Morey discusses Harden’s health, Tucker’s contract, offseason moves originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The 10-year anniversary of Daryl Morey’s first trade for James Harden is almost here.
The two have gotten to know each other well over the last decade, and yet the Sixers’ president of basketball operations did not expect Harden’s press conference following a season-ending loss to the Heat in May to play out exactly as it did.
When asked whether he was ever 100 percent healthy with the Sixers, Harden said, “I was getting there, man. Honestly, it’s been a long two years for me. I’m finally starting to kind of feel OK again. It’ll be a great summer for me to get my body right and be ready to go for next year. These last two years have been a whirlwind, though.”
After being dealt to the Sixers in February, Harden initially focused on rehabbing his injured left hamstring. He then debuted on Feb. 25 and played 21 of a possible 24 regular-season games, averaging 37.7 minutes. He appeared in each of the team’s 12 postseason contests, going a hair under 40 minutes per game.
“I’ll say with James — again, more than any player I’ve worked with — he never says something’s wrong,” Morey said on The Takeoff with John Clark podcast. “It actually surprised me when he said what he said after the season. For him to say that means there were more issues than he … look, he’s spit on it, get on the floor, whatever cost you can do, go out there and win. He’s been one of the most durable guys in NBA history prior to the hamstring issue. I know he’s worked hard to get it to a great place; it’s in a great place right now.
“But during our run last year, he’s never going to say, ‘I’m not 100 percent,’ because he doesn’t ever want to give any excuses, especially during the middle of a playoff run. And he’s also never going to want to indicate to his teammates or the other team that there’s an issue.
“Frankly, throughout my career, we’ve tried to get James to be more open about, ‘Hey, this is hurting’ or whatever, just to protect him. For example, in my years with him (in Houston), he would turn ankles that would send guys out for weeks and just play right away, and then play the next night of a back-to-back. It was impressive. Maybe a little more brave than we needed at times, but you respect that that’s his mindset.”
In Morey’s interview with Clark, he also praised Harden for his recruitment of new signing Montrezl Harrell. And he emphasized the importance of Harden’s decision to ink a two-year, $68.6 million contract this summer. The 33-year-old declined his $47.4 million player option.
“James, he’s a little later in his career than Joel (Embiid), so I would say as you get farther along you realize each year is precious, each season is even more precious. He’s done more, I think, than maybe any star player’s ever done to take that much less money. We just got Montrezl Harrell. We couldn’t have done that without both him taking less money and constantly talking to Trez and saying, ‘Hey, let’s rekindle the magic we had in the past.’
“Look, between the money he gave up and his commitment to the franchise from Day 1 to do what (head coach Doc Rivers) wants … I’m someone who looks at data quite a bit. All the players on the team’s shooting percentages went way up off passes from him. Our team overall was elevated after he came. Joel and James were the No. 1 pick-and-roll combo — really (in) years; it wasn’t just last season. It just shows the overall impact and how he’s lifting the whole team to help us win a title.”
The gist of Morey’s point about Harden’s impact is indeed backed by the numbers. One strong example is Tyrese Maxey, who shot 61.1 percent on two-pointers and 55.6 percent on threes off of passes from Harden and enjoyed discovering the many benefits of the 10-time All-Star’s point guard skills.
With Harden-Embiid lineups, the Sixers sported a plus-15.8 net rating (99th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass.
It would be reasonable to view Morey’s offseason work and assume he listened very closely to what his stars desired. However, Morey described Harden’s reunions with former Rockets Harrell, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. as more nuanced than simply catering to his best players.
“… Look, we’ve added a lot of people who’ve worked both with Doc and myself in the past,” Morey said. “Trez, everyone likes to make fun of the fact that we have a lot of former Rockets, but Trez had his best years under Doc — Sixth Man of the Year (in 2019-20) — and he really flourished after that Chris Paul trade that brought him to the Clippers and working with (assistant coach) Sam Cassell. … It’s never like a one-to-one thing. It’s really like, here’s the array of opportunities. I try to go in without a specific thing like, ‘We have to have X.’ And in fact, the Montrezl Harrell signing was one we didn’t think would maybe happen. So we were comfortable going in with what we had. We thought that if there was an issue, we could address it during the season. … I would guess it’d come more in February or so. So you look at all the opportunities.
“I have discussions with our front office, with Coach Rivers, with ownership, and yes, also with our top players. When the top players are involved and see the range of options, and then see why we’re making the decisions we make, they feel more invested; they feel more a part of everything. It’s just a smart way to get everyone in the boat together. And so when they see all those options, yeah, there might be, like, ‘Hey, I could use a pick-and-roll partner. Montrezl Harrell could do that.’ Or we looked at other players who were better at maybe spacing the floor. ‘OK, if I don’t have a pick-and-roll partner, I could use a spacer who might open up lanes for me.’ So it’s more that than specific players.
“It just so happens that obviously we have James now. There are certain players who work well with James, so it’s natural to maybe look for that fit. Similar with Joel. Just finished playing a series (against) P.J. Tucker. P.J. was able to really impact that series in a lot of ways with his toughness, with his high-level defense, with his energy on the floor, with his offensive rebounding. And Joel correctly said, ‘Hey, we could use a guy like that.’
“But at no point did Joel Embiid say, ‘We have to have P.J. Tucker.’ He happened to be available. If he hadn’t been a free agent, then we would’ve had to move in a different direction. It might’ve been a completely different direction from a P.J. Tucker; it might’ve been a different profile. Again, I think if you go in like, ‘We have to get X,’ that’s where you overpay. That’s where you create constraints for your ability to improve the team later.”
“Overpay” might wind up being a popular label for Tucker’s contract if the 37-year-old drops off physically or has poor injury luck in Philadelphia.
The Sixers used the standard mid-level exception on Tucker, signing him to a three-year, $33.2 million contract. In Morey’s eyes, the recent evidence that Tucker can still be highly valuable for contending teams mattered more than guessing how Tucker will age.
“P.J. Tucker, if you look at players similar to him, (he) should’ve been out of the league four years ago,” Morey said. “Almost no one who plays the type of game he plays is still playing at 37. So we’re already in this space of nobody knows. We’re obviously trying to win now. I’m not as worried about 40. I think I would never bet against P.J. Tucker. Anyone who’s ever bet against him has been wrong, and he keeps winning. So I don’t know what he’s going to be at 40. P.J., he knows he’s going to be great at 40; I know he believes it. I think everyone else doesn’t know, but we feel good.
“Even if maybe his body betrays him a little bit going forward, I still know he’s going to bring energy and he’s going to be an unbelievable guy to have on a roster. All of that said, he’s already in this place where nobody knows the next steps. Normally, you can look at players who play like him at 32, how will they look at 34? You can look at those things. There’s 100, 200 players like that. There’s literally a data set of one person who looks like P.J. Tucker that’s still helping teams win championships at age 36, 37. Almost all of them are these former multi-time All-Stars — to make it to that age. And frankly, P.J. Tucker is an All-Star at his role. Maybe in 50 years guys like him are All-Stars because people recognize the contribution they make.”
Whether he rises to an All-Star level this season or not, a player 16 years younger than Tucker is clearly integral for the Sixers.
Morey acknowledged that the Sixers are banking on the 21-year-old Maxey continuing to develop rapidly.
“He’s key to our season,” Morey said. “Obviously the new players on the team I think are two-way players and are going to set the stage, but winning the title really comes down to your best players. And probably the key things are we need Joel to yet again give us an MVP-level performance; we need James to be just himself — we don’t even need five years ago James, we need the guy we saw last year for most of the games; but the biggest inflection point is probably we need Maxey to take another step forward.
“And he can do it. He’s putting the work in. Look, it’s really hard. His rookie year was way ahead of schedule. His second year was way, way ahead of schedule. And to ask him to do another leap forward is asking a lot, but we do need it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it given how much time he puts in.”