What We Learned From The Sixers Pursuit Of James Harden


Daryl Morey’s pursuit of James Harden, in an attempt to pair him with Joel Embiid, did not come to fruition. Harden is not only not on the Sixers, he’s on a team in the same division that is now the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. It’s not an optimal scenario.

While I was heavily in favor of exchanging Ben Simmons, and likely more, for Harden in an attempt to maximize the chance at a championship in Joel Embiid’s prime, I understand why the Sixers ultimately did not make the trade. Four first round picks, four pick swaps, and two good young players is an entire future for right now. The Nets themselves paid the price for paying the price less than a decade ago when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Clippers could be in a similar situation very soon.

Ultimately I trust Daryl Morey, one of the two or three best general managers in the NBA, to know the market, know his team and to know James Harden.

While a trade for a perimeter star is on hold for the moment, we did learn some things from the Sixers failed attempt to land Harden that can help us color the next few months for the team. Some are good, some are not so good.

Good - Daryl Morey Knows The Sixers Aren’t A Title Contender As Constructed

Making the moves that Morey made in the offseason, exchanging Al Horford for Danny Green, and Josh Richardson for Seth Curry, made the Sixers better. It made the Sixers make more sense. It did not make the Sixers a realistic championship contender.

The attempt to land Harden means that we’re free of trying to convince ourselves otherwise. There are pieces here that are valuable, there is an MVP-level player, there is something to work with, but the Sixers are more than just adding a bench piece away from really contending.

Bad - The Sixers Aren’t A Title Contender As Constructed

This is pretty self-explanatory. The idea that the Sixers are a star-level player away from a championship is good to know, but not easy to fix. Who wouldn’t want to add another top ten player to their team?

Good - We Know Daryl Morey Is Willing To Trade Ben Simmons

It’s nice to stop the charade that Daryl Morey is unwilling to trade Simmons, who remains their most valuable piece in acquiring what they need to become a real threat (just how valuable, I’ll get to later). No number of liked tweets, emojis, or straight up lies to Shams Charania will be able to convince any reasonable person that Morey didn’t offer Simmons (plus an unconfirmed bunch of other stuff) in a trade for Harden.

Simmons is a good player, a very good defender and most likely has his best years ahead of him. But what’s been clear for a number of years is that Joel Embiid is the best player on the team and every player on the court should be a player who can get the best out of Embiid. That player is not Ben Simmons, and he has not made the requisite changes to his game in his four-plus years in the NBA to convince anyone that those changes are on the horizon.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that lineups featuring the two players can’t be good. They have been! But here’s a little secret; any lineup with Joel Embiid in it is really good. This isn’t just a theory of mine, the numbers show it, and have shown it since he’s entered the league.

Bad - Ben Simmons’ Value Isn’t As High As We Hoped (Or At The Very Least, Isn’t As Universally High)

While I was hopeful the Sixers would trade for Harden, I was pretty steadfast in my  belief that he’d end up in Brooklyn. Every time I said this, I was told that the Sixers had the winning hand if they decided to trade for Harden, because Simmons alone was better than anything the Nets could offer. Guess not!

It’s true that Brooklyn offered a ton for Harden in terms of draft capital, but it’s also true that Houston clearly didn’t see Simmons as a player they can build a franchise around. By and large, teams that are forced to move off of a star level player will be looking to rebuild. When another star becomes available, there are teams like the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder that are equipped to make those trades.

Perhaps Simmons’ value is that high to some teams, but those have to be the same teams to be willing to offer the same sort of player the Sixers need (or a third team has to be able to).

I simply believe the number of teams who honestly believe they can build a competitor around “Simmons and shooters” is very low. It’s just not realistic. Some fast-paced team is great in our imagination, but the peak of said team in reality is something like a 46 win team that might surprise someone in the first round. Unless that team had, I don’t know, someone like James Harden on it.

So while the popular name to think about right now is Bradley Beal, ask yourself why the Wizards would even consider Simmons? He makes about the same amount of money as Beal, and is clearly not nearly as good. He’s a few years younger, but a miserable fit with Russell Westbrook, who they’re stuck with.

Good - Daryl Morey Seems Like He’s Still Daryl Morey

Morey has said previously that if you have even a five percent chance at a championship, you should go all-in. The fact that within the first three months of him becoming President of Basketball Operations, he decided to build around Joel Embiid, trade Al Horford, and totally lie to everyone publicly about not wanting to trade Ben Simmons, means that we got our guy.

And you can talk yourself into “well Doc Rivers wanted to keep him” and “Ben Simmons is thrilled to still be here” all you want, but none of it is true, and if it is, it just doesn’t matter.

Morey is here to give the Sixers the best shot at winning a championship, not the longest “puncher’s chance maybe if somebody gets hurt” chance at a championship.

Bad - Ben Simmons Knows They Tried To Trade Him

It’s gonna be pretty weird for a little while! I know this is part of sports, but Simmons is young, and seems to be dealing with at least a small case of ‘unsure of himself.’ I know the last 11 months have been weird for a lot of people in a lot of ways, but Simmons walking into the locker room full of players who all know they tried to trade him will be awkward. They are professionals, but they’re humans, and this will be a little strange.

It will also add a layer of tension to every time he decides not to let a wide open jump shot fly, or when he dribbles full speed into the middle of the lane when there are four defenders in it, jumps without a plan, desperately looks around him and decides to pass it backward to Embiid at the top of the key.

Good - There Will Be Another Chance

Over and over again, we say “players like James Harden just don’t become available that often.” That used to be true, but it’s not true anymore.

James Harden is one of the five best players in the NBA, and one of the best scorers of all-time. Specifically James Harden does not become available that often, that’s true.

But in just the last five years, Kawhi Leonard has been available twice, Paul George has been available twice, Anthony Davis was traded, Chris Paul was traded twice, Kyrie Irving changed teams (I’m not suggesting he’s exactly the same level, but I’m just saying), Jimmy Butler was traded three times, Kevin Durant left two title contenders in free agency, and Kemba Walker changed teams in free agency.

It will be complicated because of the Sixers’ salary situation, but there will be other opportunities.

It is not a question of if another star will become available -- it is a question is who and when.