The Sixers just suffered one of their hardest-to-stomach losses of the season at the hands of the Boston Celtics Saturday. They were sitting pretty up 67-52 in the third, in command, with 19 minutes and change left, in the driver’s seat to make up some precious ground on the Celtics and Bucks in the standings, the two teams everyone has reminded them all year long, are top dawgs in the East. That’s when their reserves trickled into the lineup and things fell apart. Over the next 11 minutes, they were outscored 39-14. They took a timeout suddenly trailing by 9, and got Joel Embiid back into the ballgame. That helped, but the damage had been done.
They’ll try to get that bad taste out of the mouths serving up a bit of revenge against the team who knocked them out of the playoffs a season ago, the Miami Heat Monday evening.
But following the NBA Trade Deadline and before the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Sixers made President Daryl Morey available to the media recently.
In case you missed his prior public appearances, Morey went on SportsCenter to chat with Philly die-hard anchor Kevin Negandhi.
The latest came from Sports Illustrated’s Justin Grasso, who put out a Q & A with Morey to address some more key questions.
The piece features Morey’s response to these annoyingly consistent Harden-may-return-to-Houston-this-offseason rumors.
People like ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer talked about it back on Christmas Day. And local reporters like ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and The Athletic’s Kelly Iko have continued to sound this quiet alarm. Iko even went so far as to ballpark it as 70 percent The Beard would make his way back to Houston!
This stuff from MacMahon about Harden routinely working out at the Rockets’ facility, if true, feels like some sort of tampering on steroids ordeal, but who knows....
ESPN's @espn_macmahon says "Houston believes (James Harden returning) is a legitimate possibility and that's not coming out of thin air." He adds that Harden still "works out at the Rockets facility on a regular basis." (via Hoops Collective podcast) pic.twitter.com/afpBspynAS— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) February 24, 2023
Morey sure does’t sound terribly worried.
“That [Harden to Houston rumor] makes no sense,” Morey said with a smile. “There just seems… that seems to be invented by someone. Look, I have to be honest. I don’t understand it at all.”
While the Harden-Houston speculation has been a popular topic amongst the media and the fans, the Sixers don’t seem too affected by the outside noise.
“Really all that matters is what’s in the players’ heads,” Morey continued. “I know in all our players’ heads, and James specifically, that he’s just focused on winning here. He’s done everything since he got here to just focus on winning the title. He’s never like… I find all these rumors very hard to believe. For sure, I know the thing that he wants to do is win a title. If, at some point, he decides we’re not the best place to win, then yeah, let’s have a conversation. But I know he feels like that’s here. And we feel like, for us, it’s with him here. So, to me, it’s sort of like a weird thing that’s come up.”
It’s a relief to read this. Maybe Morey knows Harden isn’t leaning towards leaving. Maybe he knows this stuff is just someone trying to drum up a bigger market for Harden. If you, for example, were The Beard’s agent, you’d want rumors that multiple teams were vying for his services this summer.
Spike Eskin of The Ricky argued back in January that the Sixers should actually not hope to retain Harden for the type of contract he’ll likely insist upon, they’d be better off without him. But perhaps Eskin would be more open to the idea now after some improved play by The Beard lately.
Our Bryan Toporek had questions about Harden’s long-term fit alongside Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid back in December. But he pointed out how if they don’t see Harden as the future, there’s not a ton of cap room left to replace The Beard if he walks.
I’m more in the “you better learn from the Jimmy Butler atrocity and roll the red carpet out for this All-Star caliber guy, suck it up and pay him, because if James leaves without a precedent-shattering-miracle sign-and-trade replacement, it’ll only be a matter of time until things get very bleak” camp.
So for me it’s nice to hear that Morey isn’t too worried about this Harden to Houston stuff. On SportsCenter Morey also said “he’s gonna be wherever he feels like he has the best chance. Obviously his pairing with [Joel] Embiid is very, very good and we feel like it’s a great pairing for the long term.”
So you never know, and what happens in the upcoming playoffs will likely impact his next contract and where it comes from quite a bit, but for now I think the safest bet is that James will sign a rather large contract to stay in Philly for the next few years, come July. That’s my current prediction. Harden turned down a $103M extension in Houston in 2020. He turned down a $208M extension offer from Brooklyn in 2021. He took a one year deal with a $13M haircut last summer, dude is not taking anymore discounts.
That’s likely part of why we saw the team prioritizing a tax-duck at the trade deadline. You could almost hear them backing up the Loomis when they shipped Matisse Thybulle off to Portland, in part to slip under the luxury tax and reset the repeater tax penalties.
Here is a fun one, where Morey tells Grasso Joel Embiid isn’t just amazing, he’s actually overqualified to be an NBA player. He should be in a Super NBA:
“Joel is one of those players where we win the game, and you feel like, there are these like XYZ out of like 40 plays that he could have done this or that, and then you see he has like 45-18-6,” Morey continued. “You’re just like, ‘Oh, my god, he’s so ridiculous.’ He’s one of those very few players I’ve ever had that, not only do they have these amazing accomplishments in the game, and we win the game, and you’re still like, ‘Oh, he could’ve done more.’ That just shows you how good he is. I always feel like he should be promoted to the next league. Like, there should be some Super NBA he gets promoted to.”
We won’t argue here. I think Joel should have been MVP last season. He has another chance to help voters get it right this year.
One problem is, no matter how good the team is when The Process is on the floor, it’s a never-ending disaster when he sits. We had to live with that Saturday vs. Boston.
Joel (Embiid) reading his script every year pic.twitter.com/GckaRwhpRC— Kev (@kevkage_) February 26, 2023
Grasso also got Morey to address fan’s very reasonable concerns about the backup center minutes.
Morey, on the never-ending backup five nightmare:
“I think it’s important,” Morey explained. “I mean, look, you ask the right question, which is like, on any given team, you know, there are 100 things that could be better. You could turn it over less, you could have better wing defense, you could be better at jump balls, your late clock offense could be better, and your ability to switch and generate turnovers. Like, you can come up with 100 things, right? But the key is prioritizing those that drive winning. And especially winning in the playoffs. You only have like a particular set of resources that you can array across everything. Long way of saying it’s important, but it’s less important than a lot of other things.”
I think Morey does a decent job here of watering down the problem. He’s technically right that the team can improve on a host of things, and after any given loss we can look at things like missed free throws, allowing too many offensive boards, or cold shooting stints by reserves, etc.
But the reason fans are so frustrated with the backup five is because it’s basically the lowest hanging fruit at any given point, and they’re just so slow to scoop it.
Why did they need 624 minutes spanning several months of Montrezl Harrell to figure out what most fans would have confidently told them back in July, that he’s probably not the solution vs. the top teams?
So as long as the Sixers are getting absolutely plastered in the minutes Embiid sits and making substitution and player personnel errors few fans would make, this is going to remain a hot-button issue.
You get the gist.
We mentioned the cash-saving Thybulle for McDaniels trade earlier. Here’s what Morey said on that maneuver:
“We felt like the most important thing was getting a two-way player who could give us defense,” Morey explained. “It was actually the same priority we had before the season. You can put it on me. Maybe not every player we brought in is giving us exactly what we owe for. So, we tried to address it at the deadline. We thought that was a bigger priority than the backup centers, where the price for those were going really, really high and didn’t seem to make a lot of sense relative to the folks that we could pick up.”
Thybulle had one of the best on-off differentials in the NBA, so regardless of valid playoff shooting concerns, he’s going to be difficult for the Sixers to replace. When Thybulle was paired with one of Harden or Embiid, the Sixers routinely won regular season minutes with ease. On top of that, they would have had his matching rights, so he would have been easier to obtain in the offseason than the former Hornet will be.
If the Sixers wind up landing the better player in the deal, well they may view that as gravy. But fans will miss the Hornets’ second round pick they had to fork over. It’s always fun to scout prospects and that pick is projected to land just after the first round at 34th overall right now.
And finally, Morey threw Doc some love:
“Reflecting on where they’re at and focused on where they are headed as a team, Morey feels encouraged.
“‘Doc’s been incredible,” Morey finished. “The thing I love about what Doc and his staff do, and I think we have three of the top assistants just off the top of my head in Sam (Cassell), Dan (Burke), and (Dave) Joerger, and they have a bunch of good people below them as well, is we’re on this continuous improvement where they’re constantly tweaking as teams throw stuff at us they are learning and adjusting. It was nice. We’ve gotten some practice time recently, which has been great. So, I think that’s been really good.’”
The best news from SI.com is that Morey doesn’t sound too worried about Harden bolting for Houston. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe a little more worry about the backup five stuff could proved helpful to his coaching staff over the years.
It’ll be hard to get terribly excited for them running it back in July if they flame out in the first or second round making the same mistakes they’ve made over the last few seasons. The stretch run is here.