Thursday, December 1

‘Grit and grind’ newcomers give Sixers an infusion of toughness, talent and depth


Joel Embiid began to manifest his feelings minutes after the 76ers’ 2021-22 season ended. At a news conference following their Game 6 loss to Miami in the playoffs’ second round, the MVP runner-up said that his team was missing a player like the Heat’s PJ Tucker.

President of basketball operations Daryl Morey followed with swift offseason execution, first with a draft-night trade for combo guard De’Anthony Melton before agreeing to contracts with Tucker and wing Danuel House on the night free agency opened. Later, former NBA sixth man of the year Montrezl Harrell signed to round out the free-agency class.

Those newcomers were publicly introduced as Sixers for the first time at Monday’s preseason media day. Morey and coach Doc Rivers said they valued Tucker, Melton, House, and Harrell because of their ability to contribute on both ends of the floor. Those players found Philly attractive because of a roster anchored by stars Embiid and James Harden with NBA title aspirations.

The additions — combined with a returning core that includes Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris — have created what Rivers calls his best collection of talent in his three seasons with the Sixers. Now, they are tasked with jelling as a group when training camp opens Tuesday at The Citadel in Charleston, SC

“We had a targeted summer, and we hit pretty much what we’re looking for,” Rivers said. “… We have to learn how to become a team first, and if we do that, I love who we are.”

Tucker is expected to slide into the starting lineup at forward, while Harrell will back up Embiid at center and Melton and House will bolster a second unit that ranked 28th in the NBA last season in bench scoring. Although defending, spacing the floor as outside shooters, and lineup versatility are among the group’s primary on-court attributes, those players also boast the intangible toughness that the Sixers candidly said they lacked following their loss to the Heat.

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“We need that grit and that grind,” Harris said.

Added House: “My role is to do whatever the team needs me to do so we can win games — that’s it. All the other spectacular stuff behind it doesn’t really matter to me. … Whatever it takes to get the job done, let’s do it.”

The Sixers turned to familiar faces to satisfy their offseason priorities. Tucker, House, and Harrell are all former Harden teammates with the Houston Rockets, where Morey ran the front office from 2007-20. Melton was drafted by the Rockets in 2018 but was traded to the Phoenix Suns before his rookie season began. Harrell credits Rivers with giving him the opportunity to thrive during his best professional seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers.

The synchronicity of the moves included Harden declining his player option for this season and signing a new two-year deal with a $14 million pay cut in 2022-23 to free up the salary-cap space needed to secure the free agents. That prompted an ongoing tampering investigation, which Morey said he could not comment on.

Yet Tucker acknowledged Monday that he and Harden “were trying to come [to the Sixers] the year before, so I kind of already knew the vibe and the makeup of the team.”

Embiid added that “without [Harden], it would not be possible, all these additions.” Morey, meanwhile, chalked up the getting-the-band-back-together perception to his and Rivers’ longevity in the league.

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“It’s made some funny headlines, that they happened to be ones that we’ve worked with in the past,” Morey said. “But that’s really just for entertainment purposes for you guys [the media].”

Even with these on-paper improvements, the Sixers’ path to the top of the Eastern Conference remains challenging. Though the Boston Celtics are navigating the fallout following the Ime Udoka suspension, their Finals core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams remains intact. The Milwaukee Bucks, the 2021 NBA champions, have run it back with perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Heat are a likely mainstay as long as Erik Spoelstra is coach, and the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors are intriguing upstart teams.

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That’s why the Sixers’ on-court implementation has already begun.

Harden organized a weeklong gathering in Los Angeles, which carried over to pickup games and workouts at the Sixers’ practice facility in recent weeks. Their out-of-town training camp is designed to promote team building through dinners, card games, and conversations—along with fierce competition for rotation minutes.

“You start laying the foundation for what you’re going to hang our hat on all year,” Tucker said. “…This is a fun time for me. I love it. This is when your personality shows and guys get to know you, really. [These are] guys I’ve played against forever, but being on the same team is different. I love that process.”

And for returning wing Matisse Thybulle, the newcomers’ impact is already evident.

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“Their presence, I think, will change some of the structure of our identity and allow us to take strides in the areas where we’ve been weak before,” Thybulle said. “I can only see it just being a contagious thing that trickles down to every other guy.”


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