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February 15, 2022

Sixers, James Harden aiming for title this year: 'After the break, it's go time'

Whether you believe them all or not, James Harden, Daryl Morey, and the rest of Philadelphia's representation told a compelling tale during Harden's opening press conference. This is where the wantaway star always wanted to end up, alongside Morey and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. Now that those pieces are in place, the excuses and the qualifiers about their window are gone. It is time for them to go out and compete for a championship.

"One of the reasons I wanted to come here," head coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday, "is that we would make a commitment to win and being a winner. We talked about it, we can do a lot of winning or we can try to be the winner, and being a winner is hard, that’s what we want to become. That’s why we make trades like this, going out and getting Paul and James, we want the opportunity to be the winner, and we believe this trade does that."

Being the winner is hard, and the Sixers are up against it on several fronts. They are tasked with integrating one of the league's most ball-dominant players between the All-Star break and the playoffs, with Harden working out and rehabbing his hamstring between now and then. Even if Harden could suit up for Tuesday night's game against the Celtics, the Sixers are in a unique position as a would-be contender, with most of their team-building left to do.

Harden, though, wasn't interested in dancing around whether they had a realistic shot to compete this year or not. 

"Hell yeah," Harden said at the idea of contending this year. "There's a lot that goes into it, it doesn't happen overnight. Just being here around guys, they have the right mindset, obviously coming from the coaching staff. But after the break, man, it's go time. As much as I can incorporate and figure things out fast, which probably won't be long, the better things will be. It shouldn't take long at all, I pretty much can fit anywhere."

And so the bar is set, by the arriving player himself. Going out and competing for a championship is not just a hope, but an expectation, and everything between now and June will be viewed through that lens. Winning time is here.

Understandably, Harden faced numerous questions from the media about the circumstances of his arrival. On his third team in the last 14 months, Harden is in a unique position for a player of his caliber, left with a lot to prove down the stretch of his career. After another ugly divorce, one that Harden shied away from even discussing on Tuesday, there are real questions about whether Harden will stick through any turbulence in a quest to win a title. Perhaps it will be as easy as he seems to think it will be right now, pushing that question to the side, but it will linger until and unless Philadelphia can climb the mountaintop.

One important piece of business — the option on his contract, which Harden confirmed (as PhillyVoice reported last Friday) that he had not picked up prior to the deal being completed. For the time being, it can be viewed as a product of how quickly the deal came together, and Harden made a verbal commitment on Tuesday to pick up that option when he was able to following the completion of this season. 

"I just wanted to get here and take my time and most importantly focus on the end game," Harden said. "And that's winning a championship."

As we've learned with Embiid between his rookie year and now, saying you want to lead and actually being a leader are two different things. It took a while for Embiid to understand the burden of being a franchise-driving player, doing all of the things it takes to carry a program forward. Between motivational tactics in press conferences, team meals on the road, embracing a playmaking role, even simply playing hard every single night and taking care of his body, Embiid had to discover the value of each piece as he has taken the leap to MVP.

Harden's actual basketball reputation is immaculate, but there are still questions about the rest, with his lifestyle off-court fairly notorious and the string of failed relationships we can look back on in his past. To his credit, Harden said all of the right things about his new teammates and program on day one, noting that he's the one joining the good team already in place, not the other way around.

"It's a time where I needed to be around guys that I know want to win, and know that they are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and the structure here is unbelievable," Harden said. "The opportunity to win is now. Joel is playing the best he's ever played. So my job is to come out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward."

"My job is to help be the leader, be able to push guys and get that swagger out of guys every single night because ultimately that's going to help us get to the end goal, and that's to win a championship. "

Who and how Harden helps is still up for some interpretation, though he had a chance to discuss a few important players on Tuesday. There's Tyrese Maxey, who Harden lauded for his aggression, shooting progress, and his mental approach to the game. There's Tobias Harris, whose ability to score 20 points a night is something Harden said he feels responsible to bring out of the starting forward.

And then there's Joel Embiid, the MVP frontrunner who ultimately helped draw Harden here in the first place. The sentiment on this partnership has been all over the place, ranging from saying they are a bad fit together to people dismissing stylistic concerns immediately as they come up. You have a ball-dominant, pick-and-roll ballhandler with a multi-faceted center who doesn't tend to like being a pick-and-roll guy too much. Something will have to give, even if you're of the mindset that they are destined for success.

Both guys seem convinced that those are minor details to work through, with Embiid noting last week that he's ultimately able to do whatever is necessary to win games and march toward a title. Harden, for his part, thinks they have enough talent and intelligence to overcome any initial hiccups.

“We’re both at a high level to where we’ll figure it out," Harden said Tuesday. "Joel does everything on the floor. So we got guys on our team that are very smart, we communicate and we have coaching that is going to put us in positions to be successful. Listen here, they have something great already going on, I’m just here to contribute. And I know that I can do that very well. On the court when you got high-level skilled guys that know the game and all they want to do is win, they’ll figure it out.”

As Daryl Morey noted in his opening statement to lead the press conference, they're all aware that the hard part is still ahead of them. The first order of business is simply getting Harden on the floor. Harden called it a "collaborative decision" to wait until after the break to return, giving him time to further strengthen his hamstring and work on his conditioning ahead of a return to the floor. Sprints, treadmill work, and individual workouts are all well and good, but they're no substitute for getting on the floor and getting reps with this group.

When he finally arrives, presumably in next Friday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Harden will be where he claims he wanted to be from the moment he looked for the exit in Houston.

"Philly was my first choice, it just didn't happen," Harden said Tuesday. "Best big man in the league in Joel, and obviously the coaching. Just from top to bottom, it made sense. I'm just happy and blessed that I'm here."

Empty rhetoric or a sign of Harden's real-deal commitment to Philadelphia? Only time can tell us that. But if Harden walks the walk, if the process is as seamless as he made it sound Tuesday, there could be a parade down Broad Street sooner than you think.

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