With the fanbase taking its proverbial pitch forks to social media and the radio waves in the hours after the Sixers were eliminated by the Miami Heat on their home floor with a second consecutive listless performance, President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey left nothing to the imagination about the future of heavily and sometimes-justifiably criticized head coach Doc Rivers.
“Yes,” Morey answered when asked if he could assure that Rivers would return after his team met a second-round demise for the second season in a row.
“I just think he’s a great coach, I love working with him. I feel like I’m learning from him,” Morey later said. “Elton and I and him make a great team. We’re going to see where this journey takes us. But, we feel very good about where it’s going to take us and it’s going to be where we have a very good chance to win the title.”
That’s all well and good, but the journey has stalled. The Sixers are where they’ve always been — top heavy with enough flaws beyond that upper talent to snap the rope before they can climb over the second mountain. There’s an abyss between where the Sixers are — licking their wounds from two consecutive second-round exits — and where they want to be.
“We didn’t win the championship. So, that’s the goal. And we didn’t meet it. Grading is up to you guys. You guys can grade us however you want,” Morey said when asked how he grades himself and the organization after a second consecutive demise in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
James Harden represented a variable whose insertion increased the Sixers’ chances of accomplishing that goal. But instead of being reinvigorated by a new start on a team to which he requested a trade for a second consecutive season, Harden left the floor on Thursday with more questions than answers about his future.
“We’re excited about what he can bring. Obviously, to coach’s point, a lot of this came together pretty late and a full offseason, a full training camp, a full time where everyone can learn to unlock like how good everyone can be together,” Morey said when asked how he evaluates Harden’s play since joining the Sixers in February.
“That said, I don’t want to minimize, there was a lot of good. Joel, James, Tobias, Maxey, that group, played very well together. We can play even better. So, we’re excited about what that can look like in the future.”
Morey isn’t wrong. That 4-man group outscored the opposition by 6.6 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. That’s a far cry from the +17.6 points per 100 possessions that unit produced in the regular season. But both outputs, relative to the rest of the league in both the playoffs and regular season, respectively, suggest that that core four can be elite.
The numbers say that, but the eye test doesn’t. Harden disappointed many with his passivity, registering many games in which he took fewer than 10 shots. More damning was that he appeared incapable of winning one-on-one matchups against both lottery-bound and playoff teams. The measuring he did to see whether he could beat the man in front of him translated into over-dribbling. Harden’s over-dribbling ate away at the shot clock, forcing him to settle for difficult stepback threes or into turnovers as he attempted to take congested driving lanes.
Perhaps you wish to pardon Harden’s struggles and buy stock in the idea that he and the Sixers’ medical staff can fix the hamstring issue that has plagued him over the past year. You may even be right. I’ll dive into that more in the near future. But, Morey didn’t exactly inspire confidence that Harden could return to his old self.
“Look, he’s an incredibly talented player, just like Joel, just like Tobias. I’m excited for Doc and his staff to have a whole offseason to work with the players and come up with the best plan for the roster we’ll have, which we don’t know exactly, as we just mentioned, the bench, that’s going to look. Which players on the roster we’re going to feel like are going forward and which ones are the ones where maybe we can get an acquisition that might help. So once we have that in place, I’m excited for what the coaching staff can come up with, versus, obviously, because of our circumstances, having it all come together in February. It makes it very difficult to try and figure out how to unlock all the different skills of the players and how they can work together,” Morey said when asked whether Harden can elevate his play or expectations have to be adjusted.
That translates to “I’m avoiding the question by inundating you with a ramble unrelated to what you asked”. When the question was served a second time, Morey said, “I mean, I think we all know he’s a very skilled player and we’ll figure out how to use him.”
Morey continued his careful navigation of the egg shells, saying “Look, James is a great player. Like, he has the ability to score, pass. He’s a very good player. We’re excited for the future with him,” when the question was rephrased by someone else to ask whether Harden is a facilitator or a scorer.
Morey previously credited Harden with shaping his career. Trading assets for a Sixth Man of the Year winner who wanted a bigger role and payday was a gamble. Morey’s bet on Harden transformed the Houston Rockets from mediocrity to Western Conference power. It also made Morey a revered executive in the NBA. The point in all of this is that Harden is Morey’s guy. The unwillingness to give a straight, positive answer to that question is as damning as anything.
There are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty ways to look at his words. Glass half full, Morey appears keenly aware that Harden did not look at all like his best self. Ostensibly not blinded by his own loyalty to the player, Morey didn’t seem ready to fork over a max deal to the aging guard. Glass half empty, Morey seemed to acknowledge a lack of clarity as to what the outlook is for a guy who he was so sure was the right co-star for Embiid just a few months ago. And now the franchise has to figure out what a long-term commitment to that supposed star looks like.
Joel Embiid’s words about Harden after the team’s elimination on Thursday don’t make what’s to come any easier, either. “Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden. But, that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could’ve been, as all of us, more aggressive,” Embiid answered when asked how much more scoring the team needed from Harden in Game 6.
On one hand, Embiid is stating a fact. On the other hand, it was an authentic response that offered no diplomacy towards shielding his teammate. Even though Embiid didn’t exactly make it clear that he has enjoyed the Harden experience, he’s made it exceptionally clear that he doesn’t seek involvement in personnel decisions. That means that Morey and the rest of Philadelphia’s braintrust will have to decide what the team’s future with its midseason blockbuster acquisition holds.
“That’s the plan, to have him back,” Morey said when asked about the expectation for Harden’s future with the Sixers. “That’s been the plan since the trade. Obviously, we have to work with his representation and that’ll be between us to figure out how that works.”
The previous regime let a star walk out the door just a few years ago. That star ended the Sixers’ season on Thursday. Whether there’s some scarring from that previous mistake, a true belief in what Harden has left in the tank, or both, the Sixers don’t appear ready to let this star walk out on them.
The difference is that this one might be the rebound, while the other might be the one that got away.