MINNEAPOLIS – As the Philadelphia 76ers prepare to finally see James Harden take the court in their uniform for the first time Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, 76ers star Joel Embiid said Harden has been far different than the person he heard about before his arrival.
« I mean, it’s funny, you see all the stories that are out there, and all that stuff, and obviously we all see it, » Embiid said prior to Philadelphia’s shootaround Friday morning. « It’s completely different than what you see out there. He’s a great person, a great personality, always smiling, fun to be around. Everything, really.
« His presence on the team, and on the floor, has really changed a lot since he got here. So I’m just excited for that to continue on the court and I think that’s going to help us a lot. »
Two weeks after Philadelphia traded for Harden, and three weeks after he played his last game as a Brooklyn Net, the 10-time All-Star is ready to take the court after spending the past two weeks recovering from the hamstring tightness that saw him sit out the final three games of his tenure in Brooklyn.
But he wasn’t listed on the injury report at all Friday, having participated fully in Thursday’s practice at the University of Minnesota, and appears fully ready to go as the 76ers begin a 24-game sprint to the end of the regular season while trying to integrate one of the game’s biggest stars into their operation.
And while this game has — understandably — been preceded by lots of buildup, given Harden’s star-power, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he hasn’t had to talk to his players about managing expectations and emotions ahead of the star guard’s debut.
« No. I mean, the guys know, » Rivers said. « This is a race now. 24 games or whatever is left, and we all obviously have somewhat of a new team with just bringing James on. And we’re just going to have to figure it out on the fly.
« Speed dating, that’s what this is. »
The two most important people who have to build chemistry together are, obviously, Embiid and Harden, who spent the end of Thursday’s practice shooting 3-pointers together and then engaging in a brief game of 1-on-1. Embiid even used Harden’s patented stepback jumper — joking that he has a better one in the midrange, but that he still has work to do to equal Harden’s prowess with the shot from 3-point range — but said he thinks the process of getting used to the superstar guard’s game on the court will be smooth.
He also said he is impressed by how smart of a player Harden is from the limited time they’ve been together.
« Well, that’s not my job to figure out lineups and stuff, but I don’t think it will take long, » Embiid said, when asked how long it will take for the team to gain comfort and familiarity together.
« He’s a great basketball player obviously, but he’s also very smart. And you add that with the guys that we have, but at the end of the day it starts at the top.
« We got to want it, I got to want it, he’s got to want it, and the other guys are gonna follow. But I think it’s gonna be smooth and we’re just gonna get going. »
Beyond Harden and Embiid getting used to one another, the two questions Rivers has to answer are who will be the team’s fifth starter — next to the two stars, Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey, the four constants in the starting lineup — and how those four main offensive cogs will be split up throughout the game.
Rivers has said repeatedly since the trade that he plans to stagger those four players so that at least two of them will be on the court together at all times. He’s also said that at least one of Harden and Maxey should always be out there, eliminating a season-long issue of lacking a true lead guard whenever Maxey has left the court while Ben Simmons was away from the team hoping to be traded elsewhere.
But while Rivers downplayed the issue of who the fifth starter will be, saying it could change from game-to-game and that he thinks the idea of who starts is far less important than who finishes games, he said the goal for the next 24 games is to figure out the partnerships that work best before the postseason begins.
« I don’t know about consistency, but at least us knowing what we like best, » Rivers said. « What groups we like when the other groups are off the floor…that’s the key for us. »
Ultimately, though, the 76ers will go as far as the Embiid-Harden partnership will take them. And while Embiid couldn’t help but take a poke at Simmons in discussing Harden’s ability to fit in with the group Friday — saying that, « it’s not going to be hard … we’re not talking about non-shooters, or guys that are limited offensively. We’re talking about James Harden » — he said the most important thing is everyone being aligned toward the same goal.
« It’s great for us as a team, » Embiid said. « It sets expectations even higher than they were before, puts a lot of pressure on everybody, so I’m excited. I’m excited for everybody to play at another level, especially me, so I think it’s going to be fun. »