After only two games where Joel Embiid and James Harden seamlessly scorched opponents together - winning those games by a combined 37 points - Big Perk has already thrown the pair in the same sentence with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This take surprisingly finds some light but is hollow in many other areas, so just your average run-of-the-mill Perkins call, I guess.
There is obviously no argument for who is the better duo. But if you want that spoiler, the winning group holds 11 NBA championships, and the others well… don't. But let’s see which similarities stick because the results are a little fascinating.
Magic and Harden
Although that uniqueness hasn’t pushed Harden over the edge just yet, it would be a drastically different story if he didn’t run into and nearly conquer the Durant/ Curry Warriors. Keyword: nearly. But Magic Johnson would have easily won enough rings for two hands if he didn’t go up against two top-ten all-time players in Jordan and Bird. Not to mention Isiah, Erving, Moses.
What gets lost in the history books is that the great Magic Johnson was labeled a coach-killer and a choker. Yes, really. Magic was tabbed that after winning a Finals MVP as a rookie. It might have something to do with his sophomore playoff series against the Rockets, where he rampaged the media cycle with dramatic digs at teammates like Norm Nixon after Earvin was the one having atrocious games.
In Game 3, he missed 12 of 14 shots, bricked two free throws in the final 30 seconds, and air-balled the series-deciding shot. As for the coach killer, after that first round ‘81 series, he demanded a trade stating he could not play for his coach any longer. I’m going to let you guess who the franchise swung with. Sound familiar to anyone?
When whispers of Kareem needing an alpha dog to carry the scoring load for him reached the mainstream belief, the moment got too big for Earvin during the ‘84 Finals. It was the first Finals without Nixon, instead, the more compatible Byron Scott paired up alongside Magic in one of the most devastating backcourts in history. The first year where Magic held the keys to showtime. What happened?
Magic mistakenly dribbled out the clock at the end of Game 2. Don’t forget when he threw the ball away on another potential game-winning possession in Game 4. Now that we’re on the topic, he did force consecutive turnovers in the last 80 seconds to squander a winnable Game 7. I guess Magic was not quite as clutch as we remember. But those conceptions went away with Magic’s ‘85 title. You only need three more Harden - you can do it!
We also know of Magic and Harden’s fondness for the ladies. At least Harden is safe. Okay, I’ll move on.
Harden didn’t really pick up Magic’s intuition for selflessness either, although he is an elite playmaker - but for a different reason. Magic was so unprecedently big for his position. With a creative flair and long strides, he naturally loved making the first pass. Harden, however, draws so much space and attention from defenses through his range and one-on-one methodical talent - he excels at making the last pass. Not the same thing.
Kareem and Embiid
Okay, this one is less simple. Their personalities couldn’t be any more different, even though Kareem threw more subtle shots than he was remembered for. It’s just that he did it through between the line jabs in his memoirs while Embiid uses Twitter. And Embiid is one of the least durable superstars ever, while Kareem rests at the pinnacle of this metric.
What does stick out is that Kareem is the surest two points in NBA history, while Embiid is the surest bucket right now. Kareem might have had the skyhook, but Embiid is Olajuwon with more strength (relax, I never said he was as good). Kareem dominated with a repetitive and arguably monotone flick of the wrist jumper. Embiid backs people down under the rim with crazy power and is now incorporating what seems to be an unstoppable fadeaway dream shake. Both might not be as equally thrilling. But both drained the life from their opponent's eyes when they got to their spot on the court.
We see Embiid as a loveable tough guy and Kareem as a peaceful but aloof athlete. More people need to rewatch Kareem’s 1977 sucker punch on Kent Bason again. Both players were always asked to do much more than expected. Embiid was forced to play four seasons with a lane-clogging ‘modern’ guard. From ‘73-’79, Kareem didn’t play with a single All-Star or elite point guard. His guards were so mediocre he actually led the ‘75 Bucks in assists. For his entire career, Kareem only played with one power forward who averaged ten rebounds; the legendary Cornell Warner in 1975.
But both stars worked with what they had, always having to overcompensate in every area.
We need to see more
Harden had at least 30 points and 12 assists in his debuts with the Rockets and Nets. He was one three from adding 76ers to that list. No one has ever done that once.
The point is that although Harden starts great, drama and diva-ness always take that next step. Don’t think this will be any different.
That’s what truly separates Harden and Magic. One forced himself out of two teams 18 months apart - the other is universally defined as the best teammate ever. This will be the 76ers’ most significant hurdle.