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October 02, 2023

Sixers players aim to control what they can control as James Harden saga looms large

James Harden skipped out on Sixers media day. His teammates were left answering questions about the point guard's future in Philly.

A common refrain reverberated through the halls of the Philadelphia 76ers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, during Monday’s media day: control what we can control. For the second time in three years, the likes of Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey and Danny Green ventured to the podium and sat in front of a microphone, prepared to answer questions about the upcoming season, all while bracing for inquiries regarding their starting point guard’s trade request and subsequent absence from media day.

Maxey said he’s grown close with James Harden, called the veteran a brother and hopes he returns to the team. Embiid knows they’re best when he’s available. P.J. Tucker has his “brother’s back, no matter what,” though understands “it is what it is” and “the rest of us have to come here and go to work.” Harris is honing in on controllable things, a lesson gleaned from Ben Simmons’ trade request two years ago.

“It’d be great to have him, obviously, you can't replace a person like that, a player like that,” said Patrick Beverley, who spent four seasons in Houston with Harden. “But if it doesn't work out, we definitely have enough to go to war with, for sure.”

Green’s on his third go-round of a star wanting out, having previously experienced it with Simmons in Philadelphia and Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio. He’s learned to balance his personal and professional life, and considers Harden family.

“I hope things work out from all sides,” Green said. “I wanna see them happy, as well as our team to be thriving and happy, having the people that need to be here and want to be here, and him land where he wants to be.”

Tasked with remedying this ordeal is president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, who spoke first Monday morning alongside new head coach Nick Nurse and answered a flurry of questions, many of which pertained to Harden. Morey navigated Simmons’ trade request in 2020-21, but this one is different for numerous reasons, including the extensive history between him and Harden.

Harden is the star who he’s long invested in to greatly influence his legacy, the man he acquired in February 2022 to complement Embiid’s MVP-caliber play in the pursuit of Philadelphia’s first title since 1983.

Twenty months later, that’s not materialized. The Sixers have suffered back-to-back second-round exits with Harden at the helm as his inconstancies helped define their early departures. Now, Harden has asked out, publicly declared Morey a liar and wishes to never again play for any organization with which he’s involved. Their formerly close-knit relationship has deteriorated, leaving everyone in a precarious position.

Morey illuminated that Harden “continues to seek a trade” and Morey is working with his representation to “resolve that in the best way for the 76ers and, hopefully, all parties.” Much like he did throughout Simmons’ saga, he maintains the goal is to trade Harden for a player who amplifies the franchise’s championship aspirations or for draft capital that will help net them a player of such caliber.

“Short of that, it will continue as long as it takes,” Morey said, who made clear he expects Harden at training camp this week “like every other player,” despite Monday’s no-show.

Morey addressed the professional aspect of Harden’s trade request and the complications accompanying it while running a team holstering title intentions led by the reigning MVP. But he also addressed the personal component, given their lengthy connection and previously mutually beneficial partnership they formed for so many years.

“Look, I think he's a heck of a basketball player. I like him as a person,” Morey said. “It was hard, I think, that he felt like that was the right course of action for him at that point. What else can I say? I think he's a tremendous player that will help us if he chooses to be here. And right now, that's not where he wants to do.”

Morey’s sentiment about welcoming Harden back into the fold if that becomes his preference were echoed by seemingly every player who fielded similar questions. Embiid, the franchise pillar whose chemistry with Harden helped pilot an elite regular season offense in 2022-23, said “it’s unfortunate what has been going on, but the goal is to be together and try to win a championship.”

If Harden is along for the journey, wonderful. If not, Embiid will remain the leader of this group and try to actualize his goal of a title.

“Any team that I’m on, I’m still going to believe that we got a chance to win, no matter who’s on the roster,” said Embiid, who donned a black Phillies “Red October” beanie atop his head. “We got a lot of great players. I’m happy with what we have… Hopefully, the situation with James gets resolved. If he’s here, we love it. We want him to be with us. I think we have a better team with him on the floor, and I think he knows it, too.”

Embiid sees parallels in the messaging from he and his teammates between now and when Simmons held out prior to the 2021-22 season. He said he felt everyone welcomed Simmons back under the unity of winning as the utmost priority. Yet he also concedes he thinks he grew defensive at times in his comments because of external forces placing responsibility on him and fellow Sixers for Simmons’ desire to play elsewhere.

“I think last time this happened, there was a lot of stuff in the media… whether it was blaming me and others on the team,” he said. “And so, I think at that time, I was a little defensive. But this time around, it just seems like maybe it was a misunderstanding between both sides. But I can only control what I can control. And that's to go out there and try to play with what we have, trying to be a leader and bring these guys along. Compete every night and try to win.”

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