February 05, 2022
With five days to go until the trade deadline, James Harden to the Sixers has at least a plausible chance to happen, with the Brooklyn Nets reportedly willing to discuss a deal. Though a deal of that magnitude still feels like it has a better chance of happening in the summer, it's an opportunity that will weigh heavily on the minds of everyone in both cities, as Philadelphia stares down a potential leap toward contention.
The million-dollar question is this — what is a reasonable price tag to get this deal done? Here's a look at all the angles.
Joel Embiid is in the midst of a push for MVP. The title race is more open than it seemed like it would be coming into the year. Ben Simmons is burning $33 million of the salary cap to provide you with nothing on the floor. And you're asking why you should give up extra for a guy who would be the best perimeter initiator the Sixers have had since Allen Iverson?
Harden, even in his aging and diminished state, is a better basketball player than Ben Simmons and a better offensive fit next to Embiid. The Nets know with this move that they would potentially be turning the Sixers from a fun, ultimately harmless playoff team into a real-deal contender, and that's not something a win-now team in the same conference will take lightly. When you trade away the best player in a deal, you have the right to ask for a lot, particularly when you're as high up the league pecking order as Harden is.
Brooklyn can make the argument so many outside observers have been for a long time. Embiid is in the midst of his best-ever season and is not exactly the safest health bet in the world. His play has warranted a closer look at how urgent it is to push for contention in the short term. No matter what he has said internally and to the public about liking what he has, deep down there almost has to be some disappointment if they don't make a move to give him a real shot this year. He's an ultra-competitive player who has made no secret of the fact that he judges himself on winning first and foremost and punting the year might not work out the way you think even if you have his verbal blessing right now.
If Daryl Morey has indicated anything over his time in the league, it's his belief that it's the stars and top-of-roster players who drive winning, not depth and good vibes. Morey may not be desperate to get a deal done right this second, but as the hours tick by and we inch closer to the deadline, the Nets can find security in the belief that he will eventually decide paying a bit over sticker price for a star is better than not having one at all.
And there are some, well, more insidious angles to Brooklyn squeezing Philadelphia. The Sixers will deny they've done anything improper or illegal during this process, but the Nets could drive a hard bargain under the threat of going to the league with tampering charges, which might turn up nothing or end in severe consequences for the Sixers. Under the presumption that the Sixers eventually go to arbitration with Ben Simmons, Rich Paul could also use any failure to get a deal done as a major point against the Sixers — the guy the front office wanted to trade Simmons for a year prior is there for the taking, and suddenly you're gun-shy on the price? Paul could make the argument at that point that holding back on a deal is just a means to railroad his client, which would add to what is already expected to be a bit of an ugly battle. I'll say this: there's a reason Paul-adjacent reporters have driven the Harden angle hard and fast throughout the process, not always in good faith.
Really, it all rests on teasing the Sixers with the idea that they can win a title right now, this year. I'm not sure there's a compelling case there, given the adjustments that would likely be needed around Embiid/Harden, but I'm not the one who stands to win a ring if they turn that into a reality.
Beating the Nets down on price hinges on what we can see happening in front of our eyes, and the rumors of unrest behind the scenes. In Brooklyn's loss to Sacramento the other night, Harden's apathy for his current situation was on full display on both ends of the floor, where he didn't do anything he didn't feel like doing. That led to some pretty shocking results:
Harden effort thread because I watched the film back and, my god, it's pathetic.— Erik Slater (@erikslaterNR) February 3, 2022
Clip 1: just blatantly not caring. pic.twitter.com/NbCccj2Ntt
The Nets can try to frame this as something they can work through, but there are obvious reasons to sweat this. They are in even more of a win-now situation than the Sixers, with Kyrie Irving the youngest of their big three as he approaches his 30th birthday in March. And Irving being the youngest of the trio doesn't seem like it matters in terms of extending their window — his history of unreliability suggests counting on him long into the future is a bad bet, even if it's the bet Durant has chosen to make. Harden has not exactly made it a secret that he is upset with the Irving situation in Brooklyn, and if the stars can't get along, the concept of the superteam doesn't really work. Are the Sixers supposed to pay a premium to bail them out of that problem?
Even if Morey loves Harden and wants to bring him in, he can play up the malcontent factor in negotiations just like the Nets can with Simmons. It's not like this is the first time Harden has openly bristled at his role and being a good teammate — his relationship fell apart with Chris Paul in Houston, leading to the Rockets making a disastrous Russell Westbrook trade as Paul has gone on to thrive in both OKC and Phoenix in the years since. The Sixers could credibly say they're taking the bigger risk here even if you completely ignore Harden's growing list of concerns as a leader. Philadelphia would be trading for the older player approaching free agency with the chance that he walks, and could tell the Nets that they should be content with a 25-year-old with a strong resume and several more years under contract (plus whatever additional salary the Sixers need to add to make this legal).
With the Nets all-in and paying exorbitant luxury tax fees for the right to field this team, they can ill afford to have one of their lead stars going off script and pouting on the floor. Doesn't a checked-out Harden derail Brooklyn's push for a title, on top of inspiring fear he will walk in free agency for little-to-no return depending on where he chooses to go next? In that context, accepting what they can get should not be looked down at, even if it's below the asset-heavy sticker price the Nets paid Houston last season.
Getting a young, multi-time All-Star in Simmons who can raise Brooklyn's defensive floor is a great get for them, independent of whatever else the Nets can pick up in a deal. There are few (if any) better environments than Brooklyn to work around Simmons' flaws and get the most out of his talents. Simmons & salary for Harden is as close to a win-win as it gets.
If all it takes to grease the wheels here is a valuable draft asset or two, the Sixers should count their blessings and make the deal. I wish I had more insightful commentary to offer than that, but if you're able to get a legitimate star like Harden, I think you suddenly have far fewer reasons to sweat what your pick stockpile looks like.
Cost-controlled talent might be the lifeblood of contending teams, extending their windows as things get pricey, but the Sixers have to actually be a contention-ready team before worrying too much about that part, and they've been able to mine some interesting young talent even without premium draft picks under Morey. File draft capital under "who cares?" from my view.
Which do you think is a bigger problem for a team built around Embiid and Harden — a defensive ace who might be unplayable on offense when it matters, or an offensive specialist who might get torched on defense when it matters? I'm not sure there's a truly correct answer, but these are the two guys who represent opposite sides of the coin for the Sixers. Who would you part with, if push came to shove?
If you're asking me, the more logical guy to move is Curry, even if his parting with him would remove the player Embiid has the best on-court chemistry with. As we saw at the tail end of a Hawks series where he played sensationally, Curry's offensive production is not always enough to make up for what he lacks as a defensive piece, and if the often-apathetic Harden strolls into the lineup, the Sixers are badly in need of some defensive steel alongside him. You can only have so many disinterested and/or scatterbrained defenders in one winning lineup, and if the Sixers find a way to get a deal done, they should be doing their best to get back toward bigger lineups, reclaiming some of the bully identity they've had in the past.
Sending Thybulle to the Nets would also pose potentially huge problems for the Sixers in a direct matchup with Brooklyn, giving the Nets two defenders who could save Irving and Durant from having to guard real assignments, giving them switch-heavy options that would torment a lot of teams. The spacing of Thybulle-Simmons lineups might still be jacked up, but even if they spent all their minutes apart, that would give the Nets 48 minutes of elite perimeter defense to throw at Harden, which would throw a huge road block in front of the guy you're bringing in to improve your perimeter attack. Hustlin' backwards, in some respects.
To me, the concept of an Embiid/Harden title team rests on the idea that those two are basically enough to provide you with a championship-level offense. They will run all the most important sets together, be counted on to hit most or all of the big shots, and either lead you to the promised land or sink your chances. With that being the case, if the Nets are inclined to go after one of their key role players, I think you prioritize keeping the younger player who helps you on the defensive end, where you presumably need more heavy lifting done.
(Circling back on the draft picks argument higher up, if you can get this deal done for Simmons and picks/non-essential pieces, Curry becomes a very interesting trade asset for the offseason with a year left on his team-friendly contract. If you want to move off of Tobias Harris' deal for a variety of reasons, Curry is a great sweetener if you need him to be. If you want to put together a deal for immediate help that fits the two-way vision next to Embiid and Harden, Curry can either be dangled as a direct swap or sent to a third-team for draft capital that helps you get that player. Short version: neither one of these guys is a simple throw-in to get a Harden deal done.)
I'm of two minds when it comes to Maxey here, so let's start with the seller's pitch: if you include Maxey, in my mind you could end the thought of parting with anything or anyone else. He's the prototypical guy you're looking for in a star trade, a young, productive player who has a killer work ethic and a team-first, hard-to-match mentality. Maxey is the sort of player a rebuilding team would be lucky to have as an early building block, yet good enough to play a role on a team trying to win now. It doesn't get much better than that. You get him with Simmons, and you no longer have the right to ask for more picks, more useful role players, or anything else. That allows the Sixers to preserve as much depth as possible as they attempt to contend this year, and they could potentially even ask for an expansion of the deal if they were to include a guy like Maxey.
On top of that, Maxey's utility for this Sixers team would drop in the world where they're built around Harden and Embiid. Those opportunities for Maxey to run the second unit when Embiid is not in the game? Almost certainly gone if Harden comes to town. There will be Embiid-centric backup units, and Harden-centric backup units, and everyone else will be relegated to playing off of those guys. That means Maxey would have to make a lot of his living as a small off-ball scorer, it leads to him getting fewer developmental reps to learn and grow as a point guard, and to some extent caps his long-term ceiling.
Still, as we point out up top, Maxey just has so much going for him while barely being old enough to legally drink. He's the best possible protection you have against Harden's decline, a guy who can learn the ropes from one of the league's most skilled tacticians and rise as Harden winds down his career in the years to come. If Maxey's presence on the roster has proven anything, it's the value of having as many capable ballhandlers as possible, because having just one good guard has underlined how dire things are when that good guard is taken off of the floor. Should teams jam up Harden and Embiid, having an additional live-ball creator is going to be super valuable for the Sixers, and that's without considering how dire the situation would be if they trade Maxey and Harden gets hurt. Maybe you could argue that ends their chances to contend regardless, but Maxey at least gives you some chance to hang with good teams, which is not the case if you're leaning on Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and the rest of the gang to run the offense.
Maxey has a killer blend of on-court production and character that you want to have in your program, unflappability that is hard to quantify. Winning a title is as much about sticking together and adjusting during bouts of adversity as it is anything else, and Maxey's growth is a testament to his ability to do so. Doc Rivers pulled him out of mothballs in the playoffs last year, and all Maxey did was play a pivotal role to extend their heartbreaking series defeat against Atlanta. He consistently rallies from tough starts, takes instruction well from coaches, and puts in enough time at the facility that the team has had to remind him to get some rest from time to time. You don't hear people say bad things about Maxey, full stop.
(Quick sidebar here: I'm not sure we have talked enough about Maxey continuing to deliver on-the-job results despite a fire wrecking his home around Christmas. It wouldn't have been an indictment of Maxey in any way to lose focus while dealing with an issue like that in his personal life, but no one ever seems to think about it because he has just continued to show up, hoop, and grow as a basketball player in front of everyone's eyes.)
The early indication is that the Sixers are balking at including Maxey in any deal for Harden, an understandable position to hold in the circumstances. In most possible scenarios, I think that will continue to be true, and I think the Sixers will undoubtedly be better for it if they hold the line and keep this kid in the mix. Just never say never on this one — Embiid is the only untouchable the Sixers have, and if Maxey is their path to a title-winning deal, you can bet they'll think long and hard about it.
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