76ers' pitch to James Harden keys on ability to 'win it all'

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Thursday, June 1, 2023

CAMDEN, N.J. -- New Philadelphia 76ers coach Nick Nurse was asked about the status of pending free agent James Hardenand how he'd sell the star guard on playing for him next season.

"Winning has to be the sell, right?" Nurse said Thursday during his introductory news conference at the team's practice facility. "Can we be good enough to win it all? That's got to be a goal of his.

"And if it is, then he should stay here and play for us, because I think there's a possibility of that."

Nurse, who was hired by the Sixers just a few weeks after his successful five-year run with the Toronto Raptorsended, said he already has talked to Harden and plans to meet with him as well as every other player on the roster, including Joel Embiid, with whom he sat down during the interview process.

And while a championship is the natural expectation for this team, Nurse inherits a group that has reached the end of the road in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five of the past six seasons.

It has been a generation since Allen Iverson led Philadelphia to its last NBA Finals, and two since Julius Ervingtook the 76ers to their last championship, but Nurse said none of that matters now.

Instead, the focus will be on what lies ahead.

"I look at it this way," Nurse said. "I don't really vibrate on the frequency of the past. To me, when we get a chance to start and dig into this thing a little bit, it's going to be only focused on what we're trying to do forward. [The past] doesn't matter. Next season, whatever's happened for the last how many whatever years doesn't matter to me.

"You guys have mentioned the second round to me twice already, and we're going to hit that head-on. Like we know we're going to be judged on how we play in the playoffs. It was the same in Toronto; we hadn't played that well, and certain players hadn't played that well and all those kinds of things. So the reality is, that's, that's the truth. So, I would imagine from day one we're going to talk about that and that we're going to try to attack that, you know. We're going to have to face it, and we're going to have to rise above it."

Part of rising above it will come down to whether Nurse can help Embiid, the NBA's MVP, take his game to a new level in the postseason. The coach will try to do so from a place of familiarity, given how often they've gone head-to-head over the past five years.

The Raptors and 76ers, beyond facing each other four times a year in the Atlantic Division, also met twice in the playoffs: the epic seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal clash in 2019, when Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beater in Game 7 allowed Toronto to move on, and a six-game first-round series last year.

Along the way, Nurse and Embiid have had some colorful exchanges on the sidelines. Embiid has taken some jabs at Nurse in the media, including comparing Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn to Nurse after Vaughn agitated for foul calls against Embiid during their first-round series last month.

Still, those battles have led Nurse to a newfound appreciation for his new star.

"I think that it's been an interesting experience coaching against Joel," Nurse said. "We threw everything almost I think you could possibly throw at a guy, because it was that hard for us to try to stop him. So we threw a lot at him. So at least I think that we can offensively say this is what we did and here's how we can beat it. And we've almost covered [almost everything].

"The rest of that, it's just, well, it's a little bit entertaining for me. I understand there was some exchanges and things ... when you're out there and you're in the heat of really competing, I didn't even really remember them. But I accidentally had my TV on yesterday and I saw a couple of them, and they were pretty good.

"It kind of grew to such a -- for me anyway -- respect level of him. We'd throw one thing and literally even in that playoff series a game later, he would adjust to it and we couldn't do it."

Nurse opened the news conference by thanking everyone in Toronto for "10 great years," having spent five years there as an assistant before taking over as the head coach prior to the 2018-19 season.

He went on to win a title that first season with Leonard, won Coach of the Year in 2020 when Toronto lost in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics in the NBA's bubble, and made the playoffs in three of his five years with the franchise, losing to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament this season.

Also a candidate for coaching vacancies in Milwaukee and Phoenix, Nurse said the combination of talent and stable ownership made the 76ers his top choice.

"Obviously a championship pedigree at multiple levels is a big, big factor," president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said in explaining why Nurse was his choice to replace Doc Rivers. "His creativity, the fact that a partner in how to create results together I think is a big factor.

"I think he sort of checks every box."

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