There are few things more fun away from the court than when a player like James Harden becomes available on the trade market. It gives fanbases a reason to dream and put together fake trade packages that would allow their favorite team to get a yearly MVP candidate, and thus get considerably better at basketball.
Here’s the cold splash of reality: the Sixers are almost certainly not going to get James Harden for anything short of Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. And despite protests from what appears to be at least half of the fanbase, they should do it.
That is no slight to Simmons, a guy whose weaknesses are infuriating (and seemingly long-lasting) but whose talent, production, and work ethic are evident. I have written extensively that they should be doing everything they can to surround their two core players with better (and better-fitting) talent before pulling the plug. That remains my stance in 99 percent of possible deals — I’m not moving either one of these guys for the Bradley Beal types of the world, good and clean as the fit could be.
This is simply a sober view of what the Sixers have to offer, what other teams have to offer, and what matters in professional sports, which is actually competing for championships instead of theoretically competing for championships one blurry day in the future.
Harden’s stated preference for the Brooklyn Nets has led many fans to question why trade proposals from Brooklyn “only” have to include guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen to get things done, while Philly “has” to give up a young star. It’s pretty simple — Philadelphia’s other big-contract players are negative value assets in outgoing trades and should be expected to be swapped out only for similar assets on teams searching for better fits.
Whatever you think of the Dinwiddie-LeVert-Allen trio, they are cheaper and younger (only slightly so in the case of Tobias Harris) than Philadelphia’s two big signings from last summer. That matters to a team like Houston, who could just as easily flip them for more assets as they enter a rebuilding period post-Harden, or continue developing them as they try to acquire another star long-term.
You have no such option with either Harris or Al Horford, who are in these discussions to be moved in the first place because of the value they haven’t brought to Philadelphia. There’s a reason two of the big targets mentioned all offseason were Chris Paul and Buddy Hield, and that the primary question in those deals was always, “What else would the Sixers have to attach?” With Horford and Harris as the primary outgoing pieces, there is a ceiling on the type of player you can get back.
Harden is in a completely different universe. He has been in the top-three in MVP voting in four consecutive seasons, evolving into one of the most prolific offensive players the league has ever seen. Philadelphia basketball fans have never seen an offensive perimeter engine like Harden suit up for their basketball team. Jrue Holiday, a nice player who will help Milwaukee, just got traded for what is effectively five first-round picks. You are not getting James Harden for the Horford pu pu and picks platter.
The crazy thing about Harden is that it’s more likely his gifts are undersold than oversold. After coming up as a shooting guard and hybrid sixth man in Oklahoma City, Harden eventually took over primary playmaking in Houston, peaking with a season where he averaged 11.2 assists per game as a true point guard in 2016-17. That led the entire league, and Harden managed to complement that with 29.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, getting to the free-throw line almost 11 times a night. There are few players in the league who can truly do it all, and he is one of them.
Playoff failure is the dark mark on Harden’s resume and not something to be taken lightly. He has had some clunkers in big moments that are hard to shake, and the Rockets cycled through secondary pieces to try to aid him on his title quest. All fell short.
Reality check No. 2: the Sixers would be fortunate to have a perimeter player who is as half as good in failure as Harden is or has been. The best thing you can say about Simmons’ performance in Round 2 against the Raptors in 2019 is that he made Kawhi Leonard work hard for his shots and defended him better than anyone else on the team. Unfortunately, Leonard averaged 34.7 points per game in that series and shot 53 percent from the field en route to winning the damn series.
If you believe Ben Simmons’ jumper is going to come and turn him into the primary perimeter initiator that can lead a team to a title, show me the evidence. Yes, there have been guards who entered the league as poor shooters and eventually turned the corner. Most of them showed a willingness to shoot Simmons never has.
Jason Kidd, famously derided as “Ason” because he was missing the J as a young player, attempted over three threes per game in his rookie season in the mid-90s, at a time when the shot was far less prominent than it is today. He did not manage consecutive seasons of what we’ll call average outside shooting (35 percent) until 04-05 and 05-06, a decade into his career. Even if we ignore it’s unrealistic for Simmons to get there that quickly, that would put us roughly seven years away from his shooting breakthrough, by which time he would be 31 (the same age Harden is now) and Embiid would be 33.
Rajon Rondo is a famously reluctant attacker, let alone shooter, and he attempted more threes during his rookie season than Simmons has in three years, even if you include the last-second heaves that make up most of Simmons’ attempts. It took him seven years to average over a single three per game, and Rondo also played next to perhaps the greatest shooter of the pre-Curry era in the backcourt, a Hall of Fame scorer in Paul Pierce, and an era-defining big in Kevin Garnett who thrived away from the paint. Simmons will never have that luxury playing next to Embiid unless Embiid becomes a Karl-Anthony Towns level shooter and/or abandons the post-up altogether. Good luck.
There is a fascination with the “longer title window” the Sixers allegedly have with the Embiid and Simmons combo. The two examples above illustrate how long they might have to wait for the hope of Simmons’ shooting. Even then, there are levels to this shooting business. Simmons has not yet cleared the threshold of being a willing regular-season participant. This team, barring an absolute miracle that plucks a No. 1 perimeter option via trade or draft to rescue this wonky team, needs Simmons to be a thriving playoff-level threat from 30 feet out. Based on current evidence, that feels somewhere between turning water into wine and Moses parting the Red Sea on the scale.
In the meantime, there are dozens of possibilities that could end the party prematurely.
Maybe Embiid gets sick of playing next to a guy who cramps the floor for him. Maybe Simmons gets sick of Embiid’s need to use the space he likes to use most. Maybe one gets hurt, maybe both get hurt, maybe one wants to play with another friend in a warmer market. There are a million different ways this could go south long before the presumed peak of their powers is reached. There is absolutely risk in trading a much younger star for a 31-year-old star, but missing an opportunity to acquire a bonafide MVP still at the peak of his powers is arguably a bigger risk.
Reality check No. 3: there is no title window for Philadelphia right this second. The Sixers are not even close to good enough as currently constructed, and will require at least a medium-sized upheaval to get there. Yes, they have gone to great lengths to upgrade the organization this offseason with people who are better equipped to open said window. But their competitors are already currently better and have room to grow themselves.
The Celtics have embarrassed two completely different versions of this Sixers team in the playoffs in three years on the strength of performances from same-age peers of Embiid and Simmons. The Bucks seem to be sending signals that Giannis Antetokounmpo is staying and have made legitimate upgrades over the last 24 hours. Jimmy Butler proved he was not going to Miami to kick it on the beach for a few years, and Pat Riley always finds ways to lure talent. The Raptors have proven they should not be discounted as competitors under almost any circumstances. Brooklyn already has Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and seems the likeliest destination for Harden should Houston choose to move him.
As currently constructed, Philadelphia is in a dogfight to be better than the sixth-best team in the conference. According to TheLines.com’s consensus odds, Philly’s title chances (+3000) are a ways off the fifth best team in the east, the Raptors (at +1600).
A trade for Harden changes the conversation. He is a more natural fit with Embiid than he is being given credit for, a player who has changed roles and styles several times throughout his career and who I believe would do so again if the situation warranted it.
Embiid is not the go-get-it rim runner Harden thrives playing with, but they offer balance to the other’s strengths, styles that can win different matchups, a more natural 1-2 punch that can actually run plays together. Embiid is the defensive spine and the fallback offensive option Harden needs rolled up into one player.
If you want to make the case they could build a very good team around Simmons and Harden, I wouldn’t argue with you there. But Simmons presents a worse version of the same problems that Russell Westbrook did for Harden in the playoffs this year and Embiid is the better player by a good margin. If you’re going to try to go for it and part with one of these guys, Embiid-Harden is the pairing.
There is one reason to not move heaven and earth for Harden — if he doesn’t want to be here. If Brooklyn is the only team he genuinely wants to play for moving forward, it’s not worth bothering with anything other than the aforementioned pu pu platter. And for all intents and purposes, Simmons and Embiid have not been on the table in any trade discussions the Sixers have had in the past or present. We’ll see if that changes.
But if Philadelphia offers genuine allure to Harden, this is an easier decision than a lot of people seem to think.
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