The Philadelphia 76ers Are Now Playing the Best Kind of Basketball

And I’m eating it up.

If James Harden doesn’t want to play for a basketball team — he will let you know. He burned bridges in Oklahoma City, Houston, and, most recently, Brooklyn.

He wanted to go to Philadelphia, where they were experiencing a similar situation with Ben Simmons, who wanted to leave Philly after the bad taste left in his mouth that was the 2021 trade time — when he was dangled in return for Harden.

Well, it looks like everyone got what they wanted. Simmons and Harden (and a few others) swapped teams and now seem a lot happier:

“He got traded, he’s healthy now. … He rubbin’ some Icy-Hot on that thing, he’s playin’ the next game.” Charles Barkley on Harden’s February injury that put him in question in regards to the All Star Game

Harden joined the team on Friday and they immediately trampled Minnesota 133–102. They brought that road trip to Madison Square Garden yesterday and did the same thing to the Knicks — swiftly beating them 125–109.

They were greeted by cheers from Philadelphia fans who made up a large portion of the crowd. As they cheered “MVP! MVP! MVP!” it felt not without multiple meanings. Not only are they rooting on moneyline MVP-favorite Joel Embiid, they are thrilled to have former MVP Harden on their squad.

Embiid feels similarly:

Embiid was vocally frustrated with Simmons and his attitude. It’s believed that he was never the biggest fan of him to begin with and you could see that in their play. “The Process” never felt like Simmons was a part of the same process as he was.

And his chemistry with Harden has been immediate and electric.

I couldn’t believe this play in yesterday’s game against the Knicks:

They look like the Harlem Globetrotters. Granted, it’s not very hard to make the Knicks look like the Washington Generals — but this felt special. I feel like the last time I saw immediate basketball chemistry like that was when Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin on the Clippers. Griffin had been explosive in his first few seasons, but CP3 made him a true flight risk.

But that was over 10 years ago now.

Come to think of it, I think the last time I saw basketball played like this at all was over ten years ago.

Call me a grandpa, but I don’t like what the game of basketball has become. The Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors dynasty popularized a version of basketball that is all about the shooter. It feels like much less of a team sport to me that way. I feel like it almost takes the coach out of the equation (that’s why they stopped wearing suits! Get off my lawn!) and makes it all about superstars.

Even the best three-point shooter of the 80s, Larry Legend himself, (I think he won the 3-Point Contest in jeans, right?) finds it to be a different game:

“Now, if you’re not firing up thirty 3’s, you’re just not playing basketball.” Larry Bird

Bird attempted a career average 1.9 threes per game.

Steph has a career 8.8 attempts per game.¹

I’ve become disinterested in the game because it’s not the game I loved as a kid.²

Giannis. Steph. Kawhi. Yes, these guys are great basketball players. But great single players used to not mean great teams and now it does.³

Maybe that’s one reason I was so interested to see this year’s Lakers take the court. That retirement home they now call Crypto.com Arena (the irony!) is/was filled with guys I watched growing up: Carmelo, LeBron, Dwight Howard…that was the last time I followed the game closely.

And they stink. Because they’re old.

But watching the 76ers yesterday felt like I was watching team basketball again.

James Harden can be that selfish player. He did it for years in Houston. But that shooting guard looked much more like a point yesterday as he had 16 assists en route to a triple-double (29–16–10), as Embiid finished the afternoon with 37 points.

And a big smile on his face.

And a big smile on mine.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re being coached by Doc Rivers, who is one of few active coaches who coached with success in my personal heyday of the game.⁴ Doc tried for years to continue that success with other teams post-Boston, but it seemed as if the game had maybe passed him by. Turns out, he was right the whole time — he just needed a team with more chemistry than C10H12.

Simmons threw that chemistry (he and Doc never gelled and I’d choose Doc any day that ends in y…) and although James Harden can be a wild card (three franchises in the last 14 months) he wanted Philly and he knew it would work.

Yes, two games is a small sample size — but I’m calling it now: this is perfect basketball chemistry. They’re drawing hard fouls and forcing the defense to press hard, but you can’t double team them, (even though you really have to) because guys like Thybulle or Harris or Maxey can be deadly too.

Embiid has been criticized before for his pick-and-roll execution, but there’s been no issue with that so far with Harden. They’re textbook.

And Doc is subbing guys in and out in a way that gives his stars enough rest without overplaying them — while keeping the other team worried about when they’ll return.

It’s a basketball team playing great team basketball.

I can’t wait to watch these two play more basketball together and lead this squad. Maybe it’ll get me back into NBA ball again, (especially if there’s no baseball to think about!)

They play the Knicks again on Wednesday night in what’ll be Harden’s home debut. I can hear “Sweet Georgia Brown” already…

The fella playing the mandolin taught my middle school orchestra class. Go figure.

¹Curry broke Ray Allen’s career threes record this year. Allen’s 3PA: 5.7.

²Kobe Bryant was my favorite player growing up: 4.1 career average three-point attempts per game.

³Giannis won the Championship last year by single-handedly carrying a bunch of scrubs. I said it!

⁴The 2010 NBA Finals will never be topped for me. That was basketball.

Want to chat sports? Email me: theboywholovedjoekelly@gmail.com

Want to keep updated with the column? Find it on Instagram @theboywholovedjoekelly and Twitter @boywholovedmlb

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Patrick J. Regal

Patrick J. Regal

Educator. Artist. Founder and Editor of Feature Presentation. Instagram: patrickjregal