76ers have questions to solve on Harden, Rivers after another 2nd-round exit

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MAY 14: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts on the bench against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter in game seven of the 2023 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals at TD Garden on May 14, 2023 in Bos

Trust the Process?

Joel Embiid doesn’t even trust his teammates. At least the ones not named James Harden, just the players — ones like Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey that he’s won a lot of games with over the years — that he deemed didn’t rise to the occasion for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Yet, when the 76ers truly needed Embiid to play like an MVP, where was he?

Embiid scored just 15 points in Game 7 against Boston in a landmark defeat that thrust the franchise into its most pivotal offseason since 2013 when it launched the decade-long program toward a championship.

Doc Rivers might not come back. Harden, too.

Embiid will return, though, saying all the right things about how much he cares and wants to win all while the stench of a third Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals since 2019 lingers over Philly.

Jalen Hurts led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Bryce Harper took the Phillies to the World Series. Embiid’s legacy in Philly is quickly getting stamped as a second-round kind of guy.

Embiid is smart enough to realize that if he has any shot at a championship, he needs Harden — or at least another star — by his side. Harden has a player option for next season.

"I’m gonna stay out of it. But I still believe that me and him, we got the chance to win," Embiid said. "It’s going to take more than us. We’ve all got to look at ourselves. I got be better and I will be better. That’s what I’m focused on. All of us, we got to come back and find ways to just keep improving and help the team. We can’t win alone, I can’t win alone, me and James, we just can’t win alone. That’s why basketball is played five-on-five. So, we just need everyone to just try to keep finding ways to get better."

Can’t win alone. Me and James.

Embiid’s critique was quickly ripped by fans, media, even fellow NBA players, who questioned why the All-Star needed to drag his teammates into the muck after his disappearing act the last two games was a huge reason for the early exit. Embiid won his second straight scoring title at 33.1 points but averaged — while he played through a sprained right knee — 23.7 points in nine playoff games. The 9.4 drop-off is the largest by that year’s MVP in NBA history.

The Sixers have lost six times in the conference semis since Allen Iverson carried an unheralded group of teammates all the way to the 2001 NBA Finals. The 76ers lost to the Lakers that season — and then failed to even reach the second round until 2012.

Philly lost five times in the second round with Embiid. The Sixers, who haven't won a championship since 1983, churned through Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler and other insignificant Embiid wingmen until they thought they hit the bull's-eye last season with Harden.

Harden, who turns 34 in August, comes with his own baggage. He scored 45 points in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4 victories but was 0 for 6 on 3s in Game 2 and Game 6 losses and scored only nine points in Game 7. Harden went scoreless in the second half Sunday.

"I know we’ve got to point somewhere, right? But I thought James, in particular, he was trying to do the right things tonight," Rivers said. "I really did."

So now what?

Harden, who played the last few months with nagging left Achilles soreness, has a player option of $35.6 million. He was vague on what he might do this summer.

"I just want to have a chance to obviously compete," he said.

Asked to describe his relationship with Rivers and if he’d like Rivers to return for a fourth season, Harden said "our relationship is OK" and didn’t answer the second part of the question.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Rivers, who is 6-10 in Game 7s, said he expected to return next season to finish the final two years of his contract. But he understood the reality of the NBA, where coaches such as Nick Nurse (Toronto) and Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee) have been fired already after winning championships since 2019.

"No one is safe in our business and I get that," Rivers said.

Here's a wrinkle the 76ers probably didn't expect — Nurse, Budenholzer and former Sixers assistant Monty Williams (who coached Phoenix in the 2021 NBA Finals) are all available.

Embiid turns 30 next March — just as another grueling postseason run awaits — and his banged-up body likely can’t survive too many more legitimate attempts at winning it all. Team president Daryl Morey heads into the summer trying to figure out how to get Embiid that championship parade, and if Harden and Rivers are still part of the plan to get him there.