Philadelphia 76ers preview —Now or Never

2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics
2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics

For its season preview series, NBC Sports is focusing on teams at a crossroads, franchises where this season feels like now or never — either it works or big changes could be coming next summer. Up next: The Philadelphia 76ers.

"I just want to win a championship. Whatever it takes. I don't know where that's gonna be, whether it's in Philly or anywhere else, I just want to have a chance to accomplish that."

That statement from Joel Embiid over the summer makes this a now-or-never season for the Philadelphia 76ers — Embiid realizes his window will not be open forever. James Harden and his trade demand may be grabbing the headlines, but how the fallout from that impacts the reigning MVP and the 76ers playoff chances will matter far more to the franchise's future. A future that looks murky right now.

Philadelphia has Embiid in his prime — a player it can build a contender around — but he is frustrated not to have gotten past the second round of the playoffs. With Boston and Milwaukee in a roster arms race, it will be very difficult for the 76ers (or any other team in the East) to advance past the second round this season. This could lead to even more frustration by Embiid, and suddenly it's not hard to imagine the cycle spinning out of control.

Team president Daryl Morey has set up the 76ers to have cap space to chase another star next summer — a dozen players on this roster are in the final year of their contracts — but none of that matters if Embiid asks out. Make no mistake, Embiid loves Philly and its fans, but he desperately wants to win and knows his window will not be open for long. Things could get ugly next summer if he doesn't see a path forward. Half the league has an eye on this situation — hello Knicks, we see you — waiting to see how it plays out.

Whatever happens, it's setting up to be a wild season in Philadelphia. Wherever that ride ends, it starts with Harden and his demands.

James Harden trade demand fallout

Honestly, I put this season preview off, hoping James Harden's trade demand would resolve itself and there would be answers — or at least a path forward and new questions.

Harden's situation puts a dark cloud over this team, adding instability and unpredictability. Until it is resolved, it's hard to see Philadelphia as more than a second-tier team in the East.

As for where things stand as of this writing: Harden reiterated his trade demand this week but the process remains at a standstill. The Los Angeles Clippers — Harden's preferred destination, he is rumored to be reaching out to owner Steve Ballmer directly — are the only legitimate suitor for his services. Not wanting to bid against itself, Los Angeles has offered one first-round pick (2028), one pick swap and veterans with expiring contracts to match salary (likely Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington). The 76ers are demanding multiple picks and better players, including Terance Mann. Philly wants an All-Star player or a package of picks and players that can be flipped into an All-Star so they can keep winning with Embiid. The Clippers have talked to third teams, offering to trade their unprotected 2028 pick for multiple protected picks, to see if Morey likes that any better, but the Clippers are not upping their offer and Morey isn't backing off his trade demands.

Harden showed up to training camp (late, but he showed up), reportedly is in great shape, is not being a distraction, and is ramping up to play in the team's final preseason game and then the season opener. Harden could flip the switch and become a disruptive force in Philly to try and force Morey's hand, but do so and Harden's already shaky trade value would hit a new low (he's forcing his way off a third team in four years and is in the final year of his contract, expecting a big payday next summer). Harden's best hope may be to play well, hope something shifts with another team (maybe the Clippers start the season slowly), and bet his trade market picks up.

Embiid and the other Sixers players have taken a "control what you can control" approach to the whole situation.

"We love him and we want him to be with us," Embiid said of Harden at media day. "And I think we have a better team with him on the floor. And I think he knows it too. So hopefully that gets resolved. And if that doesn't change, it doesn't change the goal.”

What has to frustrate Morey, Embiid and Sixers fans is this team could be outstanding. The core of this is the team Morey built is a threat — Embiid, a focused Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and a solid bench — that could challenge Boston and Milwaukee in the East. However, for that to happen more than just the Harden situation needs to go right.

Can Maxey breakout, Nurse’s schemes lift 76ers?

The brightest spot of the preseason for Philadelphia has been just how good Tyrese Maxey has looked.

Maxey — entering a contract year — has looked comfortable with the ball in his hands as a point guard in new coach Nick Nurse's offense. There's more screening and motion, highlighting Maxey's ability to play at pace. Maxey's passing seems improved, he's not hesitating on jumpers (but is shooting 27.8% from 3 in the preseason), and he can still get into the lane where he can finish at the rim and has an elite floater game. Maxey looks like a player ready to make a leap forward this season.

Overall, the 76ers offense looks better, with players catching the ball on the move more and making quick decisions. It all opens up more actions, and Philly's offense is flowing. Jaden Springer, in particular, has looked better in this system, but so has Tobias Harris. Plus, the 76ers got a steal of a pickup in Kelly Oubre Jr. at the minimum, and in the preseason he has looked like himself — a bucket.

What that looks like with Harden and Embiid in the offense remains to be seen, but the early signs are promising.

Things would be sunny in Philadelphia if it weren't for that Harden-shaped cloud hanging over the team.

Sixers Fantasy Outlook

(This is from Raphielle Johnson of NBC Sports, check out his work and thoughts on every team in the must-have for every fantasy hoops player, the Rotoworld Draft Guide, available now).

Any fantasy-related discussion involving the 76ers has to begin with reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Appearing in 66 games, The Process finished last season ranked second in per-game value and third in totals. Fantasy managers should expect more of the same from Embiid and feel good about Tyrese Maxey. He was a top-100 player in per-game and total value, and Maxey has the potential to crack the top 50 in 2023-24. Tobias Harris and De'Anthony Melton stand to once again be dependable options, but James Harden is the wild card.

We know his desire to leave Philly, with the Clippers being his preferred trade partner. While Harden hasn't made any waves to this point in the preseason, there's no guarantee that will remain the case if the 76ers don't trade him before the start of the regular season. Given his production over the years, it feels strange to recommend that standard league managers avoid drafting him in the first two rounds. Kelly Oubre could potentially provide solid late-round value, but that likely depends on what happens with Harden and who the 76ers would receive in a potential trade.