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January 13, 2021

Sixers one of 'finalists' in the mix for Rockets guard James Harden

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James-Harden_102920_usat Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Houston Rockets guard James Harden.

After James Harden sent what appeared to be a parting message for his time in Houston on Tuesday evening, trade discussions surrounding the Rockets star have intensified, and the Sixers have emerged on the other side as one of the remaining finalists to trade for him, according to a report from The Athletic.

Shams Charania and Sam Amick released a report on Wednesday afternoon describing the state of the sweepstakes as they stand today. With the Brooklyn Nets the other big name left standing — and with Brooklyn reportedly offering every first-round pick they can trade in addition to future pick swaps — it appears there's one player who can sway the Rockets to deal Harden to Philly.

The Rockets have pursued a 76ers package centered on All-NBA star Ben Simmons, sources said. Boston and Toronto have also expressed interest at various points. Simmons, a two-time All-Star, has continued to grow his game on the defensive end of the floor. As far as star talent, the Rockets would be able to acquire a player in Simmons whose talent level may not be available elsewhere.  [The Athletic]

In addition to Simmons, second-year forward Matisse Thybulle also appears to be of interest to the Rockets:

One player whom the Rockets and 76ers have discussed in potential packages is 2019 first-round pick Matisse Thybulle, with Houston having interest in the defensive-minded forward, sources said. The Rockets have had a steep asking price from all interested teams, and the threshold for Philadelphia — and other contenders — to give up one or multiple first-round picks with young assets is unclear. [The Athletic]

And after a strong start to the season for Tyrese Maxey, the rookie appears to have found his way into the sights of the Houston brain trust, with Marc Stein of the New York Times floating his name after the initial wave of reports Wednesday:

Let's sift through the upside and downside with Harden. He 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. 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. 

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 offensively, and he is one of them.

These things were all true before the season, though Harden has made people recoil with the way he has carried himself since the start of the season. With a significant age gap between Harden (31) and Simmons (24), Harden's willingness to show up to work apathetic and not in top shape culminated in teammate John Wall firing shots at him during Houston's postgame press conference on Tuesday night.

The argument against trading Simmons has always centered around upside and the length of Philadelphia's supposed title window, but Simmons returning this year as almost exactly the same player on offense has called into question how much he can be expected to grow over time. The Sixers came into the season viewing this as something of a prove-it year for their young duo, but with Joel Embiid in the early stages of what appears to be an MVP-level campaign, there is some level of urgency for the Sixers to put a title-ready roster around their franchise center immediately.

Harden does not come without warts. His regular-season production has been out of this world, but he is as well known for repeated playoff failures and a refusal to adapt his style in big moments as he is for his MVP play from October to mid-April. The numbers have not led to team success, and an uncompromising style (on top of defensive apathy at times) has led many to wonder whether he has what it takes to lead a title-winner. Harden has bristled with other stars in the past, and with Embiid taking over as the undisputed alpha dog in Philadelphia, it would be interesting to see whether those two are able to mesh in title-winning fashion before Harden is set to make a decision on his player option in 2022.

If you've been under the belief that this is a lot of smoke, even the Rockets have dropped the charade and accelerated things after Harden's display Tuesday night, removing him from practice in order to move things along as quickly as possible.

If you're simply asking me, my stance is the same as it has been since the topic was first broached in mid-November — Harden represents a potential path to the title for Philadelphia, a second elite player alongside Embiid, and is worth some (though perhaps not all) of the headaches he would bring to the table. Being a competitive playoff team is not why people get into this business, this is a title-chasing league where windows to succeed can go out the window sooner than you'd think. 

If the Sixers stand firm on their assertion that Simmons is not available, doubling down on their belief that it is better to have a longer title window than a more realistic title shot over the next two years, it would be defensible. But if Harden goes to Brooklyn and solidifies their title chances, we may look back on that as a bit of delusion on Philly’s end about how good the Embiid/Simmons duo can actually be together.

Whether or not Daryl Morey sees it the same way remains to be seen. This saga appears to be nearing its conclusion, and we should have answers soon enough.

This story is developing...


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