CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — James Harden and Joel Embiid are beefing over who has been the most unbeatable Sixer during 1-on-1 competition at training camp. The smack talk escalated this week after a recent practice, each one badgering the other over who really is the alpha dog in Philly.
Who’s the better scorer? Rebounder? Nah, the thorny topic in this instance, gaming.
Harden tells Embiid he can beat him in FIFA.
“Of course,” Harden said.
“He said ‘OF COURSE,’” Embiid said, unable to stifle his laughter.
“How many games we play?” Embiid said. “Five games?”
“I don’t remember,” Harden retorted. “I haven’t played in four years. I used to be really, really good.”
So The Beard pokes reporters to quiz Embiid about his skills in Madden. Embiid insisted he doesn’t play the football video game on a regular basis, but conceded of Harden, “he’s good.”
“But give me two weeks,” Embiid said, “I’ll be the best.”
Embiid already is the 76ers' go-to guy once the controllers go down and the basketball is tossed up. The question that looms over the Sixers is can they get the two to mesh in their first full season together so they can contend for a title -- especially when Harden has to defer to last season's MVP runner-up?
No longer needed to average 30-plus points a game as he did when he starred as one of the NBA’s great isolation scorers, Harden is now the No. 2 in the Philadelphia's 1-2 punch. Embiid is the reigning NBA scoring champion and the face of the franchise.
The 33-year-old Harden, the 2018 MVP, is trying to prove he’s recovered from lingering tightness in his left hamstring last season that decimated his explosiveness and forced him into “tough times, lot of dark moments.” He took less money to return to the Sixers and dropped some weight over the summer. He's in better condition and serving as a mentor of sorts to blossoming talent, like Tyrese Maxey.
“You’ve got to be a leader,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers expressed to Harden after Thursday’s practice. “Get them to do it right.”
Rivers told Harden he needs to act as a facilitator, and “be the aggressive James” like he was at the end of practice.
“It’s going to come. It’s going to take a while," Rivers told the veteran. "But when it clicks, James, we’re going to be unbeatable. Unbeatable. But you’ve got to keep your spirit up.”
Spirits up, even with the wine connoisseur’s new role.
“You’ve been the President,” Rivers said.
“I ain’t the President no more,” Harden replied.
Hey, VP isn’t so bad. And given Embiid’s injury history, Harden just might have to rise again to the elite level he reached in eight-plus years with the Houston Rockets, where he was a three-time scoring champion and league assists leader. The seven-time All-NBA player was also named last year a member of the league’s 75th anniversary team. But his reputation was smudged when he in large part orchestrated trades out of Houston and Brooklyn over a 14-month span that eventually parked him in Philly at last year’s trade deadline.
The Nets had acquired Harden from the Rockets in a January 2021 trade, with the idea that he would form a Big 3 with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The expected title never materialized and the Nets gave up on a disgruntled Harden and traded him for Philly’s own disgruntled Ben Simmons.
Harden has mostly kept quiet on his previous two trade demands.
“For the most part, I’m to myself,” Harden said. “Media, whoever, they talk and say their little jabs or shots at me and I never respond because I know who I am and what I’m about.”
Harden averaged 21 points in 21 games with the Sixers. It was the postseason that struck reasonable doubt that all the NBA miles on his body might taken a toll.
The fake beards fans wore when the Sixers acquired Harden and crazed excitement stirred by his arrival dimmed in the postseason. Harden had four turnovers, four baskets and did not score in the second half in a season-ending Game 6 loss to Miami. He scored just 14 points in a Game 5 blowout loss at Miami. Harden said several issues that kept him from his full potential in Philadelphia were resolved this summer over meaningful conversations with Rivers and Embiid.
“I think me learning them, and vice versa, them learning me and who I am and what I’m about, this summer was really good for that,” Harden said.
In Harden’s 2017-18 MVP season, he joined Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 20 points, eight assists, five rebounds and 1.7 steals in a season. He led the league in scoring, 3-pointers and 50-point games with four and led the Rockets to an NBA-best 65 wins.
“If you start judging him, well he averaged 30 at Houston, but he only averaged 20 here, that’s insane,” Rivers said. “We have a lot of guys that can score. At Houston, he had to score. All the time. Here, the No. 1 option is Joel. James has never been the second option.”
At least not since his early years in Oklahoma City. If he adapts in Philly, it could go long a way toward bringing the Sixers their first championship since 1983.
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