2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Philadelphia 76ers can’t seem to avoid conflict

James Harden has agitated for a trade as his relationship with the Philadelphia 76ers has broken down. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
James Harden has agitated for a trade as his relationship with the Philadelphia 76ers has broken down. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Orlando Magic fans are already warning themselves away from one of the worst habits anyone can have as a fan base. It is something that unfortunately feels natural, especially in the deadest parts of the offseason.

We know it too.

Narratives and stories thrive on conflict. They are often the key to creating a narrative and writing a story. Conflict drives stories and forces action. It creates easy debate and discussion.

Everything in the NBA is driven by conflict. Especially coverage from national outlets. Everyone is looking to pit one person against another or ponder whether the grass is truly greener on the other side — or just get every big star to a big market.

So, it is of little surprise that after Franz Wagner and Germany defeated Paolo Banchero’s United States team that there were some people began to pause and wonder, “Is Franz Wagner maybe the superstar on this team?”

That might actually be true anyway. Wagner is a few years older and one NBA season wiser than Banchero. And there is a case to be made that Wagner impacts winning in a bigger way already. Although Banchero’s scoring and star potential seem to be brighter.

The bigger point is that they are not going against each other. Seeking an “Alpha” is a myth. A myth that perpetuates itself by lazy narratives.

Everyone should be growing and improving together and with the same ultimate goal in mind. It is only when there are repeated failures that perhaps those goals change and conflict arises.

Conflict is a natural thing for humans to fall back on to tell stories. But conflict rips teams apart. Just as it has for the Philadelphia 76ers and, in the past, the Orlando Magic.

In any case, the Magic are nowhere near the stage where they even know if there is a problem in building a team between the two. For now, they help each other and put the Magic in a position to get to the postseason.

Banchero and Wagner are not working against each other, they are working with each other. And there is no competition between the two other than how they can help each other win. There is no reason to believe yet that this pairing cannot work. There is no reason to imagine a world where the team has to choose between the two.

Of course, conflict is natural. There are concerns beyond basketball that begin to come into the equation, especially as the stakes rise.

Nobody needs to look any further than the nasty breakup that is ongoing with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The path for the Sixers to finally break through and even just reach the Eastern Conference Finals seemed to be cleared. The team has had its two stars in place with an MVP season from Joel Embiid and a great perimeter player in James Harden.

There was no seeming actual conflict between the two players. But it has become clear — thanks in part to reporting from Ramona Shelburne of ESPN — there was some jealousy regarding Harden and his role with the team.

So much so that Harden has requested a trade and has been fined for calling general manager Daryl Morey a liar. The two are apparently not on speaking terms anymore. And it is not clear if Harden will show up to camp with his full heart.

There were clear problems internally that have come out now — including seeming disagreements and frustrations with James Harden traveling on his own and clashing with Doc Rivers’ coaching style.

The problems though seem to boil down to Harden believing he can still be the primary star and his frustration that he was not named to the All-Star team — or that the Sixers did not do enough to promote him as a star.

He may not have had any beef with Embiid personally, but he clearly compared himself to the accolades Embiid was earning. That put Harden in opposition to Embiid in some way and put him in opposition to the main goal and opportunity in front of the Sixers.

It was not like it hurt Harden’s overall performance — he averaged 20.3 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game and 8.3 assists per game in last year’s playoffs and 22.0, 6.6 and 8.0 in the series loss to the Boston Celtics. Harden took the brunt of the criticism for it — he scored just nine points with seven assists and five turnovers in the Game 7 loss to Boston.

As Shelburne shared, Harden can be sensitive it seems to even small slights and often pouts. That has been an unfortunate narrative throughout his stellar career on the court. And his career too has been littered with stories of petty jealousies and frustrations with his perception around the league.

The makeup of players is everything in building a team. But the narratives of teams that fall short and everyone trying to break them up are pervasive.

For the Sixers, it has just boiled to the front and become a bit of a crisis for one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.

It is indeed a tale as old as time.

National reporters have been scheming to break up Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with the Boston Celtics for years now. There is nothing between them that would suggest they want to end their partnership. And despite not getting over the hump, the Celtics are still favorites to win the Eastern Conference (and the In-Season Tournament).

Magic fans know full well how internal beef — even a perceived internal beef — can break apart a team.

The 1996 season saw the media pit Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway against each other with the Magic’s success during O’Neal’s early season injury. O’Neal also reportedly bristled at the Magic’s attempts to convince him to sign for less money so they would also have enough to keep Hardaway a few years down the road. There was the famous commercial where O’Neal knocked a Lil’ Penny puppet off his shoulders.

O’Neal obviously departed after that year and the perceived notion that Hardaway was a bigger star may have played a part of that decision to leave Orlando.

Keeping some harmony and feeding egos is part of the price of having stars. That is a price the 76ers are struggling with now at this moment when the window is wide open for a new Eastern Conference team to emerge on the top.

For now, the Magic’s two young stars are incredibly humble. If anything, the Magic want Wagner to be a bit more selfish and look for his own to reach his own level of stardom.

That is the danger though of trying to compare and rank players. Trying to pit two teammates against each other in any way can lead to major problems down the road. Especially as individual ambitions take over and team ambitions struggle to get accomplished.

Next. Playoff Lessons: Memphis Grizzlies' development is no straight line. dark

That is where the Sixers find themselves as they again have to cycle through partners for their MVP in Embiid. That franchise is reaching a crossroads born from ego, sensitivities and postseason frustrations.