CAMDEN, N.J. — After several drama-filled months, the James Harden saga finally ended for the Philadelphia 76ers in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the three-time NBA scoring champion would finally get his wish of being traded to the LA Clippers.
How did 76ers coach Nick Nurse react to the news? Well, when he was called to be told about the deal, he was fast asleep.
“I did [get a call],” Nurse said with a smile after Tuesday’s practice, “and I slept through it. But I did get up a couple hours later and came into the office.”
Once he did, Nurse woke up to a much different team — one that was without not only Harden, but also forward P.J. Tucker, who had started the first three games for the 76ers, along with reserve forward Filip Petrusev.
Although the deal still has to be officially consummated — something that could happen as soon Tuesday afternoon, the overarching view around the greater Philadelphia area was a sigh of relief that the standoff between Harden and the Sixers had come to a close.
But for Nurse and the 76ers — including Tyrese Maxey, who now officially inherits Harden’s role as the point guard of the roster moving forward after a terrific first three games of the season — the claim was that the on-again, off-again nature of Harden’s involvement over the past several weeks was only a minor distraction to their daily work.
“I think our group has been prepared,” Maxey said. “I think we’ve done a good job of keeping the main thing, the main thing, and I think that’s what’s gotten us all to a solid start. We have some really good guys that are focused, that are determined to go out there and play and, and show what we can do and, and coach that’s keeping our mind in the right place.”
That being said, there’s undoubtedly a cloud of uncertainty that’s been lifted from the 76ers organization — one that’s hung over the franchise ever since Harden opted into his $35.6 million player option for this season back in June and requested a trade to the Clippers.
Since then, Harden has called 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey a liar at a promotional event in China, missed media day and the opening day of training camp practice at Colorado State University and then left the team for 10 days in the middle of the preseason for a personal situation.
The franchise now can both publicly and privately turn the page, and focus on the future — a future that revolves around both Joel Embiid, the league’s reigning MVP, but also Maxey, the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week after averaging 30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 50% from the field and 14-for-25 from 3-point range.
“I’m happy because it means that we are winning,” Maxey said of winning the award. “If we’re not winning, those personal awards, you don’t get recognized because those are for teams and players that are on winning teams. So I’m just happy that our guys are going out there and competing.
“When we step between those lines, however many people we got on our team, we’re ready to go to war with the other team and we have a coach and an organization that believe in us. So it’s been great.”
The Sixers certainly believe in Maxey, who they declined to give a rookie contract extension to earlier this month not because they doesn’t have faith in his long-term ability, but because they are keeping their options open for free agency next summer, when they could have north of $50 million in salary cap space to chase free agents – a number that increased Tuesday by moving on from Tucker’s $11.5 million player option for next season.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Embiid is the only player on a guaranteed contract for next season for the 76ers — giving them maximum flexibility to reshape the roster around their superstar center. That could come next summer in the form of free agent signings, or between now and February’s trade deadline in the form of deals, as they can now send out three future first-round picks in the wake of the Harden deal.
Nurse, though said his focus is on what’s in front of him now, which is preparing for Thursday’s game against his former team, the Toronto Raptors, whom Philadelphia will be trying to beat for the second time in less than a week.
“I keep answering most of these the same way,” Nurse said, when asked about his excitement about what Philadelphia can do in the future. “I gotta get ready for Thursday, and I gotta coach the guys we got. I really like where we are right now. I mean, there’s so much I’m learning about this group. I think there’s so much improvement we have to make in a lot of ways, and I’ll let Daryl and [76ers general manager Elton Brand] and the boys worry about all that stuff, and I’ll coach the guys here on a daily basis.”
That’ll include Maxey, whom Nurse praised for his improvement as a floor general and distributor even from game-to-game over the first several days of the season, let alone since the end of last year.
And while Harden is now in the rearview mirror for the 76ers as he heads back to his hometown of Los Angeles, Maxey said he texted Harden and thanked him for what he’s taught the young guard as they’ve played together across the past 18 months.
“I texted him and I told him I love him, told him I appreciate him,” Maxey said. “One thing that he really installed in me is confidence. I’ve always been a confident person, but he made me be even more confident than I already was, and all I can do is appreciate him for that.
“He took me under his wing, taught me a lot of things as far as just being a professional in this league and how things go. So I appreciate him, and I love him. Same thing with Tuck. Love those guys.”