After a forgettable end to their postseason campaign last season, the Philadelphia 76ers have improved over the offseason and are again nicely positioned to right the wrongs of previous years. Joel Embiid is a top-three MVP candidate, James Harden a perennial All-Star and Tyrese Maxey their burgeoning young star. So how are their fortunes going to change this term?
76ers strengthened over the summer, and needed to
It’s remarkable to reminisce and remind yourself where P.J. Tucker was, merely two years ago.
Stuck wondering where his future would take him next, after star backcourt duo Russell Westbrook and later James Harden departed the messy situation in Houston, he would soon follow – playing a key role in the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship-clinching campaign.
Now 37 and entering into Year 17 of his pro career, this is a big man who many critics felt would fade away into obscurity long before earning more multiyear contracts with title contenders.
He’s now an NBA champion, played for the team who knocked Philadelphia out of the playoffs just five months ago and this summer signed a three-year, $33m deal to join Joel Embiid and co.
Reserved for high praise
Tucker’s new team are enamoured by his presence, if these quotes are anything to go by.
“You can see certain guys like P.J. stand out, especially defensively. When he’s on the floor, when he’s off, it is night and day. That’s what we’re challenging guys, because P.J.’s not playing 48 minutes – and it’s not just his defence, it’s his talking and knowledge.
He went through the [Pat] Riley system, so it’s very easy for him to pick up everything. We need more of that from more people.”
“We’re focused on winning and I think anyone who’s counted out P.J. in the past has been wrong. He’s been contributing at a high level for quite a long time, we wanted to make sure we got him here.”
Embiid after Miami’s playoff series win over Philly last season:
“You look at someone like P.J. Tucker. Great player, but it’s not about him knocking down shots. It’s about what he does, whether it’s on the defensive end or rebounding the ball.
I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those types of guys. Nothing against what we have, it’s just the truth. We never had P.J. Tucker – that’s really what I’m trying to say.”
Simply put, Philadelphia have added another difference-maker to the mix and that can never be a bad thing especially when you consider the finest margins can often decide a playoff series.
He reunites with Harden, having spent three-and-a-half years with him in Houston, while a core group featuring Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle play alongside the agitator who infuriated them with his play – both on and off-the-ball – during that aforementioned six-game series.
Another second-round exit last season means the Sixers haven’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals nor NBA Finals since 2001, but head coach Doc Rivers and his staff will be hopeful this year puts an end to that statistic – especially after Harden’s well-documented summer decisions.
Harden took less money – a reported $14m pay cut – helping the ball club sign multiple players as they intensify their attempts to go all-in for a championship charge. While the move was applauded, the 33-year-old’s dwindling displays of late mean he still has plenty of skeptics.
2020 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, De’Anthony Melton (acquired from Memphis via trade) and another of Harden’s former teammates in Danuel House were among the additions.
However, their biggest x-factor this season and beyond could prove to be someone whose continued improvement since being drafted #21 in the 2020 class has stunned critics.
Tyrese Maxey, who averaged 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 42.7% from three-point range in 75 regular season games last term, has been coined the 76ers’ third star alongside the Embiid-Harden tandem. It’s up to the 22-year-old guard to live up to heightened expectations.
He averaged 20.8 points and 48.4 FG% in 12 postseason games last year too – a considerable uptick from his rookie year, as the Dallas-born youngster quickly established himself as a dependable starter and someone who still has room aplenty to grow in this environment.
“Doc said something in the locker room recently, ‘this is a we season, not a me season’, this is going to be all about us as a group.
I’m not really worried about individual accolades, one of the main things I really focused on was trying to become a better leader.
I feel like I have this personality where I’m always smiling, happy. I work extremely hard, try to push my teammates all the time.”
He reportedly spent the summer working nonstop, to the point where Philadelphia staffers considered an intervention to force him into rest, something he wouldn’t oblige them.
You can only hope he didn’t overtrain and avoids injury or fatigue as a tough fixture schedule awaits them – starting with the televised season-opener against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, Milwaukee two nights later before Gregg Popovich’s rebuilding San Antonio Spurs this Saturday.
Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers, a back-to-back slate against Toronto before Chicago and Washington (twice) all feature before November 4’s home clash with the New York Knicks.
As I said back in July, we’ll wait to see what’s next. Embiid’s prime years cannot be wasted, Harden’s comments – while encouraging – come from a declining star, so it’s natural Maxey and others consciously feel pressure on their shoulders to step up and reduce the collective load.
Picture source: Getty Images — quotes via AP