January 24, 2022
Two weeks and change stand between the Sixers and the 2022 NBA trade deadline, and signs continue to point to the Sixers holding onto Ben Simmons until at least next offseason. A new report from Sam Amick and Shams Charania at The Athletic suggests there's a well-known star on their minds as they prepare to ship Simmons off in a summertime deal: Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, who the Sixers missed out on acquiring once already.
If it feels like Groundhog's Day around here, well, you've simply been paying attention since Morey took over last season. Harden may not be the only star they have in mind, but he's said to fit the profile of the player they want when they eventually ship Simmons off to another franchise:
The 76ers continue to engage in trade talks around Simmons, who requested a trade and informed the franchise in October that he is not mentally ready to play again for the franchise and needs professional help for his mental health. But multiple sources, including people with direct knowledge of the team’s thinking and also from rival teams involved on the Simmons front, tell The Athletic that the 76ers are believed to prefer to wait in order to pursue Harden or another superstar in the offseason and thus want to save Simmons for that potential sign-and-trade rather than take what’s available on the current market.
Unless Philadelphia is blown away at the deadline by a team that significantly improves its current best offer, in other words, the standstill between Simmons and the Sixers will continue past the deadline. There’s belief that the offers currently available would be there in the offseason too, but what may not be, if a Simmons deal is completed now, is a shot at a star like Harden. Simmons entered this season with four years and $147 million remaining on his maximum contract.
Sacramento and Atlanta have been among the most engaged recently in talks on Simmons, sources said, but team officials with those organizations doubt the 76ers will lower the price threshold for Simmons before Feb. 10. Between now and Feb. 10, the 76ers will continue taking calls and examining potential framework of offers presented to them. The Charlotte Hornets have been among new teams placing a Simmons inquiry to the 76ers, but there’s been nothing substantive, sources said. In return for Simmons, the 76ers have wanted a top-level All-Star or a package featuring a bevy of first-round draft picks for Simmons. [The Athletic]
So let's start here — acquiring Harden hinges first on whether he would want to be in Philadelphia in the first place. The Sixers were obviously a shortlist team for him when he asked out of Houston prior to last season, but it seemed he had moved on when the deal was made to send him to Brooklyn. It would be a pretty stunning turnaround for Harden to ask out of Brooklyn only two years later, especially with the Nets setting the pace out East even with injuries and absences in the lineup, but there are reasons to believe Harden might eventually have a change of heart.
For one, Kyrie Irving's refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine has left Brooklyn without one of their foundational stars for most of the season, and Irving has doubled down on his assertion that getting vaccinated is not for him. The Nets stars have been careful to assert their willingness to be inclusive of Irving and his beliefs, though it's important to note that Kevin Durant and James Harden were reported to have consulted with the franchise when they ultimately determined he could not be a part-time player to start the year. Though the team eventually decided to bring Irving back into the fold for road games, that initial decision says something about how all the Nets power players feel about the situation.
If you're looking for a canary in the Brooklyn coal mine, there was also a small but interesting development in recent weeks, with veteran forward Paul Millsap asking out after signing with the Nets in early September. While that request is ostensibly about playing time and a desire to have a bigger role after falling out of the rotation in Brooklyn, it raised an eyebrow to see a soon to be 37-year-old forward asking out of an obvious shot for a ring as his career winds down. This is not the sort of team a player like Millsap tends to leave in the middle of the season, especially with how frequently coach Steve Nash cycles through rotation options.
Why Philadelphia, if not Brooklyn? Harden would come here knowing he would be the unchallenged perimeter alpha next to Embiid, with a collaborative voice in the front office in the form of Daryl Morey. Perhaps that is enough, or perhaps this all means nothing, rumor-mongering to send a shot across the league ahead of the deadline.
Then there's the other side of the Harden discussion, which is whether the Sixers would be wise to trade for him and build the franchise around him and Embiid in the first place. According to sources who spoke to PhillyVoice on Monday morning, the Sixers are certainly interested in acquiring a player like Harden or even Harden specifically, but they do not view this as a Harden-or-bust situation. Were that opportunity to present itself, the Sixers would likely move whatever is required (save for Joel Embiid) to make it happen, sources say. But executive Daryl Morey will entertain any opportunities to significantly impact their title odds, whether that's at this deadline or in a move made in the offseason.
As a player and at this stage of his career, there is reason to wonder whether Harden represents the slam-dunk, no-doubt co-star the Sixers are after with Joel Embiid. At his peak, there was absolutely no disputing how good he was and how much sense he made with the Sixers. Though he has been ultra-productive after a rough start to the year, he does look to have lost a step athletically this season, his first after dealing with a nagging hamstring problem that derailed Brooklyn's title push last year.
The question is how much that will matter. Even in a diminished state, Harden is in a different universe from anyone on Philadelphia's roster, now or in recent history, a perennial MVP candidate that is an elite offense all by himself. Prior to arriving in Brooklyn, he was 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. 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 offensively, and he is one of them.
In recent weeks, Embiid has shown the willingness to move in and out of roles in order to get the best out of his supporting cast, specifically as it pertains to Tyrese Maxey, who is getting increased opportunities to run pick-and-rolls with Embiid. Put Harden in that spot, and I suspect Embiid would be even more eager to help out a talented co-star, setting aside just how big a leap that would be for Philadelphia's perimeter playmaking. The Sixers would not have creation concerns any longer, and could shift almost the entire roster around the Embiid-Harden duo in their quest to build a title-winning formula.
Philadelphia, though, would not be trading for the in-prime Harden who put up 50-point triple-doubles and wowed people around the league with his blend of strength, playmaking, and shotmaking. Harden would come no sooner than this offseason, when he'll turn 33 years old and (likely) coming off his least productive season since he was a young gun in Oklahoma City, waiting for a mega deal that pays him into his late 30s.
While other perimeter stars around the NBA have challenged the idea that it's unwise to pay players huge money deep into their 30s, they fit a different sort of profile than Harden. LeBron James, for example, is legendary not just for his on-court production but his self-care away from the game, reportedly investing over seven figures to take care of his body. Chris Paul, who fought off age concerns with a renaissance after leaving Houston, became a vegan and reimagined his diet in an effort to squeeze every last drop out of his career. Even Jimmy Butler, who people were worried would break down on his next contract when he was up for free agency in 2019, was a concern because of his previous workload and alleged personality clashes, not because of the work he puts in. Butler, as I'm sure you've heard before, is a notorious workout warrior.
Harden has never had the same reputation as those guys, skewing toward the "enjoys his time off the court" end of the spectrum. He showed up visibly out of shape in Houston as he looked for a way out of that situation, and soft tissue injuries seem to have left their mark on him recently. He's not the sure bet he seemed to be as recently as a year or two ago. Though to be fair to Harden, his skill level is so absurdly high that those things might not matter in the short to medium term, and the repertoire he has built over the years is a sign of dedication to his craft that conflicts with whatever work ethic concerns exist.
(Speaking of that repertoire, the Sixers might be the most hated team in the league with Embiid and Harden running things. Those two would average 20+ free throws a game all by themselves, slowing games to a crawl and driving opposing fanbases mad.)
For some time now, the Sixers have been preparing the league and their fans for a scenario where they hold onto Simmons through the deadline. Embiid's role in their public and private position can't be understated — he is not just playing the best basketball of his life, he is enjoying and embracing his position as the alpha dog in a way he struggled to in the past. He has walked the company line in press conferences, used his voice on the floor and in the locker room like never before, and expanded his game in areas expected and unexpected. For whatever faults Doc Rivers has as a coach, he has set up an environment where Embiid has taken a leap in back-to-back years and done so without overtaxing his star, keeping him outside of the league's top 50 players in minutes per game this season.
And that's where the Sixers' deadline approach makes some sense. While everyone on the outside has waited for somebody to blink and get mad that more isn't being done, things have remained hunky-dory in Philadelphia, at least for now. So long as they have the franchise player in the boat and content with his situation, the Sixers will have the ability to potentially wait out the market. That might end up netting them a player like Harden, even if it's fair to wonder whether a little more urgency to win with Embiid right now might be required.
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