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Report: Embiid and Sixers still ‘hopeful that James Harden plays with them this year, that’s option one’

ESPN Senior Writer and NBA Insider Ramona Shelburne provides some insight about Joel Embiid’s mindset, and how it might pertain to his future with the Sixers.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been All Quiet On the Sixers Front as of late. But that hasn’t stopped us from keeping an eye on all of the James Harden rumors that have trickled out over the last five weeks or so. ESPN Senior Writer and insider Ramona Shelburne hopped on “NBA Today” Wednesday and provided us some new insights regarding both James Harden and Joel Embiid.

First off, despite a recent report from Shams Charania stating the Sixers and Clippers are expected to engage again on Harden trade talks, Shelburne points out that the team’s first choice is to change Harden’s mind about wanting to play for L.A.

Per Shelburne:

“....well, I think If you ask the players, they are hopeful that James Harden plays with them this year. That’s option one. It’s the same thing for the front office, but the front office is in a bit of a stalemate with James Harden. There’s nothing happening right now in terms of trade discussions.... there’s just no offers that really move this team forward.”

Hypothetically, if we cooked up the type of trade framework that might just compel the Sixers to say “yes,” it would probably look something like this, courtesy of Fanspo’s trade machine:

In this iteration, a Process Legend, who left with a bad taste in his mouth about some local fickle fans, Robert Covington returns. A Philly native in Marcus Morris comes home. Embiid gets a potential fellow Frenchman to chat with in Nic Batum. And the top prize is Terance Mann, since the Sixers desperately need wing help.

It’s perhaps too steep of a price from the Clippers’ perspective in terms of Mann and both of their remaining future first-round picks, but if they really wanted to go “all in” this season, adding P.J. Tucker would take some of the sting away from losing a solid 3-and-D player like Mann. Maybe there’s a compromise to be found in terms of pick protections too.

The Sixers appear to be targeting cap space for the 2024 summer and unloading Tucker, often regarded as a package deal with James Harden, still with two years remaining on his contract, would seem to appeal to both teams.

But if we are including Montrezl Harrell (torn ACL) in the deal (which helps make all of the roster spots fit) this type of structure will have to wait until late October.

For that reason, if the Sixers cannot change Harden’s mind, somewhere between mid-October and mid-November isn’t a bad guess for when a swap might go down.

Next, Shelburne confirmed that Tyrese Maxey is out in L.A. and working out with Chris Johnson, as well as Drew Hanlen, Joel Embiid’s long-time skills trainer. A nugget Liberty Ballers was able to confirm last weekend:

And finally, Shelburne, who has always seemed to have a close line to the reigning MVP, delivered some insight into Embiid’s mindset, and involvement with the front office, heading into his age 29-30 (!!!) season:

“... [ Embiid] wants to come back in the best shape of his life. You talk about players losing weight and all that, that is a goal that he has set. Until we see it, let’s push pause on that. But I think his mentality is he’s going to give everything that he has to the Sixers this year, and that includes putting his arm around James Harden. That includes trying to lift Tyrese Maxey up. That includes inviting all those guys to his wedding. You saw Tobias Harris there. You saw Georges Niang, a former Sixer, and I think this year really is a make-or-break year in the sense that they have all this cap space going forward and that, he’s in very close communication with Daryl Morey and the front office, even owner Josh Harris, talking about their plans and strategy for the future, and so their plan is we’ve got cap space after next year. Well, you better do something with that cap space. Does that mean free agents? Does that mean trades? Joel Embiid is very involved with all those discussions going forward with the 76ers, and I think when we talk about this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean at the end of this year, he asks out. It means this year is very important because they gotta get a squad together for the long haul if they want to keep Joel Embiid happy and in the fold. He’s very involved in all of those conversations with that front office.”

There’s plenty to unpack there. As far as Embiid’s personal goals for losing weight, or being in better shape, I’m sure that can never hurt. But having watched him closely over the last few years, I think infinitely more important than getting more trim would be eliminating (or SIGNIFICANTLY reducing) some of the reckless and more dangerous plays from his game; especially during the regular season. Him not gunning for another scoring title and MVP would probably help too, Jimmy Butler style.

The two types of plays that have been the most dangerous for Embiid have been running dunks and track-down blocks.

Read: more Tim Duncan and Nikola Jokic, less young Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.

It’s a bit of a relief that Shelburne added the part about Embiid being invested in the future and the team’s direction beyond this coming season. Had she left out that clarification, it might have wound up sounding like she was suggesting he was going to try and “go out with a bang” before potentially asking for a trade next summer. But having this communicative relationship with Morey and Josh Harris cannot be a bad thing. It was rumored he was much more hands off in terms of this stuff in the past, like the summer they let Jimmy Butler slip away.

Instead, reading into it a bit, it sounds as if he might even understand he’s “auditioning” (for lack of a better word) to attract another superstar running mate — the way he once helped lure James Harden to Philadelphia by his stellar play.

But this time, he’s going to have to have a healthy playoff run, in order for next summer’s top stars (O.G. Anunoby?) to want to join him and Maxey, believing they can win together.

All in all, it seems as if there exists a world where Harden stays. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on a trade happening this fall. And as of today, I’d bet that this winds up looking like a bit of a “gap year” in the long run too.

If the Sixers landed a pick or two from L.A., they could potentially offer their own 2024 pick (on draft day next summer), their own 2030 pick, plus whatever they acquire from the Clippers in potential trades. As well as offering a max contract to a pending free agent, all before looking at a Maxey extension. And if Embiid is heavily involved in that type of plan, it might just keep him invested enough to not request a trade.

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