CAMDEN, N.J. — Time’s a quirky thing in the NBA.
Promising players morph into stars, then lose a step — and then four or five steps. Eras shift, sometimes with trades that demand the league's attention and sometimes without anyone noticing until years later.
On Tuesday, Daryl Morey and James Harden were about a decade older than the first time they sat alongside each other at a podium and expressed optimism about the future. Flanked by veteran frontcourt player Paul Millsap, head coach Doc Rivers and managing partner Josh Harris, the Sixers’ president of basketball operations and new star guard looked forward to all the possibilities together.
Ten years after Morey landed Harden on the Rockets, here are takeaways on their press conference Tuesday at the Sixers’ practice facility:
‘Philly was my first choice’
The 32-year-old Harden is on his third team in the last two years.
However, he indicated that he would’ve preferred to head straight from Houston to Philadelphia last year.
“Originally, when I was going through everything I was going through in Houston, Philly was my first choice,” he said. “It just didn’t happen. I don’t really want to get into the Brooklyn situation. I just knew for a very long time this was a perfect fit. Obviously you have the best big man in the league in Joel (Embiid), and then obviously the coaching.
“Just from top to bottom, it made sense. I’m just happy and blessed that I’m here. As Doc and everybody wants … it’s (about) being the last team standing. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Harden did not exercise his player option of approximately $47.4 million for the 2022-23 campaign at the time of Thursday’s trade, but he said that he will following this season. It certainly sounds like he wants to be a Sixer for the long term, too.
“Everything happened so fast,” he said. “I just wanted to get here and take my time, and most importantly focus on the end game, and that’s winning a championship.”
What else drew Harden to the Sixers?
The prospects of playing with Embiid and reuniting with Morey were obviously compelling to Harden. He’s also back with Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment CEO Tad Brown, who held the same title in Houston.
Rivers’ role shouldn’t be overlooked, though. He mentioned Friday that Harden had previously reached out “several times” about coaching him. And Harden gave a strong response in explaining why he’d done so.
“One of the best coaches to ever coach the game of basketball,” Harden said. “Why wouldn’t I want to be led by that? I’ve been doing it for a very long time, but he’s been doing it way longer than me and he’s experienced way more than me. And as the player that I am, I still need to learn. I still need to be helped and taught, and be put in a position to be successful. So, why not?”
Harden was also enthusiastic in his praise of new backcourt mate Tyrese Maxey. That pair took shots together following Harden’s first Sixers practice on Monday, and everyone involved seems excited about Harden and Maxey now seeing a lot of each other.
“He’s had an opportunity because of the circumstances,” Harden said. “But his confidence is just going out of the roof. He’s always in attack, and then obviously his three-point shooting is extremely improved. His overall, entire game has just improved, and I think his aggressive mentality — to get to the basket, to knock down the shot when he’s open — it explains it all.
“Obviously he’s surrounded by really good players and the MVP this year to make his job a lot easier. And that’s where I’m coming in — to talk to him, to help him in as many ways as I can. But he’s been doing an unbelievable job and he’s only going to continue to get better.”
Still thinking ahead
The Sixers’ trade for Harden and Millsap was a present-oriented move. Any spin to the contrary would be disingenuous.
It is significant, though, that the Sixers kept Maxey and Matisse Thybulle. In addition to Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, the Sixers sent the Nets first-round picks in 2022 and 2027, but it’s apparent Morey views Maxey and Thybulle as better and more important than generic first-rounders.
“They were critical,” Morey said. “Tyrese absolutely has a chance to be an All-Star in this league. Obviously there’s a lot of work (needed), but I know he’ll put it in. That’s one thing that’s amazing about Tyrese — like James said, his confidence, but also his commitment to put the work in has been incredible. And then Thybulle I think easily could be Defensive Player of the Year — after Joel wins it first, (Embiid) told us.
“But Thybulle, as you saw last game … six steals. The coaches have really worked with him both on using some of his unique skills and also being solid and providing that solid defense you need to win, to have a championship-caliber lineup on the floor. Both of them, I think the sky’s the limit. And that’s a big reason why we made sure they weren’t in this trade.”
In recent years, the Sixers have drafted well in the second round. Isaiah Joe, Shake Milton, Paul Reed and Charles Bassey were all taken 49th or later. Similar success would be great down the line, but Morey’s main aim is prioritizing a championship push while not neglecting youth and potential.
As for the short-term question of when Harden will debut: After being sidelined at the end of his Nets tenure with left hamstring tightness, he'll be out through the All-Star break. Based on his comments Tuesday, he's planning to play soon after that.
“Hamstring feels really good," he said. “Just doing a lot of strengthening work right now. It definitely was a collaborative decision on making sure that after the break, we were full go. Uphill is the only way we can go.
“To my conditioning, it’s great. I’ve been doing a lot of running, a lot of sprints, a lot of treadmill work, strength and conditioning. But it’s nothing like basketball conditioning, playing five-on-five and pick-and-rolls and getting hit and things like that. So that’s something I’ve got to incorporate. But overall, my body feels great.”
Leaving Brooklyn behind
The questions will likely resurface before the Sixers’ March 10 meeting with the Nets, but Harden didn’t have much to say Tuesday regarding his departure from Brooklyn.
His chances to play with fellow stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were sparse for many reasons. Irving has played in just 14 games this season and is ineligible for home games because he’s unvaccinated and New York City has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“Very minimal, honestly,” Harden said of how much the uncertainty around Irving’s status impacted his thinking. “Obviously me and Ky are really good friends. Whatever he’s going through or is still going through, that’s his personal preference. But it definitely did impact the team because originally, me, Kyrie and KD on the court and winning covers up a lot of that stuff.
“It was unfortunate that we played 16 games (together) out of whatever it was. It is what it is, but here in Philly is an opportunity that I’m looking forward to.”
Millsap gets the laughs
Millsap made four All-Star appearances during his prime with the Hawks, but he was predictably silent for the vast majority of the press conference.
When he finally fielded a question, his answer drew the heartiest laughs of the day.
“First off, appreciate it,” Millsap said. “It was getting a little weird up here.”
On his fifth NBA franchise, the 37-year-old shared his initial impressions of the Sixers.
“The culture,” he said. “Coming intro practice yesterday and seeing the joy on guys’ faces, seeing how together everybody is and seeing the energy in the building, that’s what I love. That’s what I love to be around, that’s what I love to come to every day. Being on those good teams in the past that I’ve been on, they’ve all had that same energy.
“To come in here with the talent and the players and the coaching staff and organization, mixed with that energy … it’s unbelievable.”
Morey noted in his opening remarks that the Sixers were hoping to acquire Millsap before the season and commended his versatility.
Of course, he’s been monitoring Harden for quite a while and, after twists and turns aplenty, is thrilled to be back with the 10-time All-Star.