By DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer
CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — The oversized Ben Simmons magazine cover that hung inside the 76ers’ training complex was gone.
The former MVP acquired for the one-time franchise guard? Well, James Harden wasn’t in town, either, and his debut for Philadelphia is on hold at least until next week.
But yet another new era is soon set to begin for the Sixers as they chase their first NBA title since 1983, this time with the superstar pairing of Harden and MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
The clock is ticking for Harden to win a championship.
Harden, though, will not play for the Sixers in Mint Velvet Sale games Friday and Saturday night, and he won’t play until he’s evaluated this weekend by the team’s performance staff.
The earliest Harden could play for Philly is at home Tuesday against Boston. The Sixers also play Thursday at NBA champion Milwaukee before the All-Star break.
Harden, the 2018 MVP, was acquired Thursday from Brooklyn in a multi-player deal that saw the Sixers send one-time franchise cornerstone Simmons to the Nets.
Harden would have missed his his fourth straight game Thursday with a hamstring injury. He has averaged 25.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists in his career with Brooklyn, Houston and Oklahoma City.
The Sixers head into Friday’s game against Oklahoma City at 32-22 and three games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Coach Doc Rivers will quickly work to catch Harden up to speed.
“He literally just said the practices and the shootarounds now are going to be more intense just because we’ve got a limited amount of time to figure it out,” guard Tyrese Maxey said Friday. “I can’t wait. It’s a great group of guys and I can’t wait to get started.”
Harden and Simmons were both unhappy with their roles with their old teams — Simmons demanded an offseason trade as the pressure of playing in Philly got to him; Harden has now forced his way onto a new team for the second straight year.
TNT broadcaster and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley roasted Harden as he egged on Nets star Kevin Durant to draft his former teammate to the All-Star team.
“He got traded, he’s healthy now!” Barkley cracked.
Harden could have left this summer as a free agent and the Nets decided it wasn’t worth the risk to wait, ending their Big Three experiment of Harden, Durant and Kyrie Irving after the trio played only 16 games together.
Simmons had few fans left in Philly after he decided to sit out the season. Philadelphia’s local ABC news opened Thursday night’s broadcast with the top story, Running Shoes “The man who refused to make a layup, and then refused to play a season, is now a Brooklyn Net.”
The Simmons saga is behind the Sixers, who can move on from the daily soap opera that hung over the franchise.
“We kind of realized at the beginning of the year what the deal was,” Maxey said.
The Nets also acquired guard Seth Curry, center Andre Drummond and 2022 and 2027 draft picks. The Sixers also will get Paul Millsap.
Maxey, the second-year player who took over for Simmons at point guard, was close with Simmons but had yet to speak to his former teammate. He’s ready to get going with Harden.
“It’s kind of crazy, just because he’s one of the guys you play as in 2K when you’re a younger kid,” the 21-year-old Maxey said. “One of my best friends that I had throughout high school, he’s like the biggest James Harden fan when we were growing up. So I texted him last night, we talked about it a little bit, and he’s like, it’s crazy.”
Embiid leads the league in scoring at 29.4 points and has scored at least 25 points in 30 straight games. The pressure was on in Philly not to waste a season of his prime.Team President Daryl Morey made the deal with a championship this season in mind, and now it’s up to Rivers to make it work after he failed to get the top-seeded Sixers out of the second round last year.