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February 11, 2022

NBA trade deadline grades roundup: Were Sixers winners or losers of James Harden trade?

On Thursday, about 90 minutes before the NBA trade deadline passed, Daryl Morey and the Sixers pulled off what only a few days earlier seemed impossible: unloading malcontent Ben Simmons, who had yet to play for the team this season, for a former MVP in James Harden, immediately making Philly one of the top contenders to win the NBA title this season.

But the deal, while widely celebrated here in Philadelphia, is not without its concerns, especially down the line. And the more you branch out from the city, the more you'll see people questioning whether or not this was the best longterm move for the Sixers. That would become less of a worry if the Sixers simply went out and won a title in Year 1 of the Harden-Joel Embiid partnership, but that's easier said than done. And titles aren't won on paper. 

So, who won the deal? What grade does Morey deserve for the move? And what are some potential pitfalls of acquiring a 32-year-old Harden who has now forced his way out of two teams in as many years? Well, it all depends who you ask... 

Cause for concern?

Zach Kram | The Ringer

Over at the Ringer, Zach Kram didn't offer up a grade on the deal, but he did wonder just how sound this deal is for Philly given what we've seen from Harden over the last two years. The biggest question, one it's hard not to wonder about no matter how optimistically you're viewing this trade, we bolded.

On offense, Harden still dominates the ball about as much as ever, leading the league once again in possession time. He is an elite isolation scorer and a prolific pick-and-roll creator—easily the best with whom Embiid has ever partnered. The 76ers big man is the league’s premiere post-up threat, but he has never set all that many screens for a center; over the past three seasons, his 32.7 picks per 100 possessions rank just 73rd out of 116 players with at least 1,000 picks, per Second Spectrum...

But questions linger—they have to, given the uncertainty around Harden’s finish in Brooklyn, or else the Nets wouldn’t have considered trading him even amid the player empowerment Sturm und Drang. Namely: Is Harden, at age 32, with more than 36,000 career minutes (counting playoffs) on his legs, still the same player for whom the Nets traded so many players and picks just a year ago? Harden’s true shooting percentage is down to 57.6 percent this season, easily the lowest since he was a rookie, and that’s because of struggles from the field, not any changes to his free throw rate.

Those concerns only amplify projecting beyond this season, with Harden reportedly poised to opt in to his $47.3 million option for next season and in line for a much larger raise afterward. Moreover, even at his peak, he rather infamously failed to register the same sort of postseason impact as he did in the regular season. It’s unclear whether that past is predictive—Kyle Lowry failed in the playoffs until he succeeded; Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks failed in the playoffs until they succeeded—but the fact remains that both post-Thunder Harden and the post-Process 76ers are still searching for their first real taste of playoff success.  []

MORE: The Sixers finally got James Harden. Now what? Answering big questions about the move

A tale of two Hardens

Colin Ward-Henninger |

Before getting into more specific trade grades, let's take a look at two writers who went the winner-loser route instead. Over at CBS Sports, Colin Ward-Henninger wrote that both Ben Simmons and are winners, but when it comes to James Harden, the answer is a bit more complicated... 

Loser: James Harden, the teammate

First Harden was a driving force in the Rockets executing one of the worst trades in recent NBA history when they sent Chris Paul, two first-round picks and two pick swaps to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Russell Westbrook. Just a year later, the relationship between Harden and Westbrook had deteriorated enough that the Rockets traded Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for John Wall. After two consecutive downgrades at point guard, Harden then decided that he wanted out of Houston, showed up late for training camp and loafed his way into a trade to the Nets. Fast forward to last week, when Harden scored four points in a lackluster effort against the Sacramento Kings amid clamorous rumors that he wanted to be traded to the 76ers.

And here we are. With Harden constantly being dissatisfied with teammates and organizations, you have to wonder how long it's going to take until things go south in Philadelphia.

Winner: James Harden, the human being

I'm aware of the hypocrisy of praising Simmons for sticking to his guns while decrying Harden for the same, so I'll name him a winner here. Everybody is entitled to happiness, and Harden has clearly been searching for years for a situation that makes him feel comfortable. Hopefully, Embiid is the teammate, and Philadelphia is the city, that will finally bring him joy and peace.  []

A win-win?

Stephen Noh | Sporting News

The Sporting News' Stephen Noah thinks the deal is a win-win for the Sixers and Nets. I guess the real answer to that could come in the postseason if these two teams meet up. 

Winner: Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers

OK, so we have to start here. If you want a long breakdown, I already gave my grade of the Simmons-Harden swap here. In short, I loved it for both sides. 

Daryl Morey served up a masterclass in negotiation, landing his crown jewel in Harden while also preserving a legitimate title shot in 2022. The Sixers sorely needed some more juice in their shot creation down the stretch of playoff games, so Harden will certainly help there. There will have to be some balance found between Embiid and Harden, but an overabundance of quality isolation players is certainly a better problem to have than a too-timid Simmons. 

Speaking of Simmons, its hard to find a better fit than in Brooklyn. Not only will he instantly shore up some of their massive defensive woes, playing alongside Durant and Irving relieves pressure at the offensive end and allowing him to fit into a more suitable role.

Both teams got better. Both teams can win the title. Another win-win (/ducks and runs).  []

Room for improvement

Kevin Pelton | ESPN

And now onto some grades, starting with the lowest of the bunch, from ESPN's Kevin Pelton. 

76ers: C-

In the end, Morey got his guy. At what price?

Despite the incentives for Brooklyn to make a trade now, the pull seemed stronger for the 76ers for a variety of reasons. Although they've played well enough without Simmons to stay in contention in the East -- Philadelphia is just 2.5 games out of first place and now three up on the Nets -- the Sixers were going to have a hard time competing in the playoffs while getting nothing from his roster spot...

In a vacuum, I'd probably rather have Simmons on his current contract than Harden on his next one, which could make everything else Philadelphia gave up painful. Curry was an important role player for the Sixers, who now find themselves relying on weaker shooters to fill out their wing rotation...

Ultimately, I'd rather do this deal than keep Simmons and hope to trade him this summer. I'm not sure I prefer it to what else might have been available for Philadelphia to upgrade this year's team without the long-term risk of Harden's next contract.  []

It's strange because, if you read the entire thing, a lot of what Pelton wrote made it sound like he was in favor of the deal, but ultimately must have felt the longterm concerns were enough to drop this to a less-than-stellar C-minus. The Nets, for their effort, got a B-plus for this trade.

MORE: Sixers, NBA fans react to blockbuster James Harden trade, end of Ben Simmons era in Philly

Making the grade

Zach Harper | The Athletic

The Athletic's Zach Harper was a little more generous in his grading of the Harden trade, giving the Sixers an A-minus for the move.

Losing Curry hurts because he’s a lethal shooter and an underrated playmaker. But Harden as the lead guard is an upgrade. It also didn’t cost the Sixers Tyrese Maxey, and they can play both of them together. Embiid is having an MVP-caliber season for the second straight season. Wasting a season like this would be brutal for the morale of the Sixers organization and maybe even Embiid himself. Pairing him with Harden potentially solves a lot of the offensive issues of the past.

They need someone to consistently get Embiid the ball in positions that make it easier for him to score. But Harden isn’t someone you can just sag off and dare to shoot. He’s one of the best scorers in the game, and even a down shooting season doesn’t have opponents daring him to knock down jumpers. Harden keeps the defense honest, he can take over when needed and he is a great playmaker to get Embiid the ball.

The Sixers do have to worry a bit about Harden’s hamstring. He had the same issue last season, and it’s lingering again this season. If he can be healthy and in good shape, the Sixers have added an All-NBA level guard to Embiid without the pitfalls of wondering if this player will be willing to score. They’ll need to find a rhythm together, and that may take longer than just the end of this season and the postseason...

Grade: A-minus  []

For those keeping score at home, the Nets also got an A-minus from Harper. 

Splitting the difference

Sam Quinn |

Over at CBS Sports, Sam Quinn also felt like both sides did about the same in this one, sort of splitting the difference between the first two grades we saw. 

76ers trade grade: B

Philadelphia's rationale for making this trade is the opposite of Brooklyn's. This is a long-term move for the Nets. It is a right now trade for the 76ers. Philadelphia is currently only 2.5 games out of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference without having gotten anything from the Simmons salary slot. Inserting Harden, the best shot creator Joel Embiid has ever played with by far, should only vault the Sixers higher. Never again will Philadelphia wither away late in playoff games because of Simmons' inability to shoot, but perhaps just as importantly, they won't struggle down the stretch due to Harden's exhaustion like his previous teams either. Keeping Tyrese Maxey ensures that Harden won't have to play point guard on every possession. The quartet of Harden, Maxey, Tobias Harris and Embiid should be so good offensively that Philadelphia can get away with keeping Matisse Thybulle, an offensive zero, on the floor for defense.

But that doesn't exactly guarantee a championship for Philadelphia.   []

The Nets slightly edged out the Sixers here with a B+, meaning that based on the grades they were the winners of this deal.

Advantage: Sixers

Ricky O'Donnell | SB Nation

SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell, on the other hand, thinks Morey and the Sixers are the winners based on grades, giving them a solid A for the deal that brought them James Harden.

76ers grade: A

Nets grade: B

The big deal the entire league was waiting on finally happened. Harden has had a down year by his standards, but he’s still been one of the best guards in the East this season. He pair with the leading MVP candidate Joel Embiid to make the Sixers an immediate championship threat. The Nets’ title hopes take a hit here, but Simmons and Curry are both nice fits next to Durant and Irving long-term. The Nets’ bold trade for Harden did not pay off, but they come out of it with a younger star who profiles as one of the league’s best defenders in Simmons.

The question is now how Harden and Embiid fit in Philly. Their playing styles don’t feel like a perfect match, but there’s no denying their talent. This is the best 1-2 punch in the NBA right now. Harden will eventually sign a massive extension, and the big question is if his game will age well enough to live up to it. This is a big win for Harden (who wanted out of Brooklyn), Simmons (who wanted out of Philly), and Daryl Morey, who played hardball. The Nets are less likely to win the title this year after this trade, but they could be set up nicely for the future depend on Irving’s playing status.  []

MORE: Sixers trade Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and more to Nets for James Harden

'Should absolutely work out'

Mike D. Sykes, II | For The Win

Over at USA Today's For The Win, Mike D. Sykes gave both the Sixers and Nets A's for the trade. Here's what he had to say about it from the Philly side... 

Philadelphia 76ers grade: A

The 76ers immediately get better here because they add an All-Star to a rotation spot where they were getting absolutely nothing.

Harden is the best playmaker Joel Embiid will have ever played with. Of course, there will be questions about the fit and how things will work between the two of them.

Harden is a player who thrives in spread pick-and-roll attacks. Embiid is a guy who destroys teams from the block with his face-up game. Those two styles conflict in a major way, so it’ll be interesting to see how they work things out.

But these are also two-star players with two of the sharpest minds in the game. This should absolutely work out.  []

Nets the 'clear winners'

Adam Caparell | Complex

And finally, Adam Caparell of Complex gave the Nets a slight edge over the Sixers, but still thinks both made out pretty well. 

Sixers: A-

Nets: A

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski had it first. The blockbuster nobody was sure was going to happen late Thursday morning actually happened and there are many layers to this trade considering the moods of the two stars headlining this massive deadline deal. Let’s all just rejoice that the drama in Brooklyn and Philly is finally OVER. As for the trade itself, the James Harden for Ben Simmons swap is close to an even trade...but the Nets are the clear winners in my book since they acquired another shooter in Seth Curry, picked up some highly necessary future first-round picks, Simmons is absolutely a great fit alongside Kevin Durant and (part-time) Kyrie Irving, and Brooklyn no longer has to deal with a brooding Harden and his lackadaisical commitment. The only thing that kept this deal from being an A+ for me was the Nets was not being able to snag either Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle. For the Sixers, we all know what Harden brings to the table when he actually gives a shit and he’s in shape. Glad to see the Sixers actually didn’t completely punt on Joel Embiid’s career-season by giving him some serious firepower for the postseason, but Daryl Morey’s going to get clowned for giving up future firsts for Harden when he was reportedly requesting multiple picks for Simmons.   []

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