The Argument Against Philadelphia 76ers Trading for James Harden

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 5, 2022

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) and Kevin Durant (7) react behind Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in New York. 76ers won 110-102. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Almost since the moment Daryl Morey took over as president of basketball operations in Philadelphia, the 76ers have been tied to James Harden. Don't forget: Morey nearly traded Ben Simmons for Harden before the guard landed with the Brooklyn Nets last season.

As fate would have it just over a year later, Morey is looking yet again to reunite with his Houston running mate.

The question is: Is a Harden trade worth it at the deadline? Or at all?

Philadelphia is 31-21 and two games out of first place in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of Brooklyn. Joel Embiid is currently the front-runner for MVP, per FanDuel. All of this with Simmons, who is waiting to be traded, not suiting up for a single game this season.

However, the Sixers need to add firepower for a run at a title. They have been scouring the trade market, using Simmons as the focal point to find that missing piece or pieces.

The rumor mill has been swirling since the season began about Morey's interest in Harden. It seemed unrealistic early in the year, but after resisting the initial push, the Nets appear open to trading Harden to Philadelphia, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.

But it's not the right deal for Philadelphia.


Not a Pick-and-Roll Fit

A Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll might seem unstoppable. A former MVP and a possible future MVP playing a two-man game should be able to score at will. But Harden and Embiid use ball screens differently.

Harden is a master pick-and-roll manipulator. He takes his time to set his defender up for the screen and as he comes off has a bevy of options. He can come off for a three, get to the rim, drive in and go to a stepback or ultimately end up at the line.

If Harden is not going to score, he does a great job gathering assists, usually to the roller or spraying it out to shooters. He has the most success with a big man who rolls hard to the rim, putting pressure on the defense. Bigs such as Clint Capela and Nicolas Claxton have been ideal pick-and-roll partners.

Embiid this season has rolled to the basket on just 21 percent of the possessions where he has been a screener, according to Synergy Sports. He prefers to set the screen and pop. That usually flows into another action for the Sixers, such as a dribble hand-off with Seth Curry or Tyrese Maxey.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Of course, if Embiid and Harden team up, Embiid would likely be more willing to roll to the rim on pick-and-rolls. That said, the Sixers' pick-and-roll might not be as fluid.


Harden and a Post-Up Big

The only big man Harden has played with who came even close to Embiid was Dwight Howard. That pairing lasted only three seasons (2013-14 to 2015-16), and it did not end on good terms. Howard wanted more post touches, and the Rockets were not looking to run the offense that way.

One thing is clear: Howard was not nearly the post threat that Embiid is. Embiid's post-ups make up 38.5 percent of his possessions, and the Sixers score 1.08 points per possession (post-ups including passes), according to Synergy.

Over the years, even with Brooklyn, Harden has become increasingly less effective when the ball is out of his hands. He is a dominant ball-handler, and it is something he is not capable of changing. It is one of the reasons, according to Charania, the Nets would be willing to part with him.

Can Harden handle coming to Philadelphia and playing on a post-heavy team? More importantly, can he handle being the second option yet again after playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving?


Defensive Issues

We have focused on all of the offensive reasons why this is not a good fit, but it is an even more difficult match defensively.

Harden has never been a good defender, especially on the perimeter. Teams have masked his defensive deficiencies by going to a switch-everything scheme. That is when he is engaged defensively at all. Harden has a tendency to be apathetic on that side of the ball—just look at these clips from the Nets' recent loss to the Sacramento Kings.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

With Embiid on the floor, the Sixers are a drop-coverage team. He hardly switches on pick-and-rolls. He has actually mastered the art of playing in drop and keeping the ball in front of him. It really helps having an elite defender in Matisse Thybulle on the perimeter causing havoc.

Doc Rivers would have to change his defensive scheme—one that has been a top-five unit since the start of the new year—if they brought in Harden.


More Reasons for Worry

After seeming nearly indestructible in Houston, Harden's tenure in Brooklyn has been hampered by hamstring issues. Last season, he played just 36 games for the Nets after playing eight in Houston prior to the trade. This season, he has already missed eight games.

Statistically, this has been Harden's worst year from three (33.2 percent), the fewest points he has averaged since he left Oklahoma City (22.5) and the worst field-goal percentage since his rookie season (41.4 percent). At 32 years old, he is on the back end of his career.

To add to the challenges, Harden can opt out of his contract this offseason. Keith Smith of Spotrac broke down all of his contract options. Assuming Harden goes with the most lucrative possibility, he would opt into next season at $47.4 million and sign a four-year extension that would have him earning $62.5 million in the final year.

Harden will be 37 years old that season, and seeing how injuries are beginning to mount, is it really wise for any team to be paying him that much?

Best Fits

Putting availability aside, there are better fits alongside Embiid.

The most obvious and easiest would be Washington's Bradley Beal. After years of resisting requesting a trade, Beal appears open to the idea, per The Athletic's David Aldridge and Josh Robbins. Whether he is available at the deadline or turns into an offseason acquisition, he would be the perfect partner for Embiid.

Beal is just 28 years old and fits the Sixers. Even though his shooting has fallen off a cliff this season, getting open looks off Embiid should remedy that.

There is his ability to become a free agent after this season. But assuming the Sixers trade for and extend him, he would be only 33 at the end of a five-year deal, a big difference from Harden's 37.

Another option is Damien Lillard, who might be on his way out of Portland, as it appears as though the Blazers are heading into a rebuild. Already 31 years old, he struggled this season and during the Olympics. A situation where he gets to work with Embiid would lighten his load immensely.

More importantly, he is under contract for two more seasons and has a team option in 2024-25. That means there would be no immediate concerns about contract negotiations, and Morey would have time to tinker with the rest.

The Sixers have been in need of a go-to perimeter scorer down the stretch, and just imagine what Dame Time might look like in Philadelphia. It would give the Sixers a massive one-two punch.

The next two names are long shots and most likely will not get moved, but Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell would be interesting fits next to Embiid.

In Brown, the Sixers not only would be bringing in a perimeter scorer who is still adding to his offensive repertoire but also another valuable wing defender. Since the Celtics star is just 25 years old, an Embiid-Brown pairing could be a nightmare for the East for several years.

Then there is Mitchell, who has had a rocky relationship with star big man Rudy Gobert in Utah. Embiid has a much more well-rounded offensive game than Gobert and should open the court for Mitchell.

If the Jazz flame out in the playoffs again, there will be numerous questions about their core. The Celtics have gone on a four-game winning streak but are also still eighth in the standings.

Both teams appear to be far from contender status. Could they break things up?

Not likely, but they are situations to be monitored. It did not appear probable at the end of last season that the Nets would entertain trading Harden, but here we are.

Those four fit Philadelphia better than Harden. Granted, they might provide their own challenges, but the prospect of paying Harden $46.5, $50.2, $53.9, $57.7 and $61.4 million over the next five years as his game begins to decline should terrify Philadelphia.

The Sixers need more scoring, and using Simmons is their best way to get it. However, Harden would be the wrong fit.

It just doesn't make sense.


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.