November 12, 2020
The Houston Rockets are falling apart, and their big-ticket stars appear closer to being traded by the minute. With Daryl Morey running the show for the Sixers, they'll be attached to just about any speculation involving James Harden specifically.
Overnight, Houston's Russell Westbrook went to the organization and requested a trade, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported, and more information about the discord began pouring in afterward. Calls for accountability, questioning of team culture, all the hits were played in reporting Wednesday evening.
Thursday morning, there was another development: ESPN analyst and former NBA player Kendrick Perkins stepped to the microphone and delivered some thoughts on First Take. Claiming that both star players in Houston wanted Ty Lue to be the next head coach of the team, Perkins says communication has broken down since the team decided to hire former Mavs assistant Stephen Silas instead:
“My understanding from a reliable source [is] that James Harden hasn’t been talking with the organization for the last two weeks, hasn’t been taking anybody’s phone calls. Same with Russell Westbrook, no communication there except for last night when he told them he wanted to be out.
Now here’s the thing. Russell Westbrook is a guy that never jumps the gun like this. This is not Russell Westbrook, he always stays private, he never comes out public and requests a trade in the manner he did last night. So that goes to show me, the sources that are telling me James Harden could possibly be joining the Brooklyn Nets with [Kevin Durant] and Kyrie Irving or going to the Philadelphia 76ers, has some truth behind it.
So Russell Westbrook was probably like hold on, if you got plans on leaving, you’re not about to leave me stuck here and leave me out to dry, so Russell Westbrook got ahead of the curve because these rumors that we’re hearing about James Harden possibly teaming up with KD and Kyrie have some truth to it.”
Is there some tea leaf reading here? Yes. Is Perkins the NBA's most prominent newsbreaker? No. But it's important to remember that Perkins has connections to all the parties in question here — he played with both of Harden and Westbrook during the former's final season in Oklahoma City, and certainly has plenty of other ties around the league.
We've already discussed the connection between Morey and Harden at some length previously. This is the player Morey said "changed my life" during his departure letter earlier this year, and the guy he moved heaven and earth to try to win with while in Houston.
Harden is one of a small handful of players in the league capable of being in the NBA MVP discussion every year, with his production and durability up there with any player in the league over the last half-decade. At 31, Harden still likely has a few years left of elite production before he slows down, and oh by the way, his set of skills would pretty much erase the perimeter creation problems the Sixers have currently. And his age/status, while a concern for the long-term, is actually helpful for a tricky dynamic in Philadelphia — he would be the undisputed top dog, clearing up any confusion over whose team it is and who would have the ball when it matters.
The Sixers are a tricky trade partner for Harden, save for a scenario where they're willing to trade one of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons for him. If the Rockets are moving on from one or both of Harden/Westbrook, odds are they're preparing to rebuild and cut costs in the short-term. That makes pieces like Tobias Harris and Al Horford non-starters in deals, not that you were going to be able to complete a deal for a freaking MVP with your misfit toys anyway.
The argument for dealing Embiid in such a scenario: Simmons is younger, more durable (prior to this past season, anyway), able to take more creative burden off of Harden's hands than Embiid, and versatile enough defensively that Morey could fill different sorts of players around the Harden-Simmons combo. If Al Horford is truly cooked, they could even lean in more to the Simmons at center lineups they've shied away from in recent years, continuing with the experimental style we saw this season in Houston.
But Embiid is the better player and for my money a more natural fit with Harden. He's the defensive anchor Harden needs behind him (though Harden has improved there), and while Morey is not a fan of post-ups, the Sixers would be able to toggle between styles with ease in a Harden-Embiid partnership, attacking matchups as they see fit. Harden would make life easier on Embiid offensively with the best pick-and-roll partner he could ever hope to play with.
Are these deals super likely? Not especially. If Harden indeed becomes available, most teams in the league will begin considering how they can put a package together to get him. But I'll let Stephen A. Smith, who also weighed in on the unrest in Houston, have the final word on this one.
"It's a virtual guarantee that one of them is going to be gone, and a better than 50 percent shot that both of them will be gone," Smith said Thursday morning.
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