Tobias Harris has now played parts of six seasons in Philadelphia. He’s seen ... a lot.
While in the midst of a strong seven-game stretch to start the season, Harris noticed something at practice earlier this week. After the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden and P.J. Tucker to the Clippers, this current team is deep.
Like, really deep.
“The other day in practice, we had like three teams out there running through the plays,” Harris said. “And we were on the sideline, me, Joel [Embiid], and Tyrese [Maxey] were saying like we legit have 15 guys who can be in a rotation, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that and guys just being professional and ready.”
It’s not just the depth though — it’s the kind of depth they have. Winning players that make winning plays. Bouncy athletes that fly up and down the floor. Solid vets and young guys oozing potential. And a head coach that seems to press a lot of correct buttons.
With their win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, they sent a clear (albeit very early) message to the rest of the Eastern Conference: We’re still here.
Sure, James Harden is gone, so the Sixers only have a superstar and a wunderkind. But even before Harden’s arrival, this team was a top-three seed in the conference nearly every season. They’ve routinely stalled out in the second round, but there are franchises that would kill to even get a taste of that.
The Sixers, with a new-look offense, defense and roster, still look like a team that will challenge for a top spot in the East.
“I think that we’ve got an interesting team,” Nick Nurse said postgame. “We’ve got an emerging young star in Tyrese. We’ve got an unbelievable — unbelievable — player in Joel. And we’ve got a lot of athletes who are pretty talented around them that give us some depth. ... I just focus on the team I’ve got, and I like this group a lot. They play hard, they’re playing together, and they’re fun to be around right now.”
It’s only seven games into the season, but the Sixers have looked mighty impressive after improving to 6-1 with their victory over Boston. Their only blemish this season was a one-point road loss on opening night to the Milwaukee Bucks.
During the offseason, the Celtics and Bucks made franchise-altering moves. Boston acquired talented but oft-injured big man Kristaps Porzingis and two-time All-Star guard Jrue Holiday. The Celtics were only able to trade for Holiday after Milwaukee swung a blockbuster deal to land Damian Lillard to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Those teams — who finished first and second in the East last season — delighted their fans by seemingly making big improvements.
The Sixers ... did not. Instead, Daryl Morey spent the summer getting the vitriol of the entire Delaware Valley.
The James Harden situation was a disaster and nearly nuked the entire offseason. While it’s hard to blame Morey for how things went down with The Beard, the results that followed are very difficult to argue with.
Morey made two excellent veteran-minimum signings in Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Patrick Beverley. He held out until the Clippers met his price for Harden, securing multiple useful players in Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris, Sr. and KJ Martin, and a treasure trove of draft capital to use in a future trade. And with all of the acquired players on expiring deals, making sure the team still possesses optimal cap space next summer.
There are also the things Morey didn’t do: tamper with Harden, which might have led to heavy punishment from the league (and Harden re-signing), and entertain the idea of moving Maxey in a deal for Lillard. We’re now seeing Maxey flourish in the role of lead ball-handler.
When Embiid was asked on media day about Boston and Milwaukee “surpassing” the Sixers, the big man scoffed at the question: “Who said they surpassed us?”
Embiid was asked postgame Wednesday if he felt the like the Sixers were “under the radar.”
“I’m not sure,” Embiid said. “That’s for you guys to figure out.”
It might take us awhile to figure that out.
The Sixers are humming through seven games. They’re playing a completely different brand of basketball than they ever have in the Embiid era. On offense, the ball and players are moving. On defense, guys are helping and scrambling like madmen.
And thus far, everyone is buying what Nurse is selling.
“No one has an ego on this team,” Embiid said. “We’ve got new guys. We took them in, we got them up to speed. The fact that guys want to play with each other and they like being around each other, I think it helps a lot, too. Guys are unselfish; the ball is moving. No matter if the shots are going in or not, guys are happy and just worrying about the right things, which is to win.”
Could that be a subtweet to a former bearded teammate that’s a -33 through his first two games with his new team? Perhaps. But it speaks more to a new energy and focus that Embiid seems to be playing with under Nurse and with this new group of teammates.
It’s only seven games. It’s a fair caveat. Folks in the media can get a little crazy with games like this so early in the season.
Is this a barometer for your team?
A litmus test?
A measuring stick?
There are 82 of these bad boys. There’s an urge to make things spicy from the outside.
Fans seem to be diving back in, though. They’re relieved by the departures of Doc Rivers and Harden. They’re reenergized by the arrival of Nurse and the ascension of Maxey.
But for the Sixers, in November, it’s another game.
“I don’t think it’s a certain message it sends to us,” Beverley said. “We know exactly who we are. We compete every day. We’re deep as fuck. We’re really deep. We know what we have. I guess everyone else is kinda finding out right now, but it’s up to us to continue to work hard, stay humble, and keep our heads down and continue to follow the lead of Nick Nurse.”
It’s a nice win for the Sixers, but there’s a lot of season left. Boston and Milwaukee are working in plenty of new pieces themselves. Who knows what things will look like come April.
Maybe by then the Sixers won’t be playing litmus test games — they’ll be the litmus test.