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James Harden And Ben Simmons Got The Moves They Wanted. Will They Work Out For Their Teams?

Daryl Morey waited and waited … and waited some more. It took months of criticism over holding onto disgruntled All-Star Ben Simmons and sacrificing trade leverage in hopes of acquiring stars who were seemingly not available, but the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers finally got the superstar player he wanted: James Harden.

After an offseason spent trying to deal the discontented Simmons and half a season with the player sitting out, the Sixers found a landing spot for him at Thursday’s trade deadline, sending Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks1 to the Brooklyn Nets. In exchange, Philly got the Nets star, who had demanded (implicitly through his actions, if not necessarily his words) a trade of his own, along with Paul Millsap. As Joel Embiid said, “This is WILD.”

For Brooklyn, the deal brings its Big Three to an abrupt end just 13 months after the Nets pushed all of their trade chips2 to the middle of the table to acquire Harden from the Houston Rockets and pair him with fellow stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But instead of an instant title, injury and the Milwaukee Bucks (and Durant’s too-big shoes) cut the Nets’ 2020-21 season short. This year, Durant’s latest injury (a sprained MCL) and Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine meant Harden was often flying solo on the court rather than working as part of a star trio. That simply wasn’t part of the deal, and he was apparently quite frustrated by it. Between this season and last, Harden, Durant and Irving spent only 365 minutes on the floor together, according to PBP Stats. They obliterated opponents by 14.17 points per 100 possessions during that time, with an offense that would have registered as the best in league history by an enormous margin. But that didn’t seem to happen often enough to persuade Harden that he wanted to be in Brooklyn beyond this year.

Harden now heads to Philadelphia, where his new co-star is at least a semi-regular figure in the lineup. Embiid has never played more than 78 percent of his team’s games in a given season, but he’s been out there far more often than either Durant or Irving over the past few years.

It’s not necessarily a perfect fit. Harden has been at his best with a rim-rolling pick-and-roll partner who provides vertical spacing so he can do damage off the drive, step into space to isolate or fling the ball to shooters dotting the perimeter. The Sixers have rarely run pick and rolls in the last half-decade, though that is at least in part because of Simmons’s deficiencies as a halfcourt ball-handler. Embiid also isn’t much of a vertical threat, preferring instead to roll himself into post position at the nail or on the block, where he can do damage against overmatched defenders. He’s one of the most efficient high-volume post players in the league, so that tactic has worked quite well for Philadelphia. (It remains to be seen how he’ll react when Harden goes into his tap-dance-style stepback three routine after he draws a switch, rather than dumping the ball to the big fella.)

The post-centric offense occasionally turns non-Embiid Sixers into spot-up threats, though, and Harden is one of the most catch-and-shoot-averse players in the league. To wit: He has attempted only 40 three-pointers off the catch this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats.3 Nine of his new Philadelphia teammates have taken more, including Shake Milton, who has played in only 27 games. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s more willing to shoot off the catch in Philly than he was in Brooklyn.

Then there’s the defensive end of the floor. Harden has historically approached non-disaster status on defense only when involved in a switch-heavy scheme that minimized the amount of work he had to do. Philly, by contrast, rarely switches because Embiid is one of the best drop-coverage defenders in basketball — if not the best. The Sixers want to keep Embiid as close to the paint as possible within their scheme, and it makes sense for them to do that. A drop scheme means everyone else needs to be helping and recovering elsewhere on the floor. Having to do things like fight over screens or help off the wing and into the paint before jetting back out to his man on the perimeter will be a change of pace for Harden, and it remains to be seen whether he is willing to commit to doing either.  

And yet, both Harden and Embiid are essentially top-flight offenses unto themselves. The Sixers can stagger their minutes (assuming head coach Doc Rivers can be coaxed into avoiding his all-bench lineups) and ensure they have a heliocentric star on the court at all times. That may have an effect on Tyrese Maxey — who excelled during the stretch Embiid missed earlier in the season due to COVID-19 and then went through an adjustment period after Embiid came back — but the second-year guard has proved capable of adapting to his circumstances. Attaching Maxey and Embiid in the rotation while Harden plays more often with the better-shooting Tobias Harris makes a good degree of sense. They can then rotate Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang in and out to make sure there’s enough shooting and/or defense to suit the purposes of any given lineup. 

This version of the Sixers also figures to turn games into free-throw contests quite often, given the penchant of both Harden and Embiid for drawing fouls. It might not be pretty, but it’ll likely be very tough to stop. It was initially reported that Harden had opted into his $47.4 million player option for next season as part of the deal, though subsequent reporting contradicted that notion. Harden can still opt in this summer, or he can choose to opt out and re-sign on a long-term deal. Either way, the Sixers likely have a short window in which to test this out and try to win a title before things potentially become untenable with a new contract for Harden in his mid-to-late 30s. 

And then there’s Brooklyn. Durant remains out with his knee injury. Irving can still play only in road games. Joe Harris may need a second surgery on his left ankle. Simmons will continue to work with his therapist to get mentally ready to play, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, and we don’t yet know when he’ll see the floor. And the team is already in the midst of a spiral, having lost 10 consecutive games as it dealt with injury and Harden’s transparent and somewhat embarrassing efforts to get himself traded. 

In theory, Simmons is an excellent fit alongside Durant and Irving. His abilities to defend multiple positions and get a team into its transition offense are incredibly valuable, particularly on a squad that can space the floor the way Brooklyn can when it has everyone healthy. He’s never been afforded the luxury of playing in all that much space because he came into the league on a team already featuring Embiid, who parked himself in the post early and often. (And with great success.) The incumbent stars’ ability to manufacture offense on their own will take pressure off of Simmons to be a lead creator — and free him to solely do the things he does well.4 It’s often been posited that Simmons could play a Draymond Green-like role in half-court offense, and it’s easy to envision him and Curry (or him and Irving) developing dribble hand-off chemistry that leverages the latter’s shooting ability and Simmons’s brilliant floor vision to bend defenses to their breaking points. (Curry remains one of the league’s best snipers, and he will help Patty Mills fill the hole Harris has left in the lineup while also providing more of an off-the-bounce threat.)

As we saw with Harden, though, there’s no guarantee that the Nets’ new star trio actually shares the floor for significant time. And without Irving, Durant or Harris in the lineup, Curry and Mills are the team’s only floor-spacers of note. (Unless you count Cam Thomas, who is always willing to shoot.) What happens if and when Simmons is on the floor in a lineup that not only isn’t particularly conducive to space, but also doesn’t have a player who can be the foundation of the halfcourt offense? 

Brooklyn should be able to build a fascinating, switch-happy defense around Simmons, Durant and Nicolas Claxton, but KD’s health is no guarantee, and a Simmons-Claxton pairing might be unworkable in halfcourt offense unless at least two of the shooters are out there with them. Durant is the only plus defender among the team’s shooters, though, which means those Simmons-Claxton units might not be as potent defensively as you’d ideally want them to be. The Nets can slide Bruce Brown, James Johnson or Jevon Carter in there to help the defense, but they’re non-shooters as well, and that makes things complicated.

Still, Simmons gives the Nets the type of player they did not have last year: the guy who can guard the opposing team’s best player, regardless of position. He is one of the league’s most versatile defenders, a 6-foot-11, 240-pound wrecking ball who is capable of handling nearly any player in the league one-on-one. Among 251 players who played 1,000 or more minutes last season, he ranked fifth in Bball-Index’s Defensive Versatility metric. That wasn’t unusual: He ranked 11th in 2019-20 and second in 2018-19. He is a virtual lock to spare Durant the trouble of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo if the Nets meet the Bucks in the playoffs again, and that alone might make him worth the trouble. 

All of this assumes Simmons is ready, able and willing to play basketball, though, and again, we do not know if or when that will happen. His youth and the two first-round picks Brooklyn received in the deal might extend the Nets’s championship window, but that window is almost certainly not open as wide now as many expected it to be when the Nets began the season among the title favorites.5 Given the team’s obvious ambitions when it made the Harden trade last year, that has to be disappointing. 

As for Philly, this deal has to be Morey’s dream come true; he has been adamant in the past that any team with at least a 5 percent chance of winning the title should be all in. With Embiid playing at an MVP level, he rightfully believes that his Sixers are in that group of teams. Rivers now has a little more than two months to figure out how best to make the Harden and Embiid pairing work. Morey’s philosophy has always been to get the stars and worry about everything else later. He’s got the stars, but now, now is later.

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Footnotes

  1. Their own 2022 first-rounder, which the Nets have the right to defer to 2023, along with their protected 2027 first-rounder, which Brooklyn gets so long as it falls outside the top eight picks. If it is inside the top eight, it rolls over to 2028, top-eight protected again, then becomes two second-round picks and $2 million the following year. To legally make the trade, the 76ers also have to unprotect the 2025 first-round pick they owe to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

  2. Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince, unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.

  3. This isn’t unusual for him: he took just 40 all of last year and only 85 the year before.

  4. I think we should acknowledge here that Simmons’s decision to sit out games rather than report to the 76ers ended up getting him exactly what he wanted: He’s no longer in Philly, but he’s still on a contender, and he doesn’t have to deal with being an afterthought searching for his place in Rivers’s Embiid-centric offense. It may not have been all that professional, but you can’t say it didn’t work.

  5. We also don’t know whether Irving, who — unlike Durant — was not signed to a contract extension last offseason, will be on the team long term. So, there’s that.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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