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October 29, 2020

Does Sixers hiring Daryl Morey open the path for a James Harden trade?

The partnership between the Sixers and Daryl Morey has not been sealed officially yet, but there's a question that comes to mind with the former Rockets executive now in charge in Philadelphia.

Is a trade for James Harden now firmly on the table? 

Back in late September, NBC's John Clark floated a rumor suggesting that one of the reasons Mike D'Antoni was a preferred candidate for the head coaching job was his relationship with the Rockets star, and how that might factor into a potential pursuit of Harden.

At the time, D'Antoni had emerged as the clear frontrunner for the job, and once the team's focus turned to Doc Rivers, this was a rumor that sort of fell by the wayside. Now, the very executive who traded for him is expected to sign a deal to run the Sixers over the long-term. There are reasons to hire Morey beyond a potential Harden acquisition, but if we are to assume ownership remains interested in that sort of player, let's get deep in the weeds.

The relationship between Morey and Harden is beyond that of a normal executive-player relationship. Morey's legacy (so much as he has one as a still-active exec.) will forever be linked to the move he made to acquire Harden. Once he had Harden in place, Morey moved heaven and earth to try to build a winner around his star, developing a partnership of sorts where Harden's feedback mattered a great deal in what he was doing.

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In a letter he penned following his departure from Houston, Morey not only chose a photo with Harden to accompany it, he dedicated a significant chunk of the letter to thank Harden specifically, detailing how deep the partnership went in Houston:

James Harden changed my life.

An entire page could be dedicated just to James. He not only transformed my life but he also revolutionized the game of basketball — and continues to do so — like almost no one has before. The game is played differently because of James, and on every playground in the world, the next generation of talent is studying and imitating his game. I can't believe I won't be able to have another strategy session with James. I loved working together on how to get his incredible Hall of Fame teammates Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook to the Rockets. I will be rooting for James to win a championship for Houston. It's how this story should end.

That is, to put it lightly, far beyond the typical thank yous to players and team personnel we see from departed executives. There's certainly a degree of salesmanship to the whole thing, but Morey seems to make clear that Harden is not the reason he left Houston.

Insofar as Morey has an "ideal" player, Harden is it. He lives beyond the three-point line, at the rim, and at the charity stripe, the latter to an almost comical degree sometimes, much to the chagrin of fans of opposing teams. The Rockets have tried to push the envelope on embracing the three-point line under Morey's leadership, but none of it really works without Harden, one of the most prolific scorers to ever play the game and a player who embodied Houston's offensive philosophy.

His playoff flameouts aside — and there are some big ones on the ol' resume — 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.

There's one small (read: not so small) problem at the moment: Harden is probably not available. ESPN's Tim McMahon, who covers the Western Conference and is consistently around the NBA's trio of Texas teams, described the situation in Houston on "The Woj Pod" on Wednesday evening.

[The Rockets] consider him the best player in the league...they're going to try to win a championship as long as he's at that level and as long as he's on board. I think at this point it's probably a year-to-year deal, and if I'm speculating, I'm going to say that decision is more than likely made by James Harden instead of made by the Rockets. I do not believe this is imminent. 

But again, I think it's a year-to-year situation where at some point, James Harden, who has tried repeatedly tried to pair with a superstar to try to win a championship...if James Harden wants to pair with another superstar, he's probably going to have to be the one who packs his bags. [The Woj Pod]

There's a glimmer of hope in the suggestion that this situation is fluid from year-to-year, especially if things manage to go off the rails this season in Houston. But ultimately, it's going to take Harden wanting out for any team to get their hands on him.

Or maybe the Sixers could entice Houston with a big offer sooner than later. The more interesting discussion may be what the Sixers would/should give up to get him. At this juncture, with Harden still on the books until at least 2022 (and a player option for 2022-23), the conversation would start and end with one of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. You could make an argument for either swap:

  1. Trading Embiid — 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.
  2. Trading Simmons — 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. Also, the Rockets may not want Embiid if they are stuck with Russell Westbrook after a theoretical trade, considering the icy relationship those two have currently.

Is it too early for this sort of talk? Of course. Morey hasn't even officially taken over the team yet, and the Sixers have shown no desire to trade Embiid or Simmons up to this point. For that matter, I think the suggestion that either guy isn't a "Morey player" has been overblown over the last 24 hours — Embiid lives at the free-throw line and Simmons creates a truckload of open threes for teammates every year. If I had to guess, his first order of business will be to create a more coherent situation around those two guys, not immediately moving on.

But if there's anything we know about Daryl Morey, it's that he is constantly working the phones and trying to see what's out there. He loves James Harden, and has inherited a team that has underperformed and looked worse than the sum of their parts.

Just don't rule it out, is all I'm saying. 

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