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How might the Nick Nurse hiring impact James Harden’s free agency?

James Harden is likely to become an unrestricted free agent. We’ve heard rumors he didn’t always get along with Doc Rivers, and many guessed he’d have preferred Mike D’Antoni to replace Doc. So how might he feel about Nurse?

Nick Nurse addresses media a day after the Toronto Raptors fall to the Chicago Bulls 109-105 in the NBA play-in game Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers have hired former Toronto Raptors championship-winning coach, Nick Nurse, on Memorial Day.

We had recently learned that the idea of “reuniting with Daryl Morey [from their days together in Houston] is very much enticing to Nurse” at the start of the weekend. That update came right after the Milwaukee Bucks moved forward with candidate Adrian Griffin, Nurse’s former assistant in Toronto.

Around the same time, we’d hear rumors that one of the Sixers’ other six candidates, Monty Williams, former Suns head coach, may ultimately prefer to take a year off.

We would also hear that the Suns may have their eye on a preferred assistant of Devin Booker, in Kevin Young.

As the Boston Celtics rattled off three consecutive victories over the Miami Heat, reducing the odds they’d move on from their head coach Joe Mazzulla, it started to feel more and more like Philadelphia might have their pick of the top available coaching candidates this offseason, as rival squads went looking in other directions.

And indeed that’s how it played out. Nurse chose between Philly and Phoenix. And the Sixers apparently, got their top choice. But what impact if any, might the Nurse acquisition now have on the team’s biggest offseason question: will James Harden be here long-term or not?

According to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, reporting after the news became official, Nurse met with Joel Embiid recently and things went well.

And this note from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who first broke the news of the Nurse hiring, added the following, Monday:

“The Sixers and Phoenix Suns were engaged with Nurse and his agent, Andy Miller of Klutch Sports, throughout Sunday and Monday, leaving Nurse with a difficult decision between two contending teams, sources said.

Nurse’s desire to coach MVP Joel Embiid and his history with Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey played a significant part in his decision to commit to a deal with Philadelphia, sources said. Nurse separated himself in the interview process, selling a vision for the Sixers centered on Embiid.

He’ll now be part of a Sixers organization working to re-sign James Harden, who is expected to become a free agent this summer.”

Joel Embiid is the reigning MVP. So it makes sense that Nurse may have won the job by outlining his vision for building around the team’s centerpiece.

But what about Harden? How much did The Beard’s name come up during the hiring process? Is he part of the team’s plans? Do they already know if he’s leaning one way or the other?

It’s noteworthy that Woj reports that Nurse will now join the team in trying to sell Harden on staying.

But is that likely? How might Harden feel about this hire? Was he included in any capacity in the decision the way Embiid was, even if the two didn’t formally meet? Has Harden offered Daryl Morey two or three coaches he’d prefer to play for?

By now, you have probably heard that Harden and former head coach Doc Rivers didn’t always see eye to eye on things.

According to Ramona Shelburne, appearing on 97.5 The Fanatic a couple of weeks ago, the ESPN Senior writer said the following:

“On the court, I don’t think there was ever a real fit. I think James is a free-flowing offensive player,” Shelburne said. “He played a role in this team that he really has made no secret that he saw as a sacrifice. I think James was never quite comfortable on that role.”

“I think they need a more offensive-minded coach.”

Would Nurse represent the type of coach who might offer a more “free-flowing offense?” Shelburne actually went as far as to recommend former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who many fans assumed Harden would have listed as his own top choice.

It was D’Antoni who was at the helm for Harden’s best seasons, running a Rockets team that had the first or second-best offensive rating for three consecutive seasons, which overlapped with the peak Steph Curry-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors.

More info on the subject according to Chris Haynes, writing for Bleacher Report back in mid May:

“The Houston Rockets have long been a rumored destination, but sources say Harden will only entertain suitors that present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself, sources say.

At the moment, the Sixers are the only logical option, coming off a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. But the dynamic in Philadelphia will undoubtedly change next season, considering the Sixers have to find the right coach after dismissing Doc Rivers.”

Would Nick Nurse offer James the basketball freedom to “be himself?”

Something tells me that when Woj says “Nurse separated himself in the interview process, selling a vision for the Sixers centered on Embiid,” the talk was not terribly focused on allowing Harden to be more himself than he was under Doc.

Now none of this necessarily means that Harden is already gone. On the other hand, it seems at least possible that Harden may have already made up his mind to leave regardless of the Sixers' next coach.

Then again, he might wind up staying simply because Philadelphia ultimately pays (perhaps far) more than any other team is willing to. And of course, there are plenty of in-between or alternative hypotheticals too.

Our Paul Hudrick published a Q&A with RaptorsHQ where Josh Kern helped us understand coach Nurse a bit better.

Per Kern:

“I think Nurse and Embiid would be great together, so for that reason alone I think he makes sense....

If James Harden stays, I don’t think he and Tyrese Maxey can execute Nurse’s base defensive scheme (and Harden will tire himself out with all that running by January)....

Offensively? Well, having Harden and Embiid would likely solve some of Nurse’s halfcourt offense issues!”

Could Harden have let Morey know that he has yet to make up his mind, but that if he were to come back, here are his three favorite candidates, for example? That seems plausible. If so, maybe we can infer that Nurse made Harden’s list.

For what it’s worth, James showed respect to Nurse’s strategic game planning during the Sixers-Raptors first-round series back in 2022:

At the very least, if the Sixers want to keep Harden (again, as Woj reminds us they are still working to do) and James hasn’t told the team unequivocally he’s leaving, then I think we might deduce Harden hasn’t dropped any hard vetoes or ultimatums on this idea... even if there’s this ole footage circulating of Nurse complaining about how many free throws James used to take, lol:

I know some of you reading this are likely thinking something along the lines of this:“why should Harden have any input at all? He fizzled down the stretch vs. Boston, and if you’re going to pay him, he doesn’t also deserve input on the coach? If you can get your guy, go do it!”

The problem with that might be if Embiid wants Harden around. It was recently reported by The New York Post that there have been whispers that Joel Embiid could want out of Philadelphia, if free agent-to-be James Harden goes back to the Rockets as has been rumored.” Wouldn’t you check in with Harden about his feelings regarding Nurse if you worried that Harden bolting might eventually (if not this summer, perhaps down the road) tempt Joel to follow?

Assuming the Sixers still have a shot at keeping Harden, something that Embiid may very much want as well, my guess would be that the Sixers touched base with James and learned that Nurse was at least an acceptable candidate if not his top choice.

On the other hand, I must admit, the team hiring Mike D’Antoni instead, would have left me feeling a whole heck of a lot more confident The Beard was set to return than this version of events. So maybe James said “do what you gotta do, I’m oughta here anyway!”

Maybe it’s all just a long way of saying, I still don’t know what’s going to happen with Harden. If MDA was the pick, I’d feel very confident he’ll be back. But in this instance, I suppose I feel at least a little bit less confident that The Beard will be returning.

But I don’t think it moves the needle too dramatically in the way that hiring MDA would have signaled.

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