Why the Philadelphia 76ers Shouldn't Go All-in for James Harden...Yet

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2020

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots a layup over Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)
Kim Klement/Associated Press

James Harden wants out of Houston, and he appears to be doing all he can to make that abundantly clear.

On Tuesday, ESPN's Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski reported Harden told the Rockets before training camp "that he would be open to a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers or possibly other contenders."

That is hardly the first time the Harden-Sixers connection has been made.

New Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey ran the Rockets from 2007 through 2020. He has long been effusive in his praise of Harden, even saying that he's arguably the greatest offensive player of all time.

In early November, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported the Sixers were "expected to be interested in and pursue" Harden. That idea is contrary to what Morey has told the media, though.

According to Wojnarowski and MacMahon, Morey has said "he has no intention to break up the Sixers' All-Star duo of center Joel Embiid and guard/forward Ben Simmons." They also reported "the Rockets and the Sixers have had no substantive talks about a potential Harden deal."

It would undoubtedly take one of those stars to pry Harden, who's under contract through 2021-22 (with a $47.4 million player option for 2022-23), away from Houston. Morey's current stance may be posturing, though.

During his tenure in Houston, he made a staggering 77 trades, according to Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight. And he's already wheeled and dealt his way into Seth Curry and Danny Green in Philadelphia.

Coming right out and saying, "Why, yes, we'd love to move Simmons or Embiid" would eviscerate their trade value. Instead, he's insisting that both are too important to move.

He might actually mean it, too.

Simmons is 24 and under contract through 2024-25. Embiid is 26 and under contract through 2022-23. Both are on annual salaries lower than Harden's. And lineup data suggests they can be the core of juggernaut lineups, provided they're surrounded by shooting.

During JJ Redick's two seasons in Philadelphia, the Sixers had a plus-14.4 net rating when he shared the floor with Simmons and Embiid. They had a net rating of plus-3.4 when those two played without Redick.

Without a defense-bending shooter like Redick in 2019-20, questions about the fit between Simmons and Embiid grew to virtual screams. Morey has rebalanced the roster, though. Curry is second all-time in career three-point percentage, and Green is 47th. Morey should want to see what heights Simmons and Embiid might reach with truly complementary players around them.

However, it isn't difficult to see why the 76ers might be interested in acquiring Harden, even if it costs them one of their superstars.

He's currently fifth in NBA history in offensive box plus/minus, mere hundredths of a point behind Stephen Curry and Kevin DurantHis iso- and free-throw-heavy attack may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it's historically effective. And if he's your engine, you're almost guaranteed a top-tier offense.

That would certainly be true of the Sixers. All of the reasons Philadelphia's new acquisitions should help Simmons and Embiid would also apply to a top duo of Harden and Embiid.

Imagine a pick-and-roll-centric attack with those two, flanked by Green, Curry and Tobias Harris around the three-point line. Load up on Harden, and you're dealing with Embiid and a head of steam at the rim. Back off the screen to focus on Embiid, and you'll have Harden picking you apart. Help from the perimeter on either, and the three-point shooters might get loose.

Much of that applies with Simmons, too, but his unwillingness to shoot jumpers at least eliminates that option from a defense's consideration.

With Harden, it would truly be a pick-your-poison scenario on almost every possession. His fit there appears seamless.

What if Houston insists on Embiid, though? Should the Sixers still pull the trigger if they're instead left with Harden and Simmons?

That depends on how creative Philadelphia would be willing to get. If Morey's time in Houston is any indication, the answer is "very," though new head coach Doc Rivers is more of a traditionalist than former Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni.

With Harden in the same lineup as Simmons, the latter would have something of a hybrid role. On offense, he could operate as a point center, much like Russell Westbrook did during the second half of the 2019-20 season. Clear the lane and let him attack relentlessly. On defense, he could play like the Rockets' version of Robert Covington, a switchable forward who can protect the rim from the weak side.

This wouldn't be as clean of a fit as Harden and Embiid, and we already saw a similar setup go up in basketball flames in Houston, but Simmons is younger, bigger and better on defense than Westbrook. There's reason to believe it might work better than Harden and Westbrook did.

Would either scenario be worth trading a younger, more economic star? That depends.

Again, Philadelphia probably would be wise to see what the team looks like as currently constructed. Contrary to what Harden's current exploits suggest, training camp is already underway. Games start in two weeks. The Sixers don't have to wait long to see how well Simmons and Embiid fit with the new shooters.

If wins are stacking up and the plus-minus looks like it did with Redick, Harden may not be worth the asking price (and potential headaches).

That asking price is a factor, too.

According to Bontemps and Wojnarowski, Houston wants "a package that includes a young franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round picks and/or talented players on rookie contracts." Philly probably shouldn't be willing to offer that type of a package unless this roster really doesn't jell.

All of this is to say it's probably too early for the 76ers to seriously consider joining the Harden sweepstakes. The NBA has repeatedly taught us to never say never, though.

Harden could make things even more uncomfortable in Houston at some point between now and the trade deadline. The Simmons-Embiid fit may remain wonky. If those two potentialities align, Simmons, salary filler and a few picks might reunite Harden and Morey.

In Philadelphia, they'd have a generational talent at the 5, the easier side of the playoff bracket and the absence of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, three things they couldn't claim in Houston.


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