More Sports:

February 26, 2022

What they're saying: James Harden's Sixers' debut was almost too good to be true

Sixers NBA

It was a debut over a year in the making. The Ben Simmons drama arguably began two offseason ago, when rumors swirled about the Sixers and GM Daryl Morey attempting to swap the former No. 1 overall pick with the Rockets for James Harden.

Ultimately, the deal never happened for whatever reason — despite Harden later saying he preferred Philadelphia — and Harden went to Brooklyn while Simmons stayed in Philly. Then Simmons fell apart in the playoffs, refused to suit up to start the next season and the Sixers played more than half their games with $33 million of wasted salary.

Harden of course wound up traded for Simmons anyway two weeks ago, and a more anticipated debut for a player would be hard to remember.

In a 31-point route of the Timberwolves in Minnesota Friday night that saw Harden almost post a triple double while bringing out the best in nearly everyone else on the floor, 'The Beard' made a debut for the ages. 

The Sixers were fringe NBA Finals contenders before, but the eye test has got to have them now in a serious conversation about which team is best equipped to hoist the O'Brien trophy this June. Here's a look at some of the reaction immediately following his first game in our latest 'what they're saying:'

Happy Harden

Ramona Shelbourn | ESPN

Feelings are a temporary thing. For everyone. One minute life can be fantastic and the next something can happen to change everything. But if you watched Friday's game, you'd rightly be able to surmise that Harden has never been happier on a basketball court. And that certainly bodes well for the Sixers, who intend to retain Harden for years to come. 

There was plenty to glean from Harden's debut for the Sixers Friday night in a 133-102 blowout win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the enduring image from this night, the one that jumps out from behind The Beard, was the bright smile on Harden's face.

"[I'm] extremely happy," Harden said postgame. "Extremely happy."

He did not elaborate, but he didn't have to. His play -- and his smile after finding Tyrese Maxey for his 12th and final assist of the night -- said it all.

Throughout his NBA career, Harden has rarely made headlines for anything he's said in interviews. But that doesn't mean he's not expressive. When he's happy, you can see it. When he's unhappy, as he so clearly was during the final months of his tenure in Brooklyn, he plays basketball like he's sitting through an 8-year-old's piano recital.

Since his trade to Philadelphia on February 10, Harden has seemed rejuvenated, the weight of whatever was making him so miserable in Brooklyn finally off of him. [ESPN]

In the conversation

Rich Hoffman | The Athletic

As we mentioned in our intro, the Sixers are going to start getting some serious title buzz. And one game is quite the small sample size from which to draw. They'll need to do for the rest of their 23 remaining games before the playoffs start. But did we learn anything about what this team's ceiling really can be?

What Friday's performance says about the Sixers' ceiling

Hofmann: One game against the Timberwolves is just one game. But Harden undeniably has the talent level and skillset to provide the Sixers a higher ceiling than we saw last year as they marched to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He gives the team the type of elite perimeter creator that Embiid has been searching for his entire career.

Does that mean the Sixers will be playing in June? Not necessarily, but Harden at least puts them in the conversation. [The Athletic]

Lofty expectations

Paul Hudrick | Liberty Ballers

This piece was written before tip off Friday night but it seems to be extremely apt a day later so we chose to include it. Many perceived Harden as being old, washed up and past his prime. But that simply isn't true. And if he plays like the superstar he did in his Philly debut for the rest of the season it'll be more of a return to his recent previous form than some shocking improvement. He was simply in a bad place in Brooklyn last year. Here's more from LB's Hudrick:

After the trade went down that sent Harden from Houston to Brooklyn, the 10-time All-Star was sensational in his point guard role. In 32 games before suffering a hamstring injury, Harden averaged 26.4 points, 11.4 assists and 8.9 rebounds a game on 61.6 percent true shooting. That stretch ended less than a year ago (March 29, 2021).

While Nikola Jokic took home the award, and Embiid was firmly in the mix, Harden’s name was in the discussion for a good chunk of the season.

All of this to say the expectations will be — and should be — sky high. The Sixers are pairing Embiid at the peak of his powers with one of the top 75 players in NBA history. They’re easily two of the top-20 players in the league right now. They could become the most formidable duo in the NBA.

There’s no running from the lofty expectations this city has for its basketball team. Harden has to embrace them. [Liberty Ballers]

A big test ahead

Keith Pompey |

In a column written after Friday's win, Pompey surmised that Sixers fans are getting a glimpse of what the Sixers can be with Harden if everything works how Daryl Morey intends it to. But the Timberwolves, on a night where emotions and adrenaline are running through the roof is one thing. The schedule is about to get much tougher for Philadelphia over the next few weeks. Will we still be planning parades in our heads then?

We’ll learn more about him during next Friday and Saturday’s home-and-away back-to-back against the Cavs and Heat followed by home games against the Bulls (March 7) and Nets (March 10). They’ll have a key road game against the Cavs on March 16. Then a couple of games later, the Sixers will have another defining home back-to-back against the Toronto Raptors (March 20) and Heat (March 21) before embarking on a three-game road trip against the Los Angeles Lakers (March 23), Clippers (March 25), and Phoenix Suns (March 27). After a day off, they’ll host the Bucks.

Nine of their 16 games in March are against teams that were in the top six of their respective conferences going into Friday’s games. Four other games are against squads that would compete in the play-in tournament if the season concluded Thursday.

“I’m actually excited because our schedule is getting extremely tough,” Embiid said. “[March] is going to be extremely tough. So you know we’re really going to be tested. We are going to see where we are at.

“So I’m excited to get going, to play some tough playoff teams, just to try to get better, win or lose.”

Perhaps, but Friday was James Harden Day, a day the Sixers would like to build on. [Philadelphia Inquirer]

What almost was...

James Herbert |

In a fascinating examination of what went down just before the trade deadline, CBS' Herbert looks into some deals that did not get done. Among other tidbits in this article — pieced together from podcast interviews after the deadline passed — Joel Embiid apparently really wanted Bradley Beal, despite his being hurt. And Morey nearly pulled off a deal for Tyrese Haliburton. Here's more:

The Philadelphia 76ers believed they had another realistic trade option involving Ben Simmons leading up to the Feb. 10 trade deadline, but it fell apart a few days before the James Harden deal came together. This is according to Sixers president Daryl Morey himself, who, in a Feb. 16 appearance on "The Rights to Ricky Sanchez" podcast, described it as "almost a very good option that we liked." The front office "pretty heavily explored" the other trade, Morey said. "And then, for reasons that would reveal who I'm talking about, I can't really say why it sort of shifted, but it shifted."


And on Friday's episode of "The Old Man & the Three" podcast, Haliburton told JJ Redick that he briefly thought he was being traded to the Sixers. 

"I went to Topgolf the night before with some friends," Haliburton said. "I had a good night. I woke up that morning and got the call from my agent and I think I didn't answer at first. He texted me, he's like, 'Call me ASAP.' So I'm like, 'Is somebody getting traded?' And then he's like, 'You're getting traded.' And I was like, 'Stop playing.' He's like, 'No, you're going to get traded. I think you're going to get traded to Philly.' And I'm like, 'Really?'"

At this point, Haliburton said, he called Philadelphia forward Georges Niang, a fellow former Iowa State Cyclone. [CBS Sports]

The CBS story goes on to point out that Niang told basically the same story on another podcast. And so, if the Harden thing winds up going south, there will be a perfect what if for fans to lament about. 

Follow Evan on Twitter: @evan_macy

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports