Harden, Sixers aim for title; trade ‘made sense’

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CAMDEN, New Jersey — James Harden on Tuesday said his newfound partnership with center Joel Embiid can deliver the Philadelphia 76ers their first championship in almost 40 years.

“For me, it made sense, man,” Harden said of the blockbuster trade during his introductory news conference at the team’s practice facility. “It’s a time where I needed to be around guys that I know want to win, and know that they are willing to do whatever it takes to win, and the structure here is unbelievable.

“[Winning a title is] the goal, man. That’s the goal. Like Daryl [Morey] said: The opportunity to win is now. Joel is playing the best he’s ever played. So my job is to come out there and help him and help the entire team win a championship this year and in years going forward.”

Tuesday marked the first time Harden had spoken publicly in almost two weeks, since one of the worst statistical performances of his career — four points on 2-for-11 shooting in the Brooklyn Nets‘ loss Feb. 2 to the Sacramento Kings.

He missed the final three games of his Nets tenure with hamstring tightness before being reunited with Morey — the man who brought him to Houston a little over nine years ago — in a trade deadline blockbuster last Thursday that also centered on All-Star Ben Simmons.

After initially declining to get into specifics about why he decided his time with the Nets needed to end so soon after it began, Harden, who played alongside co-stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in just 16 total games, said the circumstances surrounding Irving’s decision to remain unvaccinated — and thus unable to play in home games in Brooklyn — had an impact on the team.

“Very minimal, honestly,” Harden said. “Like, obviously me and Ky are really good friends, whatever he was going through, or is going through, that’s his personal preference. But it definitely did impact the team because, originally, me, Kyrie, KD on the court — and winning — covers up a lot of that stuff. But it’s unfortunate that we played 16 games out of whatever it was, and it is what it is.

“Here in Philly is an opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it.”

While Harden has typically preferred to play with centers offering more of a lob threat than Embiid, there is little doubt that the two of them should be able to cause massive problems for opposing defenses with their combined talent.

“I think we complement each other,” Harden said. “Obviously, the whole world knows how great Joel has been playing — not just scoring with the basketball, but rebounding. He had a triple-double last game. His presence alone is unbelievable.

“I feel like I’m the same way as far as making my teammates better and doing different things that impact the game at the highest level. And then we have a great core of guys that can also help with that. I wish I was playing tonight [against the Boston Celtics], but just taking my time and after the break we’ll get things going.”

Harden spent about 45 minutes at the end of the Tuesday shootaround going through a rigorous workout with 76ers assistant coach Sam Cassell as he works his way back from a hamstring injury. He will miss the final two games prior to the break — as well as the All-Star Game on Sunday — before returning to action against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 25.

“The hamstring feels really good,” Harden said. “Just doing a lot of strengthening work right now.”

For Morey, bringing Harden to the 76ers was the realization of something that he wanted to happen last year. And to do it, Morey said he was thrilled that he didn’t have to part with young guards Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle.

“Yeah, they were critical [to keep],” Morey said. “Tyrese absolutely has the chance to be an All-Star in this league. … Thybulle, I think, easily can be Defensive Player of the Year — after Joel wins it first, he told us.

“… Both of them, I think, the sky’s the limit. And that’s a big reason why we made sure that they weren’t in this trade.”

In the end, however, this deal was about Harden, and about the superstar guard removing himself from a situation that he was unhappy with for the second time in as many seasons.

“I mean, it wasn’t planned like this,” Harden said with a laugh when asked about being on three teams in a little more than a year. “Fourteen months ago, I didn’t see myself with three different teams. But we are here today and I’m happy.

“[The] last year has been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of stress, but whatever. That’s in the past. I’m excited, I’m healthy and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

For Philadelphia, it’s also an opportunity to move on from the nonstop storyline that was Simmons’ decision to stay away from the franchise over the past several months as he sought his own trade.

At times, it was unclear whether that situation would drag on into the offseason. Instead, Harden presented an opportunity to land, as Morey said repeatedly, the kind of second star who tangibly increases Philadelphia’s championship possibilities.

Now, the 76ers will go try to win one.

“We talked about it,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We can do a lot of winning or we can try to be the winner. And being a winner is hard. That’s what we want to become. That’s why we make trades like this, going out and getting Paul [Millsap] and James.

“We want the opportunity to be the winner, and we believe this trade does that.”

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