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September 26, 2022

Takeaways from Sixers media day 2022

Another Sixers media day has come and gone — this is No. 6 during my time with PhillyVoice, if regular readers can believe that — and the Sixers are sort of flying under the radar heading into the year. Between the Eagles surging to 3-0, a lack of offseason drama, and the team focused on depth moves to support the core, the dust has been (mostly) settled on their offseason for a while. And that seems just fine for this group, who get to focus on growing together during their training camp in Charleston instead of answering 1,000 questions about non-basketball nonsense.

A positively normal media day in Philly still produced some good stuff from the players. Here are some of the standout lines and ideas from Monday's media day session.

Defense is at the front of Embiid's mind

Joel Embiid became the first center to win the scoring title since Shaquille O'Neal, and the first center to average 30 points per game since Moses Malone did it way back in 1982. Given how good he looked with and without James Harden last year, it would not have been a shocker for him to waltz into media day ready to repeat as the scoring champ. That could still end up happening, by chance or by choice, but Embiid's mind drifted somewhere else when asked about how his partnership with Harden could grow.

"Our focus is on defense," Embiid said. "We aim to be the best defensive team in the league, that's going to take all of us. I've got to get back to not waiting until the fourth to be that guy, and then doing it all game...if you get stops, you're able to run, you're able to get in transition, you're able to get Tyrese going, and then obviously our pick-and-roll together and the spacing I'm sure is going to be great."

This has been a topic of some debate on Sixers internet during the offseason, the idea being that Embiid could scale back his usage and impose his will more on defense, where has been a DPOY candidate at times and an All-Defense player even as offense has become more central to his greatness. The franchise player actually taking that approach and thinking that way, though, was not necessarily a given for a number of reasons. Pacing through a long season is something all great players do, and considering that he earned that spot atop the scoring list, Embiid would have been well within his rights to continue focusing on that end of the floor.

Perhaps it's easier for him to take this position after an offseason where the Sixers went and made the sort of additions he was clamoring for after last season ended. Embiid made sure to give a shout out to Harden specifically during his press conference to make sure everyone remembered they wouldn't have been able to upgrade the team the same way if not for the paycut he took to come back this season. And with those guys in place — from PJ Tucker to DeAnthony Melton to Danuel House Jr. — there's a deeper reservoir of talent.

"I believe we got the right pieces," Embiid said. "Obviously adding PJ, De'Anthony is going to be a big help. I plan on getting back to the level I was before I had all the offensive load. I'm just excited to go out there and compete, whatever happens, happens. Our goal is to go out there and compete together, try to win games, whatever it takes offensively and defensively."

Embiid also joked that he spent his entire summer on the couch, so we'll see what it all looks like when they take the floor.

(To be clear, Georges Niang said Embiid works like a guy fighting to simply make the roster, which is an impression he leaves on the whole group that lifts them up. So I wouldn't be too concerned about his prep for the season.)

James Harden, in a better place?

I say this without a trace of sarcasm or derision — James Harden seems like he enjoys the life his career affords him as much as anybody in the NBA. It has put him on the wrong side of some memes and criticism at times throughout his career, but he relishes his time with friends and family away from the game, burning the candle at both ends when "necessary."

In so many words, Harden has suggested throughout this past summer that a recalibration was in order. Deeper consideration of his diet and rest, something he brought up in interviews while pitching his new wine over the summer, came up once again during his availability at media day. He's aware of where he falls on the NBA aging curve, looking and sounding like a guy taking his approach seriously. For whatever qualms you have with Harden, his skill development over the course of his career is evidence enough of his commitment to the craft.

One thing he doesn't often talk about or clue people to, though, is exactly what he's feeling or going through at any given time. Harden has obviously dealt with some physical challenges since his hamstring gave out while with the Nets, and he admitted to reporters on Monday that his struggles were not all about how his muscles felt last season, and that the work this summer has helped him on all fronts.

"Mentally, it was very, very difficult to me, just because I was in love with the game of basketball. If the money wasn't involved, I would be playing basketball. I think everybody knows that. It was very difficult, a lot of tough times, dark moments, which I've never really went through because I was always healthy and playing the game of basketball. But I'm in a really good space right now, and I feel like I'm back to where I needed to be, where I'm supposed to be. The feeling is great."

It's a struggle many athletes before him have gone through, and the challenge for many players at his age is to identify what is fixable, what might be gone for good, and what they can do to continue producing at an elite level once they figure all of that out. Even if Harden is not a 30-point scorer for the Sixers on a regular basis, he is capable of all-around production that puts him back in MVP conversations, where he was just two seasons ago.

And teammates new and old feel good about who they have in the trenches with them, on and off of the floor.

"He's a selfless guy. On and off the floor, he do a lot of great deeds that are untalked about and he don't want credit from it because it's nothing but heart," Danuel House Jr. said Monday. "Growing up around him, you see the things he does on and off the court, it just makes my respect for him as an elite athlete and what he's doing so much greater. He's a tremendous leader on and off the court, a selfless guy, and he's always willing to make sure he can help you in any way possible."

PJ Tucker is slowing down for nobody

Right before we got started with interviews for the day, the Sixers sent out a press release noting that PJ Tucker had undergone an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee, the important part being that he was cleared for training camp and not expected to have to clear any hurdles before hitting the floor. Tucker would go on to tell reporters he'd gotten the knee worked on around six weeks prior to Monday, so he had plenty of time to get right so he could hit the ground running with his teammates.

There are obvious questions, though, about how he is going to hold up not just this year but over the length of the three years on his contract. On Philadelphia's end, the medical people and the decision-makers are going to have their views on how to keep him in fighting shape for the playoffs. Tucker just can't really think that way as a competitor.

"I don't know what that is," Tucker said when asked about the concept of taking it easier on his body at times. "I just want to play. I just play. It's not like a process of thought, or a maybe, you know what I mean? Players play."

Tucker would go on to share his views on what toughness is and what toughness means, and in that moment he gave one of the more useful answers on the topic I think I've ever heard from an athlete. 

"People see somebody make a mean face and they're yelling and think they're tough," Tucker said Monday. "That's not toughness. It's being accountable and reliable, not backing down, every night different assignments, doesn't matter. Being available, not being hurt, being able to go out there and compete. It's so many different facets that go into being tough, but for me, the biggest toughness is the mental toughness. To be able to play an NBA season, play all games or most games, play in the playoffs like that. That consistency, I think that's the biggest thing."

I can imagine there will be some spirited debates between the staff and Tucker at points during his tenure here, but his point is well taken. Showing up all of the time, and not just when it's easy, is part of why he has been able to help a number of very good teams during his time in the league. 

Excitement for a competitive camp

Here are two interesting quotes on in-house battles that Sixers players believe make them better. The first from Tyrese Maxey, on his relationship with Harden:

"Every single time we play pickup or one on one, I don't want to lose to James," Maxey said. "It's like my big brother, playing against my big brother. It's been times playing pickup the past couple of weeks and it's like, we're going to bump heads because I'm extremely competitive like that, and he is too. Which is really good, when you have guys that are very competitive, we have a group full of guys that are extremely competitive like that, it just makes your team a lot better."

The second from Montrezl Harrell, on the chirping and battling he has done with Embiid in the past.

"We both understand that it's competitive nature," Harrell said Monday. "That's the type of person you want to be sharing the floor with, it basically shows this guy is built to win and wants to win, he'll do anything that's going to put his team in a position to win no matter who it's against. I think that's [a sign of respect]." 

These guys are going to get after it in the preseason, and the positional battles for the depth spots are going to bring the fire out in everybody. Always good to have. 

The Sixers probably aren't beating tampering charges

Let's put this quote in full context to be fair to all involved:

REPORTER: What kind of stood out to you when you want to free agency. Because you thought, I'm ready to leave a pretty good situation in Miami to now come here in Philadelphia.

TUCKER: Honestly, me and James were trying to come the year before. So I kind of already knew the vibe and makeup of the team. Had a lot of people who I already knew, it just made sense, honestly. When you're a free agent, you have to look at it all, especially as a vet, I couldn't imagine playing for a team not fighting for a championship anymore. Being in a situation feeling like you can't win, I couldn't do that. So you know, picking the best situation for me and checking all the boxes, it just checked all the boxes.

Tucker and Harden wanting to make the jump from Houston to Philly once Daryl Morey took over at a new spot is not exactly some giant secret no one knew about until now. In fact, Harden's desire to play in Philly was a part of what led to the unraveling of the organization's relationship with Ben Simmons, those trade talks ultimately unsettling Simmons before Harden was dealt to Brooklyn. These guys wanted to play for the Sixers and the front office wanted to acquire them, and it doesn't have to mean they did anything out of bounds or "illegal" by NBA rules to eventually lure them here.

But this is the sort of quote that adds just a little extra scrutiny as the league looks into Philadelphia's signing of Tucker this offseason.  

Drama-free zone

It has been refreshing having an offseason where the Sixers were not the center of attention for one reason or another. From the Ben Simmons saga to Burnergate to basically anything involving Markelle Fultz's time in Philly, you could have hung a giant "NO CHILL" banner on the front of the practice facility.

"Who's drama?" Embiid quipped when asked about last season's Simmons holdout. "I don't remember any of that, I thought last year went great."

This time around, the Sixers have kept a lower profile and are sitting back while other teams (including the rival Celtics) experience tumultuous offseasons. While that doesn't change that they're behind a lot of their Eastern Conference peers in terms of the time their core has spent together, they can enter the season focused on basketball rather than speculation, noise, and shenanigans only marginally connected to basketball.

Can't wait for some hoops, if you all couldn't tell. 

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