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From Deep: Joel Embiid and James Harden are back, and the 76ers have brought in reinforcements

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On the night of the 2020 draft, weeks after naming Daryl Morey team president, the Philadelphia 76ers swapped Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Seth Curry and Danny Green. Morey said the theme of the night was fit, and that “it’s actually insane” how good the Sixers had been with spacing around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Spacing: What a concept! As a result of these trades, the Sixers’ starting lineup was dominant in 2020-21, just like it had been in 2018-19 and 2017-18. They finished first in the East in the regular season before a dispiriting and disappointing second-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks. If not for Simmons’ trade demand and subsequent holdout, they could have come back stronger the next season, with an improved Tyrese Maxey (an incredible find at No. 21 in that 2020 draft) and the additions of backup bigs Andre Drummond and Georges Niang.

After the Very Normal and Good Offseason of 2020, though, the Simmons situation ensured that they would be in weird territory for a while. They didn’t just start 2021-22 with a roster that had a Simmons-sized hole, as Morey himself put it. They ended it with a roster that was constructed with Simmons in mind, but had James Harden instead. And worse, they had to sacrifice depth to get the deal done. Philadelphia could not avoid another dispiriting and disappointing second-round loss, after which it desperately needed another Very Normal and Good Offseason.

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Morey delivered. Months after Embiid lamented that the Sixers need to have guys like P.J. Tucker, they signed P.J. Tucker. They also traded Green, who had torn his ACL and LCL in the final game of the season, for De’Anthony Melton and signed forward Danuel House and big man Montrezl Harrell.

Defensive versatility: What a concept! With these moves, the front office has positioned the team to be elite on both ends, provided that Harden, 33, can put his hamstring issues behind him and Tucker, 37, can continue to hold his ground against Father Time.

Melton gives the Sixers a top-notch point-of-attack defender and much-needed speed in transition. Between him and House, a 3-and-D-and-a-bit-more guy, they’ll have some athleticism on the wing even if Matisse Thybulle can’t stay on the floor. Harrell will feast against bench units as a roll man and an offensive rebounder. Tucker will hound opposing stars, camp out in the corner, help out on the glass and, ideally, do all the short-roll stuff he did in Miami. He’s also by far the best smallball 5 option that Philadelphia has ever had.

The Sixers are betting that Embiid and Harden can be their best selves together. They are betting that Maxey and Harden can survive defensively against championship-caliber competition. They are betting that Tobias Harris will thrive as an overqualified fourth option, that the new guys will make enough 3s in the playoffs and that they can make an in-season trade if they need to. However this turns out, they’ve at least assembled a team that makes sense. 

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The conversation 

Sixers believer: It feels like Daryl Morey has supercharged the 2019 Rockets. James Harden and P.J. Tucker never should have been separated in the first place, and I’d take Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid over Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela in 3-on-3. That Houston team won 65 games, by the way, and was a turned ankle away from a title. I expect this to be the best Philly team in 40 years, and I hope everybody who ripped Harden last season is ready to apologize. 

Sixers skeptic: The Houston comparison is easy because Morey brought in a bunch of guys with Rockets ties, but it doesn’t really hold up. It’s not just that Harden is 33 and Tucker is 37; it’s that those Rockets were built a particular way: Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon made all the plays, and everybody else was either a 3-and-D guy or, in Capela’s case, a mobile, lob-catching big. The Sixers are closer to that type of construction than they were last year, but you can’t switch the same way with Embiid and Maxey on the court and I’m not sure that Doc Rivers is going to play Tucker at the 5 at all. 

Sixers believer: I didn’t say the rosters were identical. I actually think I prefer this one. The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is unguardable, and in the playoffs Doc will be able to play big or small depending on what the situation calls for. Melton, House, Tucker and Harrell are all high-quality role players. Get excited!

Sixers skeptic: They’re good reinforcements. I’m sure Harrell will look great during the regular season. Let’s say they play against Boston in the playoffs, though — you saw how Robert Williams III guarded Tucker in the conference finals, right? Melton and House are much better shooters than Matisse Thybulle, but they’re not scaring anybody, so I don’t know about the spacing. The main problem, though, is that Harden and Maxey are still sharing the backcourt. The scary thing, to me, is way the Heat attacked them a few months ago. 

Sixers believer: Are you talking about the Heat series in which Embiid was out for the first two games and was clearly not himself when he came back? Yeah, I’m not worried about anything that happened there. And here’s the thing about the Celtics: Nobody’s spacing looks awesome against them. The Warriors figured out that their best bet was to make the bigs guard multiple actions on the perimeter, but even they were well below their normal efficiency. My point is simple: When it comes to switching and shooting, the Sixers are in a way better place. If Thybulle can’t hang offensively or Georges Niang can’t hang defensively, they have options. They could even trade those guys for another two-way player — Morey has a history of making win-now moves before the deadline. 

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Sixers skeptic: That win-now move better be bigger than the George Hill trade of 2021. And unless it’s a transformative one, you can’t just wave away this team’s biggest structural flaw by pointing to Embiid’s injured face. Assuming that Harden has his burst back and avoids another injury — I’ll believe it when I see it — you’re right that Philly could be a fantastic regular-season team. But even if they’re the top seed in the East, like they were in 2020, they’ll probably fall apart in the playoffs for the third year in a row. I don’t trust Harden late in any tight series, I don’t trust Maxey on defense and I don’t think Tobias Harris is going to be content to stay in a glorified 3-and-D role. You might have forgotten that House and Harrell have collected DNP-CDs in the playoffs in recent seasons, but surely you recall that it happened to Melton just a few months ago!

Sixers believer: You’ve lost the plot. From Harden’s debut until the end of last season, the Sixers were fifth in halfcourt offense and eighth in halfcourt defense, per Cleaning The Glass, but they didn’t force a ton of turnovers, almost never grabbed offensive rebounds and were horrendous in transition on both ends. They’re going to be better this season in every single one of those areas. They’re faster, tougher, deeper, more athletic and more versatile. I’ve been screaming that they need a viable smalball big for the last five years, so I might cry when I finally see Tucker at the 5. What more did you want Morey to do? 

Sixers skeptic: Well, I kind of hoped Harris and Thybulle would be elsewhere by now. Morey has a 2029 first-rounder to trade, and — I know this is blasphemous to some people — if I were in his shoes, I’d have moved Maxey if I could have gotten a star wing in return. When the Kevin Durant rumors were going around, for example, I was very much in favor of doing whatever it took to get him. But I get your point. Everything Morey did was perfectly logical, and the team will likely be a bit better on both ends with a full season of Harden and an improved supporting cast. I just don’t think this story is going to end differently this time. 

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Sixers believer: This is the frustrating thing about discussing this team. I can go on and on about how Harden and Embiid are only going to get better together, Maxey is on the verge of stardom, Harris has embraced his role and the rest of the roster makes way more sense, but that’s never enough for the people who are convinced that the Sixers are going to get to the playoffs, then remember that they’re the Sixers and immediately Sixers themselves into another strange, sad, Sixers-y shellacking. Any other team with an MVP-caliber center, one of the best playmakers in NBA history and this kind of talent around them would be seen as a legitimate title contender, not some kind of ticking time bomb. 

Sixers skeptic: While the Sixers could totally have a meltdown again, my concerns are not about their inherent Sixers-ness. The Celtics, Clippers, Warriors and Bucks can all play lineups that are flat-out better suited to playoff-style basketball than Philly’s starting five. If the Nets and Nuggets stay healthy, then I like their title chances better than the Sixers’, too. I’m curious to see what Morey does at the deadline, though, and I’m not trying to say that Harden’s definitely cooked or anything. There’s nothing wrong with being a fringe contender. 

The curiosity: Trevelin Queen

There’s another new guy with Rockets ties: 6-foot-6 wing Trevelin Queen, the 2021-22 G League MVP. 

Queen only made 34.2 percent of his 3s last season, but he attempted a ton, some of them off the dribble and contested. He’s an explosive athlete with 3-and-D potential, i.e. the exact type of guy that this team has always needed and usually lacked. Worth a shot. 

One more thing

Here’s something Embiid said at media day, via CBS Sports Michael Kaskey-Blomain: “Our focus is on defense. We aim to be the best defensive team in the league. That’s going to take all of us. I got to get back to not waiting until the fourth [quarter] to be that guy.”

Look at that accountability! As amazing as Embiid was offensively last season, too often his defensive effort wasn’t there early in games. With less of an offensive burden and better defenders around him, he finds himself in a healthier environment this season. If that translates to the Sixers having the league’s best defense, remember his quote. 


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