With Harden going to Nets, Barkley now calls Sixers his 'favorite in the Eastern Conference'

By KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- While you were sleeping, after Philadelphia's convincing 125-108 victory over a very shorthanded Miami Heat, franchise icon Charles Barkley made a strong statement about his current view of the Sixers -- "current" being the key word.

"The big winner in the sweepstakes for James Harden," Barkley said on TNT's "Inside The NBA" shortly after midnight, is the Sixers.

"I’m going out on a limb right now. The big winner -- the Philadelphia 76ers. I think it’s gonna ease the tension around Ben Simmons. I think the Sixers now are gonna be my favorite in the Eastern Conference."

"Stop it," replied Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

"Put 100,000 on them," said fellow TNT analyst Kenny Smith, a two-time champion during his playing career -- possibly joking.

A litte later, Barkley doubled-down on his "going out on a limb" by saying, "Philly and the (Milwaukee) Bucks, to me, are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference."

This came after a win that featured Simmons recording his second triple-double of the season (10 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) and 30th of his career.

Earlier this week, the Houston Rockets traded superstar Harden to the Nets instead of the 76ers. Simmons was rumored to be in Philly's proposal to Houston, but with Harden in Brooklyn, Simmons stays put.

Postgame Thursday, reporters had their first chance to ask Simmons if he was relieved that the rumors circulating before the Rockets-Nets deal have ended -- and if those rumors bothered him.

"I mean this is a business. Things like that happen," Simmons said. "Only thing I can control is how I approach my workouts, the games and my day-to-day things, so I’m just trying to be professional, do the right thing and help my team get wins."

Asked whether he needs to chat with the front office to see where he stands, Simmons responded, "Nah, I come in here to work every day, so my job’s to get better and get wins. All the other stuff I can’t control."

He continued: "I had a great time tonight. I’m blessed. I get to play the game I love every day at the highest level in the world. There’s far worse things going on in the world. I’m in a blessed position. If you told me I would never play the game again, that would be a different story."

There are two ways to look at Barkley’s latest pronouncement.

You could get excited that Barkley believes in the 9-4 Sixers, who are proceeding with Simmons, a 24-year-old versatile All-Star who doesn’t shoot but does everything else -- pass, drive, defend -- exceptionally well, rather than Harden - a 31-year-old, arguably out of shape, previously disgruntled superstar who’s one of this NBA’s elite scorers, based on his career.

Or you could be horrified that Barkley is once again putting his words behind the Sixers, which in the past has proven to fall flat — specifically last season. Could Barkley’s comments jinx the Sixers?

Remember, he told NBC Sports Philadelphia last season that the Sixers were his sleeper team in the East heading into the Disney bubble, where they were eventually swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

However, it’s also important to note that Barkley’s comments came one week after his very critical words about the way the Sixers were losing at halftime to the Nets in Brooklyn -- and that was without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and obviously before the addition of Harden.

"Yeah, I was disappointed in the Sixers, Barkley said last week Thursday with the Sixers losing 65-41 at halftime. "Everybody's on the bandwagon. I said, 'Let's wait. Let me see how it goes.' I'm not going to overreact to their 7-1 record. This is embarrassing tonight. With no KD and Kyrie, they should just come out just punch this team in the mouth and kick their butt."

What a difference a week makes.

To be fair, in two of three losses from Jan. 7 through Jan. 14, the Sixers were severely shorthanded -- with only seven players, essentially, against Denver, and nine against Atlanta. Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle didn’t play in either of those games.

So, Barkley’s comments early on Friday were fun, entertaining, interesting and thought provoking. That’s what makes him brilliant in his post-NBA gig. Time will tell if he’s correct. Or maybe, next week Barkley will have something different to say after two scheduled road games against Memphis and Oklahoma City, as well as a home game versus Boston.