Shit, Now We Actually Have to Win Huh?
Having James Harden -- and no longer having Ben Simmons -- changes absolutely everything for this team.
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One of the funniest running bits of my NBA experience this season was my Nets fan co-worker being furious at me for not caring about the Sixers winning the title this year. He would get apoplectic in the Billboard Slack for my insistence that I was fine with a 46-36 Sixers season, that I expected no better and made no demands for the team to do anything dramatic and immediate to improve the situation. "How could you be OK with the Sixers wasting a year of Joel Embiid's prime like this??" I dunno. I was. For reasons largely out of their control, it just wasn't the year for them -- and outside of some brilliant, game-changing deal for a superstar emerging out of thin air right before the trade deadline, it wasn't going to be. Besides, I gleefully reminded him, I wasn't the one rooting for the team who had the built-in clock and the urgency to win now lest everything fall apart.
Well. That was two months ago, and two weeks ago, but it is not right now. Right now is the Sixers, post-Harden/Simmons swap — that brilliant, game-changing, late-arriving deal that I had given up hope on actually materializing — having pretty much traded timelines with Brooklyn. Now with Ben Simmons rounding into game shape and still figuring out how weird he's gonna be when he returns to play, and Kyrie Irving desperately trying to find something, anything he can do to get back on the court full-time, the Nets are the team that can afford to go OK But Next Year Though. And the Sixers, with two of the 15 best players in the NBA and one who they're gonna reach decision time with sooner than later, are the team that better get while the gettin's good. Goddamn it.
Having James Harden -- and no longer having Ben Simmons -- changes absolutely everything for this team. Most of that is in a good way, and basically so is this; as I do occasionally have a tendency to forget, and as much of the national media seems to now be actively ignoring when discussing the Sixers' side of the trade, the point of the whole thing is to have a real chance of winning the championship. But with that odds shift does come pressure, and now it's on the Sixers, who have to figure out pretty quickly what they have and what they're doing in their new era. Harden is already 32, and only has a year and change left before we have to pay him all the money in the world for the rest of the decade -- maybe just the "and change" part, according to Kyle Neubeck's recent reporting on Harden not actually opting into the last year of his deal just yet.
Even with the Sixers now having at most 24 regular season games (as Harden is officially out through the All-Star break) to basically figure out a brand new team, this still might very well be the best chance they get at winning the championship with this core. Joel Embiid is obviously playing at an MVP level and appears (knock on an entire lumber yard) to be in the best physical and mental condition we've ever seen him in. Harden is excited to be here. The supporting cast is, at least for now, healthy and solid. The vibes are pure, and the East seems to be fairly wide open. The championship feels closer than it's been at any point in the Process era, except for maybe after Game 3 of the Toronto series. But we've seen how quickly things can deteriorate with Harden; his Nets tenure devolved from This Must Be the Place to Road to Nowhere to Burning Down the House in truly record time. And Embiid... well, I'm not gonna even say it out loud, but suffice to say there's reason to prioritize capitalizing on opportunities with our big man when they present themselves too.
Now that we actually need to care about winning the championship, we need to care about a lot of other stuff that I'd previously shrugged off too. We need to care about whether Tyrese Maxey is ready, in just year two, to be a real two-way force against the highest levels of competition. We need to care about Matisse Thybulle being able to shoot and cut enough to be able to stay on the court offensively, and not make things too cramped on his teammates (particularly JoJo) in the meantime. We need to care about Tobias' recent effectiveness being more indicative of the guy he's gonna be the rest of the season and into the playoffs than the guy the couple months before, where folks were fantasizing about dealing him for John Wall. We need to care about Danny's Dannys not being too Danny when it really matters. We need to care about Doc Rivers, famously about as flexible as a popsicle stick, making the adjustments needed to best fit the talents of all involved.
And we need to care about our team being kinda incomplete at the moment. The bad thing about the Harden deal really going down to the wire of the trade deadline was that in left the Sixers with small holes they wouldn't have time to patch up with some packages built around an expendable Isaiah Joe or Jaden Springer-type. Shake Milton being back helps a little to make up for the loss of Seth Curry's secondary ballhandling (though the lights-out shooting is probably another matter) but the lack of a true backup center is a real problem, and honestly might've been even if we'd held onto Andre Drummond -- somehow, we've still never found the true stretch five to back up Embiid and not get played off the floor in the playoffs, and I don't know if the answer is gonna be available in this year's buyout season. (Nor is that answer likely Basketball "BBall" Paul, much as I love him; the idea of actually relying on him for consistency and shot-making in the playoffs is not one that's gonna make any of us feel particularly warm in the months to come.)
Do we not need to care about the regular season record, at least? Nah, sadly I can't give us that either. Not that I particularly care about seeding in an East where the top teams have been fairly interchangeable, or home court advantage when that's been at best a mixed blessing for the Sixers this season. Rather, I still care about our win-loss record because it remains important for Embiid's MVP case -- which, as Mike recently pointed out, may be more of a now-or-never proposition than anything with Harden also in tow. We need that team record spotless and clean to not give voters any reason to Yeah But his candidacy, or to start to drift back to Jokic or Giannis or towards some surging late candidate like Doncic or DeRozan. The time is now, and we can't let our big man down. (Please do not come at me with "lol who cares all that matters is a championship." This is the Sixers. All that matters is everything.)
Again, good problems to have. Two summers ago we were wondering if this thing was already over, one summer ago we were wondering if we could ever allow ourselves to love or trust again. It's a privilege to be in the championship discussion, in the MVP race, and both as true contenders rather than just "if everything breaks right for us and no one else" contingencies. But it makes it extra stressful to find out Harden is still dealing with hamstring issues and remains at least a week away from getting on the court -- we still have so much shit we need to figure out, and time is suddenly very much not on our side in either the short or long term. An early playoff exit maybe means a new coach, a discouraged Embiid, a disgruntled and soon-to-be-inordinately-expensive Harden. It means a lot of questions and a lot of work to be done, and no guarantees that next year finds us in better or even as good a position to win again. It's heavy shit for a team that was just happy to not be totally miserable a couple weeks ago.
"Welcome back to fandom," my co-worker quipped to me a couple hours after the Harden trade. Thanks. It's fun and chill and I might not sleep again until June.