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January 28, 2022

Should the Sixers bank on a James Harden deal this summer? Looking at pros and cons

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Every day seems to bring a new James Harden rumor to the surface. Either the Sixers are all-in on him, or teams are accusing them of collusion, or they're trading the moon for him, or...well, you get the picture. So long as Harden's contract situation is somewhat in doubt and Daryl Morey is in charge of the Sixers, the two will be linked frequently.

While we've talked some about the possibility this week, it felt time to take a hard look at the two binary choices being presented over the past week or two: moving Simmons at the deadline or holding onto him for a Harden trade this summer. Let's take a look at both sides of the discussion.

Why they should wait

Where there's smoke, there's fire

One of the interesting things about all the James Harden hubbub lately is that most of it seems to be coming from people outside of the Sixers' building. You could argue that Philadelphia is trying to downplay the Harden rumors for a lot of legitimate reasons — side-stepping tampering concerns, setting reasonable expectations for the fanbase, and keeping Ben Simmons suitors engaged ahead of the deadline — but it hasn't stopped the rumor mill from churning. A lot of people around the league are independently concluding this is a real possibility.

And if any franchise outside of the Nets is in a good position to know what Harden might do this summer, it's the Sixers. There's the obvious Daryl Morey connection, the Michael Rubin relationships within Harden's inner circle, and Tad Brown having kinship with Harden dating back to their Houston days. There's enough connective tissue to get a feel for what Harden is thinking and planning for his future without even needing to talk to Harden directly. 

Not every long-rumored partnership comes to fruition in the NBA, or Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving might be wearing the blue and orange of the Knicks instead of the monotone jerseys in another New York borough. But the whisper network tends to elevate information that is true more often than not, even if most of it stays in the background away from the public.

With due respect to Harden's public comments on the matter this week, it's a good general rule of thumb to only care about some of what public-facing people say in public. To put it in political terms, voting record trumps your stump speeches. And there are a lot of people in different corners of the league who are on this story. That makes it hard to outright dismiss.

Harden and Embiid combination

The dream of a Harden/Embiid connection has been talked about around here dating back to Morey's arrival, when rumors sprung up immediately about a potential move to get the former Rockets star. While acknowledging the gap between Harden and Jimmy Butler as defenders, the gap is just about as large on offense, where a year in decline for Harden would rank as perhaps the best individual season of Butler's career.

Harden, the 2017-18 MVP of the league, has finished in the top three for the league's top individual honor five different times, including four straight years from 2016-2020. He did so playing as essentially the ideal "Moreyball" player, living beyond the three-point line, at the rim, and at the charity stripe, the latter to an almost comical degree sometimes. Prior to arriving in Brooklyn, Harden was basically an elite offense by himself in Houston, an electric scorer who is also one of the game's most prolific playmakers. The latter portion has become more central to who he is the last two seasons, with Harden serving as a point guard and passer more often in an offense featuring Kevin Durant and (sometimes) Kyrie Irving.

That combination is basically the dream for Philadelphia in the backcourt. Being able to put Harden in pick-and-rolls with Embiid puts every defense in a no-win scenario, with either player capable of punishing the defense for a lapse in concentration or lack of respect for their skill set. Over the last two years, Embiid has done the work to make his own life easier on offense, taking his conditioning and mental approach to the game seriously enough to exploit every early offense opportunity possible. But there's still a sense that he could benefit from having an elite shot creator next to him, someone who can habitually get him easy buckets.

Though Embiid is a much different style of big than the one Harden has played and succeeded with over the years — he loves himself a rolling lob target — you can undersell Harden's intelligence and creativity at your own peril. One of the big benefits of playing next to Embiid would be Harden getting to attack a lot of scrambling defenses. Harden attacking four-on-threes and flying by players trying to close out would be a major upgrade from, well, every other Sixers player trying to do so.

It would be a miserable watch for fans of other teams, but Embiid and Harden would have a unique ability to put teams in foul trouble and slow the game down when they need to. Though Harden's numbers at the line have fallen off over the last two seasons, coinciding with some point of emphasis tweaks this year, Harden still gets to the line over eight times per game, third in the league behind Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. With Embiid already able to put opposing bigs in foul trouble through his work in the post, Harden's foul-drawing ability could double that effect for Philly, handing Embiid the opportunity to attack backup centers for long stretches of games.

And while Harden's outside shooting has historically been more about success relative to volume rather than elite efficiency (36.2 percent career from deep), the volume on those shots is staggering, a huge departure from the reluctant shooters throughout Philadelphia's lineup. Assuming his numbers normalize after a rough start to this year, Harden will draw defenders out to him in any lineup, benefitting not just Embiid but everyone else on the roster. They will have a true 1A/1B lineup where the Sixers can stagger their two co-stars, allowing Embiid to feast on backup bigs and for Harden to drive the team when Embiid hits the bench, making life easy for bigs like Andre Drummond, Charles Bassey, and Paul Reed. Spread it out around Harden and a big, and he will go to work.

"Why would you want Harden?" is a question with a very simple answer. He has been ultra-productive for a very long time, and even in a down year, he's a very good basketball player.

Why waiting could be ill-advised

Holding out on hope and hope alone

We could probably start and end a story on this subject right here — holding out for the possibility of acquiring James Harden (and James Harden specifically) is the sort of thing bad franchises do that leaves them boxed in if/when it doesn't come to fruition. Prioritizing the future possibility over actually putting a contention-ready team around Embiid right now is an injustice on some level, ignoring the MVP-level play in front of them for a mere possibility down the line.

With Tobias Harris having a down season, injuries throughout the lineup, and a $30 million hole in the roster, the Sixers are winning games at roughly a 57-win pace with Embiid on the floor this season. They have won marquee games and nondescript January battles, they have won on good rest and in back-to-back situations, and a recent collapse against the Clippers aside, they have mostly taken care of business and looked professional in crunch time, dispelling the ghosts of their past. The Sixers sit merely two games back of the top seed in the Eastern Conference despite the absence of a multi-time All-Star and last year's Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.

In a recent radio interview, Daryl Morey made mention of the team's improving title odds according to the bookmakers. Those don't mean all that much on their own, but Morey has gone on the record in the past with his approach to team-building, noting teams with a reasonable chance to contend have a responsibility to do whatever they can to put themselves over the top, saying this after trading for James Harden in 2012:

If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title. [Grantland]

As a guy who actually scored higher on the math portion of the SAT than any other section (insert snarky comment about my writing here), I feel qualified to say that Embiid being this good right now probably gives you a five percent chance to win a title. Letting that opportunity go by because you maybe, possibly could get Harden later is a bit foolish.

Decline concerns for Harden

If this were a few years ago, getting all your ducks in a row so you could make a deal for Harden would be a no-brainer. But there are now real concerns about where Harden is headed as a player, even with his production staying relatively high since joining the Nets.

By the time Harden would suit up for the Sixers, he would be 33 years old, moving past what most people view as prime years for an NBA player. To be fair to Harden, athletes across the sports world have challenged our perception of how long you can play at a high level. Tom Brady appears to be using witchcraft in Tampa Bay, LeBron James is second in the league in scoring at age 37, and Chris Paul is the engine of the league's current best team at 36, years removed from being looked at as a negative asset on his megadeal.

Here's the difference between those guys and Harden — all three of those men are notorious, psychopathic competitors renowned for their approach to the business. Paul's relentless quest to squeeze every drop out of his career was even a factor in their divorce in Houston, despite the Paul-Harden pairing coming closer to real success than any partnership Harden has had before or since. It's not exactly a secret that Harden enjoys his time away from the game quite a bit, and when you combine his off-court profile with soft-tissue injuries last year and a noticeable slowdown this season, it's easy to be concerned about how he holds up on his next massive contract.

To a degree, I think concerns about Harden's "work ethic" or related suggestions are a bit over the top. It's not possible to develop an all-world skill set like Harden has on offense without caring about the game and dedicating an enormous amount of time to your craft. But the older players get, the harder it gets to shrug off any lapses in focus or approach on a day-to-day basis. Bumps and bruises add up quicker and linger for longer. If you have the good fortune to not be there yet, ask anybody in their 30s how much harder it becomes to sweat out one measly hangover or one overzealous cheat meal, and then think about how that might apply to a person whose job rests on competing against the greatest athletes in the world. 

As a short-term proposition, Harden would lift this team's credibility. But in a scenario where the Sixers hold off on a deadline deal under the premise that they will reap long-term rewards from their patience, the short timeline for contention is a harder sell. Couple that with some ugly playoff flameouts and you might not head into playoff battles as confident as you'd like to be.

You can have your cake and eat it too

Here's the question no one has been able to give me a reasonable answer to when discussing a Harden arrival this week — on what planet would the Sixers need to trade Ben Simmons and Ben Simmons specifically in order to obtain Harden? The history of sign-and-trade deals suggests to us that most teams simply take what they can get when a star makes it clear they have their eyes and heart set elsewhere. Jimmy Butler is the best perimeter player the Sixers have had since Allen Iverson left town, and the best they could do for him in return was Josh Richardson, a role player who struggled in Philadelphia and Dallas before finding his footing in Boston this year.

Obviously, the better the player, the higher the price you can demand in these situations. The Warriors brought back D'Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant in 2019 (it didn't work out too well for the Warriors), and LeBron James' 2010 move to Miami returned multiple first-round picks, a pick swap, and a pair of second-round picks. Harden is closer to that territory than if we used examples for, say, Christian Wood or Malcolm Brogdon, but those are notable outliers in sign-and-trade returns.

Ultimately, Harden making his way to Philadelphia hinges on one thing and one thing alone. Harden has to want to be a Sixers player above anywhere and everywhere else. If that's how Harden feels about playing next to Embiid, NBA history suggests he's going to force his way to Philly no matter what, with the Nets simply doing the best with that situation that they can. In the scenario where the Sixers hold onto Simmons through the deadline, an exchange centered around Simmons is obviously as good as the Nets can do in a direct swap with Philly, and will serve as the starting point. So what happens if the Sixers make a deal with, say, the Atlanta Hawks at the deadline? Or even the Kings, who ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday are out on a pre-deadline Simmons deal?

If the Sixers (or people connected to the Sixers) feel confident Harden wants to join Embiid in Philly, a deadline upgrade comes with basically zero risk and all upside. In that scenario, Harden is entertaining the possibility of joining the Sixers/leaving Brooklyn because of his appreciation for what Embiid and the Sixers are doing with a $33 million hole in the lineup. Unless the Sixers make a deal for players who actively make the Sixers worse than the hole Simmons has left on the roster, making the team better around Embiid only (in theory) heightens interest on Harden's end. The Nets, on the other hand, are still overwhelmingly likely to accept whatever the best sign-and-trade package is that Philly can offer to get Harden, no matter how tough they talk publicly and behind the scenes about holding onto him. If Harden opts out of his contract, it's not as though Brooklyn has unilateral power and authority to sign and trade him elsewhere against his wishes. Harden holds the cards, and other teams being able/willing to offer more would not matter if he only has Philly on his mind. The Sixers would have some combination of pieces to make salaries and value line up, and that would be that.

Trading Simmons now might mean closing off opportunities for stars who have yet to show signs of forcing their way out of the door, a la Damian Lillard, so there is certainly risk and a cost to dealing Simmons for present-day help. But if there is real conviction behind the belief that you can get Harden this summer, that almost offers more incentive to make the best Simmons deal you can make right now. Load up for a run this season, pick up some extra draft picks, and get ready to absorb Harden into a better, deeper team this summer.


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