The playoffs are always in mind for the Sixers.
How could they not be? The team has zero second-round series wins since 2001. Back-to-back MVP runner-up Joel Embiid is 28 years old and painfully familiar with how much postseason runs ride on injury luck. James Harden, a clear choice for the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, last played in the NBA Finals a decade ago as a 22-year-old sixth man.
Still, every team must check off training camp, the preseason, 82 regular-season contests and many thousands of travel miles before the playoffs arrive. That also matters in looking at the Sixers’ action on the first official night of free agency.
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Let’s start with P.J. Tucker, who’s expected to finalize a three-year, $33.2 million deal. All of the on-court tools are pertinent — that “can guard one through five” isn’t a ludicrous descriptor, that he’s a solid release valve and passer when needed offensively, that his effort is exceptional in May and June.
But one of Tucker’s most attractive qualities for the Sixers is basic: Harden and Embiid want to share a court with him. Of course, Harden won plenty of games next to Tucker on Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s Rockets teams. Embiid essentially called “toughness and “Tucker” equivalent after the veteran forward’s Heat eliminated the Sixers.
Constant positivity and pulsating motivation are unrealistic ideals over an entire NBA season. Preventing aimlessness, listlessness and roster construction-based frustration from seeping into the playoffs is a good general aim for any team, though. Tucker should help there. Sustained health is not a sure thing for a hustling 37-year-old, but Tucker’s history with Harden and Embiid makes the risk much easier to understand.
What about Danuel House Jr., who’s set to rejoin Harden and Morey on a two-year, $8.5 million contract?
The sunny summation of House’s career is that he’s demonstrated he can lace ‘em up and figure it out just about anywhere. At 29 years old, he’s gotten playing time with two college programs, the D League’s Delaware 87ers, the G League’s Northern Arizona Suns and Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and the NBA’s Wizards, Suns, Rockets, Knicks and Jazz. House does indeed seem like he would be absolutely fine with no knowledge before tip-off of his teammates or the playbook. He plays hard, wants to bother opponents defensively, likes to sprint out in the open floor, and doesn’t mind putting up catch-and-shoot three-pointers, attacking closeouts or just hanging out behind the arc as a star ball handler operates.
A less generous note on House: His longest stretch of NBA success outside of Houston is 31 total games last year for Utah. None of House, Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz are the epitome of reliability on the wing.
However, there’s sound basketball logic behind both moves. The Sixers desired two-way players, greater depth, stiffer perimeter defense and better athleticism. They wanted to build a team that isn’t enjoyable to play against. De’Anthony Melton, Tucker and House match that image in skill set and attitude.
How Embiid and Harden feel about all of it a big part of the picture, too. By declining his $47.4 million player option, Harden enabled the Sixers to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception for Tucker and the bi-annual exception for House. He’ll meet with the Sixers to negotiate his new deal this weekend, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
In 2020, Embiid said he told the Sixers' front office that the team needed more shooting. Morey was evidently listening, picking up Danny Green and Seth Curry in draft-night trades.
“I think the best teams are having constant dialogue with their players,” Morey said at his end-of-season press conference this year. “I think (head coach Doc Rivers) does a great job with that. I think Joel has a very, I’d say appropriate amount of … he has questions. He wants to understand the plan, because then he wants to go execute it. And he has a lot of faith in what’s happening.
“Again, I think it’s much easier to execute a plan as a player when you feel like you’re having that dialogue. And that’s how it’s been.”
Whatever that dialogue has looked like behind the scenes, it led Morey back to old friends. And maybe they’ll help the pre-playoffs slog be more pleasant for his stars this time around.