It’s easy to be pessimistic about the Sixers’ outlook in 2023-24. James Harden picked up his $35.6 million player option with the intention of being traded, yet he remains in Philadelphia for the time being. True to form, Sixers president Daryl Morey is already posturing about what he will and won’t accept in return for Harden in a trade.
Harden wants the Sixers to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Clippers don’t appear especially inclined to meet Morey’s asking price. PHLY’s Kyle Neubeck said they’ve been “fairly unserious about what they’re willing to give up” for Harden, and multiple reporters have mentioned their reticence to part with Terance Mann in such a deal.
In other words, The Harden Trade Saga Chapter 3: Parabellum is showing no signs of abating any time soon. That sets the stage for a disgruntled point guard to turn the Sixers into a circus for the second time in three years.
Harden is also likely the reason why the Sixers have yet to spend a penny of their $5 million taxpayer mid-level exception. Dipping into their TMLE would hard-cap them at the $182.8 million second apron, which would limit how much salary they could take back in a Harden trade.
The 2023-24 season figures to be a miserable slog until the Sixers resolve the Harden situation one way or another. However, all hope is not lost. There are genuine reasons for optimism amidst the Harden limbo.
Many Sixers fans spent the past few years begging the team to fire then-head coach Doc Rivers. They finally got their wish this offseason.
In his place, the Sixers hired former Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Although the vibes seemingly went south in Toronto toward the end of his tenure there, early reports about Nurse’s fit in Philly have been glowing.
“I can tell he’s a coach he really wants to help the players learn and want to teach and then he stopped the drills, stepping in, and give us points in what to do here and there, like it’s great,” third-year guard Jaden Springer told reporters ahead of summer league. “I haven’t seen that too much since I’ve been in the league, but that’s been very special to me.”
(That’s an incredible Doc subtweet, by the way.)
Meanwhile, Morey told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Anthony Gargano that Nurse “is planning to do some innovative things for training camp” that Joel Embiid “is excited about.”
“I know Nick, a big focus of him is how to make us less predictable in key moments,” Morey added later. “That’s been a big focus. I know Joel’s excited about his conversations with Coach Nurse.”
Morey said “versatility will be a big theme” for Nurse this year, as “he’s looking at very different, creative ways to use all the folks we’ve brought in.” That sounds like a breath of fresh air after the past few years with Rivers at the helm.
The Sixers lost Georges Niang, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton in the opening hours of free agency. Thankfully, they later retained fan favorite Paul Reed by matching the devilish three-year, $23.5 million offer sheet that he signed with the Utah Jazz.
They seem to have big plans for BBall Paul this year, too.
“I’ve talked to him plenty of times and it’s always been kind of the same kind of idea,” Reed told Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire about his conversations with Nurse. “He talked about molding me into a Pascal Siakam-type player. Somebody who can kind of do it all. Shoot the ball, drive, pass, but right now, it’s all about focusing on my shot mechanics. That’s the start. That’s where it starts at.”
Reed added that he’s been “getting more and more comfortable every day” with his tweaked shooting mechanics and feels as though he’s poised for a “breakout year.”
“I feel like last year, I started figuring things out toward the end,” he told Carlin. “And coming into this season, I already have things figured out, so I feel like it’s gonna go a lot smoother.”
Once Reed supplanted Montrezl Harrell as the Sixers’ primary backup center after last year’s trade deadline, he went on to average 5.7 points on 61.4 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 0.7 steals in only 13.1 minutes per game. He also came up big in two spot starts in the playoffs in place of Embiid, including their Game 1 road win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Reed will have to compete with Mo Bamba for backup minutes behind Embiid this year, but he could potentially see time at the 4 as well if he does improve his shooting this offseason. Either way, we should be headed for more BBall Paul than we’ve ever had before.
BBall Paul isn’t the only one whom Nurse holds high hopes for this season. He’s also bullish on what Maxey can become either alongside or without Harden.
“From afar, playing against him was very difficult,” Nurse said during his introductory press conference. “Just the sheer speed and quickness that he has it was tough to game-plan against him. Sometimes you just can’t beat speed, you can’t come up with anything to beat the speed. But what he did and what our experience was, it wasn’t just speed and layups. Then he started shooting the ball really well. Then he started making, little further layups, and a little further. We were trying our best to get him away from the rim, but he’d still make a lot of those.
“He’s got a tremendous chance to improve and take a step forward, and from all indications, he’s really hungry to do so. Good worker, good person who really wants to get better.”
Morey shared a similar sentiment with Gargano in mid-July.
“I don’t want to limit Maxey, frankly, because he’s beat expectations since we drafted him,” Morey said. “Every year, he’s advanced more than people thought, whether it’s his shot, his defense improved last year. He definitely has All-Star ability.”
If the Sixers don’t retain Harden or get a point guard in return for him, Maxey will take over as their primary ball-handler and playmaker. He briefly filled that role amidst Ben Simmons’ holdout in 2021-22 prior to Harden’s arrival, but he now has another year-and-a-half of NBA experience under his belt.
Even prior to Harden’s trade request, Nurse said he planned on getting Maxey more pick-and-roll repetitions “so he can make the reads for all the other players on the floor depending on what he sees.” Maxey’s growth in that department will have a huge influence on the Sixers’ roster-building strategy moving forward, making it one of the biggest storylines of the season.
Springer has played only 95 total minutes across 18 games in his first two NBA seasons combined. The third-year guard is largely a mystery box for those who didn’t watch him in the G League last season or summer league in July.
Springer projects to be far more of an asset on defense than on offense, at least in the early going. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker praised him during training camp last year despite his inexperience.
“He doesn’t even know how to play yet,” Tucker told reporters. “That’s the crazy part. He’s just out there just bulldozing. I love it. I’ll hype him up every day. I love it. He played really hard and he’s learning, but he’s a kid. He doesn’t even know yet, and he’s already giving that effort and energy every day. And he doesn’t even talk, either. That’s the crazy part!”
Springer averaged 2.3 steals and 0.8 blocks in only 30.2 minutes per game this past season across 24 outings with the Delaware Blue Coats. He also held his own in a late-season game against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, finishing with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, three assists, two rebounds, two three-pointers, one block and one steal in 34 minutes.
Springer shot only 31.9 percent from deep in the G League last season, and he’s taken only five three-pointers during his limited NBA minutes to date. At summer league this year, he told reporters that he’s confident about his ability to improve his offensive game.
“I know I’ve been working,” Springer said. “I know all the work I put in with my shot and everything. I know just stay with it and eventually, it’s gonna drop. It’s just timing, just stay confident, and stay comfortable and everything will be alright.”
If the Sixers trade Harden and don’t receive a guard in return, Springer figures to be competing with Patrick Beverley for backcourt minutes off the bench. Seeing how Nurse deploys him and the havoc he might wreak in certain defensive pairings—Reed, Springer and De’Anthony Melton, anyone?—will be one of the intriguing subplots of the season.
The new-look bench
With Niang, McDaniels and Milton no longer in Philly, the Sixers will have a new-look bench unit this year. They signed Beverley, Bamba, Danny Green and Kelly Oubre Jr. in free agency this offseason, while Melton, Reed, Springer, Danuel House Jr. and Furkan Korkmaz are all returning to compete for minutes.
Beverley may no longer be the lockdown defender that he was in his prime, but he made an immediate impact upon signing with the Chicago Bulls after the trade deadline last season. Pairing him with Melton off the bench could be a nightmare for opposing second-unit ball-handlers, as both can jump passing lanes and create easy transition baskets for either themselves or their teammates.
Meanwhile, the Sixers haven’t had a bench gunner like Oubre since perhaps Lou Williams. After averaging a career-high 20.3 points per game last season with the injury-ravaged Charlotte Hornets, he wound up settling for a one-year, minimum-salary deal with the Sixers. Much like Bobby Portis with the Milwaukee Bucks a few years ago, the Sixers will give Oubre the opportunity to prove that he can meaningfully contribute to a winning team.
The 36-year-old Green might not even make the opening-night roster—his contract is fully nonguaranteed until then—as he struggled in limited minutes last season following his return from a torn ACL and LCL. Now that he’s further removed from those injuries, though, perhaps he’ll show that he still has a bit of gas left in the tank. The Sixers are already well aware how valuable he can be as a three-and-D role player.
Between the four new additions and internal improvement from Reed, Melton, Springer and House, there’s a non-zero chance that the Sixers’ bench is actually better this season than it was last year. That looked like a remote possibility on July 1 after the departures of Niang, McDaniels and Milton, but it’s a testament to the on-the-margins work that the front office did this offseason despite having their hands tied by Harden’s trade request.
Sentiment about Joel Embiid around Philadelphia may be at a half-decade low, which is the exact opposite of what you’d expect for someone fresh off winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. Between his disappearing act toward the end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and his comments about wanting to win a championship whether “in Philly or anywhere else,” it’s fair to wonder whether the Sixers’ best chance to win with him has already passed them by.
Rather than fretting about a trade request that may or may not be forthcoming, Sixers fans should instead cherish the remaining time they have with Embiid, however long that might be.
Embiid is the first center since the mid-1970s to lead the NBA in scoring in back-to-back seasons. He’s led the Sixers to the best stretch they’ve had in 20 years. And heading into his age-29 season, he’s firmly in the midst of his prime.
As much of a bad taste as the late-season collapse left in fans’ mouths, one can only imagine Embiid is even more driven by it. Watching Nikola Jokic, his chief MVP rival over the past few years, winning last year’s championship with the Denver Nuggets should serve as additional motivational fuel.
Embiid reinvented himself in recent years by eschewing back-to-the-basket post-ups for face-up mid-range jumpers. If he adds another element to his game this offseason—it sounds as though playmaking is a focus of his—he could perhaps help the Sixers finally break through their second-round ceiling for the first time in more than two decades.