Can Embiid, Maxey Take New-Look 76ers to New Heights?

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: Nov 20, 2023

BROOKLYN – As an opponent of Joel Embiid’s over much of his career, Nicolas Batum has seen how opposing teams try to stop the reigning NBA MVP.

But since coming to the Philadelphia 76ers via trade earlier this month, the veteran forward has seen first-hand what makes Embiid special.

“When you play against him, you focus on the scorer,” Batum said. “When you play with him, what has shocked me is the balance he’s found for when he has to be a team player and when he has to take over.”

Embiid is somehow having a better season than the one that earned him MVP honors last year. With him leading the way, and a breakout season from guard Tyrese Maxey, the 76ers are on the short list of Eastern Conference contenders after their 10-3 start.

Philadelphia overcame an offseason’s worth of drama surrounding James Harden after the superstar guard forced his way out of town to the Clippers in the Nov. 1 deal where the 76ers landed Batum, Robert Covington, K.J. Martin, and Marcus Morris.

But the Sixers have only flourished after the blockbuster deal. Aside from unloading the unhappy 2018 MVP, the trade also opened the door for Maxey to become an impact point guard.

The 23-year-old ranks 11th in the NBA in points (26.8) and assists (7.1) per game and is on pace to set career-highs in both categories.

“He was always really hard to coach against. I’m not all that surprised that he’s had some big games for us,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s just reps and situational minutes at this position, which he’s never really had that much of.”

Maxey had his first career 50-point game in Philadelphia’s 137-126 win over Indiana on Nov. 12, and his infectious enthusiasm has rubbed off on teammates and opponents alike.

“I love watching players who love playing the game,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn told The Game Day Basketball before Philadelphia’s game in Brooklyn on Sunday. “[Maxey] exudes a joy about him that I love watching.”

Maxey has become one of the league’s top second options, but Embiid is still the engine that drives the 76ers. He leads the NBA in scoring (31.9 PPG), is sixth in rebounds (11.2), and also averages a career-best 6.2 assists per game.

“Just trying to make the right play,” Embiid said after the 76ers’ 121-99 win in Brooklyn on Sunday. “Whatever’s open, just playing with each other in a bunch of different ways.”

Embiid came just one assist shy of his sixth-career triple-double Sunday despite not playing the entire fourth quarter. He still boasts an elite inside-outside game but, to Batum’s point, is adding the playmaking piece to his already-loaded bag of tricks.

“We continue to see different ways that teams are defending him,” Nurse said. “He wants to deliver to the open guy.”

Philadelphia has been bounced in the second round in three straight postseasons despite the fact Harden was supposed to put it over the top. It still remains to be seen whether the Sixers can get past fellow Eastern Conference powers, Boston and Milwaukee, in a best-of-seven series and reach the Finals for the first time since 2001.

But Nurse, who won a championship as coach of the Toronto Raptors in 2019, isn’t worried about the playoffs yet. He understands the league will adapt to his team and is focused on ways for Philadelphia to get ahead of those adjustments.

“We’ve got to keep working in our counter moves to some of those things,” Nurse said. “We keep trying to adjust to get ready to counter for those as they pile up.”

For more Philadelphia 76ers content, continue reading below.

Harden-76ers Saga Brings Player Empowerment Era Closer to Conclusion

Aug. 14, 2023

It could be argued that James Harden has been the face of the NBA’s player-empowerment era.

So it’s not all that stunning that the Philadelphia 76ers guard is at the center of its potential demise.

The NBA world was rocked from its sleepy offseason state when Harden tore into his boss, 76ers president Daryl Morey, a day after Morey reportedly said he would not necessarily honor Harden’s trade request before the 2023-24 season.

“Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said during a press event in China, according to The Athletic.

ESPN reported Sunday the 76ers were cutting off trade talks for Harden and were planning on having him at training camp. Harden, who has been traded twice in the past three seasons, opted into his player option for 2023-24 and then asked to be moved.

The Harden-Morey fallout isn’t shocking given the personalities involved, but it is surprising based on how each has benefitted the other through the years.

Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year when Morey, then-GM of the Houston Rockets, acquired him from Oklahoma City in 2012. But Morey empowered Harden to become the seven-time All-NBA, three-time scoring champ, and two-time assist leader that he has since become, and the Rockets finished .500 or better every season they were together.

Harden has, in turn, become the most successful development of the so-called Moreyball, the analytics movement that changed the NBA forever. Without Harden’s rise in Houston, Morey probably wouldn’t have been the 2018 NBA Executive of the Year — the same year Harden won MVP — nor would he likely be in a position to build a championship contender in Philadelphia.

So Morey may be right to try and salvage that decade-plus relationship, especially with the East in flux and the 76ers poised to benefit. The Celtics may be the favorites in the Eastern Conference, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are still lurking, but the East is wide open.

With perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid, the Sixers are clearly in the mix with a healthy and content Harden.

Yet, there’s the tightrope line for Morey to walk, especially with Harden finally set to hit free agency after this season. The 10-time All-Star’s value will never be higher this season, but Harden undoubtedly still has something to prove since he wants to get one final supermax contract.

Could Harden do what Kawhi Leonard did in Toronto by leading the Sixers to a championship, thus maxing his value, before bolting for greener pastures?

But Morey could also see what the Brooklyn Nets got for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and how the Portland Trail Blazers are playing Damian Lillard’s trade request and realize the NBA world is changing under the new CBA.

NBA execs have always been right to offload disgruntled players. However, they don’t have to cater to the player’s preferred trade destination, especially when a better deal can be had elsewhere.

Harden wants to play for the Clippers since he’s from LA, but they were the fourth-oldest team in the NBA last season and are still paying back picks from the Paul George trade four years ago.

Make no mistake: Harden is still likely to be traded and could even be dealt before training camp. Disgruntled players can poison a culture and torpedo promising seasons, and the 76ers are still one of the best teams in the East.

They could have their window elongated if Morey can acquire budding, young stars to complement Embiid.

Trading Harden to LA and collecting a haul will ensure Morey’s job in Philadelphia. But if Harden ends up staying, or lands anywhere but LA, it’ll continue an unsettling trend for NBA superstars.


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times,,, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

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