• Alec Liebsch

The 76ers need to trade for James Harden

Daryl Morey has already made his mark on the 76ers. Not too long after being hired as their President of Basketball Operations, Morey was able to turn two pieces who didn't fit, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, into two who did in Danny Green and Seth Curry. Now with two more willing 3-point shooters, the team looks ready to make Ben Simmons' and Joel Embiid's lives easier.

The roster isn’t perfect though. There’s still plenty of work to be done if the Sixers are to compete for a championship, which one would assume the goal is after hiring Doc Rivers, Daryl Morey, and the elite supporting staffs around each of them.

The time to pull the trigger may be soon. Rockets superstar James Harden wants to be traded, and he’s doing everything in his power to get out of Houston. From venturing to clubs just days before opening night (in a pandemic), to a series of cryptic posts on Instagram, to slowly expanding his list of preferred trade destinations, it’s clear that Harden wants no part of what Houston’s new front office is building. He wants to win a championship ASAP.

The teams Harden has cited as destinations are: the Sixers, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers. The Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks were initially included, but talks for each of them with Houston have reportedly fallen apart.

Most times, the issue with trading a star to a contender is the lack of tradeable stuff on that contender’s roster. Unless that team is willing to part with a significant member of their core (i.e. one of its incumbent stars), it usually doesn’t have many premium assets to bring to the table.

As for those still in the mix: Brooklyn doesn’t have a blue-chip prospect or asset unless Kyrie Irving is involved; Boston can only get in the conversation if they’re willing to trade Jaylen Brown and a few more solid players and assets; and Portland’s best package would strip away everything except for Damian Lillard and Robert Covington. As for Philadelphia...can I interest you in a Ben Simmons trade?

Should the Sixers break it up?

Simmons is the best player Houston can get out of this situation. Despite playing with a bunch of terrible fits last season, the Sixers’ [insert position] averaged 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game. He’s one of the best playmakers in the league, an elite transition threat, and an all-world defender who can lock up just about anyone. Oh, and he’s 24 years old and under contract until 2025. The rest of the league would salivate at the opportunity to trade for such a uniquely dominant player.

So why would the Sixers put him on the table? Morey has publicly shot down any possibility of trading Simmons, and all speculation about the All-NBA nominee seems to be coming from outside of Philadelphia, but there’s a lot about a Simmons trade that makes sense for the Sixers—especially one for Harden.

The 2020-21 team has unfurled some of the clunkiness of last season, but it’s still way behind the top teams in the league. Both Los Angeles teams, Brooklyn and Miami are all a notch above Philly, and it’s mainly because their best players can make stuff happen when defenses tighten up.

Embiid can be deadly on the low block a lot, but that needs to be the side dish for ad-lib offense rather than the main course. Posting up also has diminishing returns due to the physical exertion it puts on the user; it can’t be your only card. Embiid needs someone to get him the ball, and it has to be someone who’s good at getting his own shot.

What makes Embiid so great is that it’s not the only card he can play. For someone of his size and build, he’s amazingly skilled and athletic. He’s got a post game, a face-up game, and even some perimeter skills behind the arc. This translates on defense too, where he’s a true fulcrum. His size and skill make him an excellent rim protector and switchable in a pinch, while his intellect covers the rest.

Truly, there’s no one in the league like him. But he needs a better yin to his yang than Simmons. The Fresh Prince is uniquely great in his own right, but the fact of the matter is that his strengths overlap with Embiid's. The two are at their best close to the rim as the offensive fulcrum.

And no, Simmons expanding his range isn't going to change how teams guard him. When it gets to the guts of the game, teams defend you to take away something and live with something else. You can't take away both 3-pointers and shots at the rim; you have to concede at some level. There is no world in which teams will choose to defend Simmons' 3-ball rather than his at-rim finishing. His inside game is what teams will game plan for.

So how does Simmons take advantage of that? By becoming a better post-up player and foul drawer. Rivers has already tried to get him involved in post-up sets as an offensive hub and mismatch problem, which in theory is the right move. In practice, though, he's not good on the low block: for his career, Simmons has posted up 509 times and only generated 402 points—an eye-gouging 0.8 points per possession.

The free throw game is an issue for Simmons too. Heading into this season, Simmons averaged 4.9 free throw attempts per game and only made 59.3% of them. As one would expect, "hack-a-Ben" has been instituted here and there because it's sometimes in the opponent's best interest to foul him. Simmons has gotten to the line more often in this young season, but the shooting form and percentage are still dreadful.

So not only do Embiid and Simmons have to both be at the same spots to maximize their strengths, but one of them is only good down there in specific situations (transition, the dunker's spot, etc.). It's a really tough fit without a great perimeter creator. The Sixers have tried to find that guy several times, most notably the Markelle Fultz and Jimmy Butler trades, but those attempts didn’t last.

Now that Harden is available, they should be doing everything they can (within reason) to get him.

Who wouldn't want Harden?

Harden is an elite player, arguably the best offensive player in the game right now and one of the five to 10 best in league history. In his eight years as a Rocket (before 2020-21), Harden averaged 29.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists. His scoring is very balanced as well: approximately 10.8 of those points come from inside the arc, 9.9 from 3-point territory, and 9.0 from the free throw line each night. Overall he shoots 51.2% on 2s, 36.2% on 3s and 86.2% from the line—all excellent clips for a guard, and even more impressive for one with his workload.

His style of drawing fouls and hoisting 3s isn’t aesthetic, but it’s very effective. Objectively he is one of the best scorers of all time, and a very good playmaker as well.

He is one of the best pairings imaginable for Embiid, both in basketball and in timeline. At 26 years old with his injury history, it’s worth wondering how many years of greatness the big fella has left. He didn’t play a minute for two whole seasons once coming into the league, and has missed at least 18 games each year he’s been “healthy.” Embiid is a Most Valuable Player candidate when on the court; the Sixers should be maximizing every minute he's out there.

Harden, meanwhile, is Mr. Available. In his eight years as Houston Rocket before this one, Harden missed a total of 33 regular season games and zero playoff contests. He’s battled through injuries, heavy workloads, constantly adapting systems and teammates, and even an ownership change—and rarely missed a day of work.

He is also 31 with two guaranteed years, and then a player option for 2022-23. There’s a real chance that workload of the past starts chipping away at him, and that his availability, production and efficiency all take a dip before we even get to that player option. It's also not certain that he’ll play nice with Embiid the whole time considering how many stars have failed to get along with him in Houston. The risks are palpable.

But the upside is unmatched. Harden-Embiid immediately becomes one of the best duos in the league, if not the best. Harden’s weaknesses (perimeter defense) get masked by Embiid’s strengths, and Embiid’s shortcomings (can’t be the offensive fulcrum full-time) are covered by Harden’s best attributes. Both of them are top-tier talents who can each be the best player on the court on any given night. Not many teams can say that.

The upshot

The strategic implications of a move like that are clear: Finals or bust for the next two to three years. The Sixers would be all-in on Harden and Embiid, meaning that every part of the organization would be focused on #ringz. The timeline definitely shrinks, as you have at least two extra years with Simmons than you would with Harden.

But those two years would be legitimate championship contention. The chance of winning it all in that time becomes real and tangible. The needs around them would be more specific, and the organization would have an easier time filling those holes with a defined direction.

These five years of Simmons aren’t guaranteeing anything close to that. Embiid and Simmons have a difficult time fitting together in the half court, and though they could coexist much better with a high-level shot creator, there’s no easy path to finding one of those anytime soon. Simmons might become a good fit with Embiid at some point over the next five years, but the odds are against him. Harden is a known quantity, and a very good one at that.

To win at the highest levels, you need a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Harden type player. A guy who can make stuff happen at all levels against a set, honed-in defense. As of now, the Sixers don't have that guy and are therefore not good enough to win in the short term. Considering Embiid’s situation, the short term might be the only term that matters.

The loss of Simmons creates other holes, but they’re much easier to plug than the one Harden can fill. The Sixers lack a true switchable wing body other than him, so Danny Green would then become the primary option to defend Durant/Leonard/James. But those guys can be had; P.J. Tucker would probably want out out of Houston too if Harden is traded, and Miami added two guys of that ilk (Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala) at the trade deadline last year. Players like them become available more often than you'd think, even if they're not as suffocating as Simmons.

The transition game would also take a major hit, making it easier for opposing defenses to reset. But at the absolute most, that makes up one-fifth of your playbook; Embiid and Harden would dominate the other 80%.

Another element to this whole thing is negotiation. Reports are that the Rockets want Harden plus picks and players, while the Sixers would want more than just Harden in a Simmons trade. Both these perspectives make sense, which leads one to believe that the middle ground is just Harden for Simmons straight up.

From the Sixers’ perspective, that could be a lack of due diligence. There are 28 other teams that would probably make an offer for Simmons, and those teams may be able to make a better offer than Harden. They could get enough assets and young players to be competitive for years after Simmons’ contract is up.

But do any of them help the Sixers win now? Their goal should be to compete for a championship ASAP. “Blue-chip prospect plus picks” doesn’t do that right now or even two years from now. Simmons also probably doesn’t do that anytime soon.

Harden is one of the best offensive players ever, is in his prime, and fulfills the exact requirements of being a No. 1 option for a contender. Morey should be doing everything he can (within reason) to reunite with such a player.