Philadelphia 76ers must win after betting house on James Harden – Sports Illustrated

Daryl Morey was confident. Very confident. It was late March and Morey, the 76ers’ outspoken GM, stood outside a Philadelphia practice and explained why he believed the union of Joel Embiid and James Harden would work. He spoke of basketball IQs. Of Harden’s first partnership with an elite big. Of the pressure a playmaker like Harden could take off Embiid.

“We were very confident,” says Morey, “that it would be a good fit.”

And it has … sometimes. Philadelphia won eight of its first ten after Harden was acquired in mid-February. He scored 56 points in his first two games. He handed out double-digit assists in four of his first five. In 21 games with the Sixers, Harden averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds, All-Star numbers. As SI’s Michael Pina noted on Wednesday, when Embiid and Harden share the floor, Philadelphia posts monster offensive numbers

But there have been times when the team has looked … off. There was a 29-point home loss to Brooklyn in mid-March. Or the five-point win over the LeBron-less, Anthony Davis–less Lakers two weeks later. The Sixers closed March with a three-game losing streak. The burst that made Harden a prolific scorer in Houston just has not been there. Harden shot 40.2% from the floor and 32.6% from three with the Sixers. Both represent career lows.

“I don’t think any of us are there yet, but we’re working on it,” Doc Rivers said this week. “We’re a work in progress.”

Philadelphia will open its first-round series with Toronto on Saturday. The Raptors are good. Really good. They are long. They are skilled. They are well coached. They have waves of defenders they can throw at Harden—Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby, for starters—and while Embiid kills them, Toronto has feasted on the Sixers this season when Embiid is off the floor. The two teams played twice after the Harden trade. The Raptors won them both.

This is a series fifth-seeded Toronto can win.

And it’s one fourth-seeded Philadelphia can’t lose.

A first-round exit for the Sixers wouldn’t be bad. It would be catastrophic. Philadelphia sunk everything into the Harden trade. Ben Simmons. Seth Curry. Andre Drummond. A pair of first-round picks. The Sixers didn’t just bet big on Harden. They bet the house.

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Morey believes in Harden. It’s understandable. It was Morey who, as Rockets GM, acquired Harden in 2012 and spent years building a team around him. He empowered Harden and watched him blossom into an MVP. He acquired shooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to play off of him. He traded for superstars like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook to reinforce him. Houston didn’t win a championship, but Morey never lost faith that Harden could deliver one.

In Houston Morey would routinely discuss roster moves with Harden. “I would be like, ‘Hey, who are the perfect guys to play with?’” Morey tells Sports Illustrated. “And I always had to tell him, ‘Look, you don’t get many choices. You don’t get to go to the superstar store and pick out which one you get. It’s like, who’s available?’ And we’ve had some great ones and got really close, but I think this James-Joel pairing is the best one he’s had in his career.”

It may be. But what if it isn’t? The Sixers, by surrendering most of their best assets, are handcuffed to Harden. He’s expected to opt into the final year of his contract, worth $47 million. After that, Harden, who will be 33 this summer, will likely pursue a four-year extension with Philadelphia that would commit the Sixers to paying in the neighborhood of $270 million over the next five seasons.

It’s the kind of deal few, if any, other NBA teams would offer Harden.

It’s one the Sixers may have to.

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1), center Joel Embiid (21) and forward Tobias Harris (12).

Philadelphia doesn’t have many moves here. It could work on a sign-and-trade deal for Harden, look to recoup assets that way, but, again, is there another team out there willing to bet big on him? It could offer a shorter extension—probably the ideal scenario—but Harden, who rejected contract offers from the Nets last fall, may not be interested in one. It could offer nothing, could dare Harden to walk away from the money he is owed next season, but that could sabotage the relationship with Harden, torpedoing the Sixers’ chances of competing next year.

And they have to compete. Joel Embiid is 28. He’s fresh off an MVP-caliber season. He might be the MVP. He’s a true, in-his-prime superstar with the talent to carry a team to a championship. “I have a lot of confidence in myself,” Embiid told SI recently. “When I get doubled or tripled every possession, it’s a sign of respect. They fear me. They know that if they go single coverage, they have got no shot. So going into every day, I know what to expect, so I just try to enjoy, really, every moment.”

Embiid knew the Sixers were flawed without Simmons. But it was a team he enjoyed playing on. He liked Curry, a floor-spacing perimeter shooter. Having a rebound-gobbling big like Drummond around to back him up was a plus. The chemistry on the Sixers was excellent. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Hey, I love my teammates,’” says Embiid. “To me, I believe that, even then, we had enough, especially at the level I was playing at. So I was like, ‘Hey, whatever happens happens. I’m just going to go out and try to enjoy every single moment, and try to play as hard as I can, and whatever happens, happens.’”

That’s what makes this series with Toronto so important. Win, and Philadelphia advances into a series against Miami with a fighting chance to make it to the conference finals, perhaps justifying the Sixers lavishing a long term contract on Harden this summer. Lose and an offseason of difficult decisions awaits. It’s high stakes for many teams this postseason. None higher than in Philadelphia.

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