have some franchise-defining decisions to make in short order, and they need to use this season to answer them as best as possible.