• Alec Liebsch

Will Ben Simmons be dealt by the Trade Deadline?

The Philadelphia 76ers employ the most important player of this season's trade market. Will they finally cave and get some sort of value for the guy who refuses to suit up for them? Or will their patience pay off?


The last day for NBA teams to make trades for the 2021-22 season is this Thursday, February 10th. By 3pm ET on that day, several players will have changed ZIP codes as teams angle for competitive advantages ahead of the playoff push.


One player stands as the gatekeeper of this deadline, and he also happens to be a Sixer. At least in name. Ben Simmons requested a trade all the way back in the summer of 2021, fresh off a career-damaging playoff performance at the mercy of the Atlanta Hawks.


Following the Sixers' Game 7 loss, Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid made critical remarks of Simmons, and the point forward took them in such a negative manner that he now refuses to play another game for the franchise.


This has not swayed Sixers' brass. The organization's goal is clear--to put the team in contention to win a championship--and they have stuck to it through this whole mess. Offers for Simmons have come and gone, but a trade offer has yet to meet Philly's high asking price. President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey and other decision-makers are not interested in a quick-fix move. Simmons is the best trade chip they have, and if they cash in for the wrong return, it could set the franchise back several years.


In the meantime, debate ravages the fanbase over whether or not this is the right strategy. Joel Embiid's spectacular season only amplifies the fanbase's anxiety, as it becomes tougher to justify letting such a great year go to waste. None of the players offered so far have exactly been game-changers, but Morey has also demanded the kitchen sink, creating a gap in negotiations that probably can't be filled by Thursday.


Unless James Harden is on the table.


James Harden, Ben Simmons
Matt Slocum, Associated Press

Harden is Morey's magnum opus. Back in 2012, the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder went from Finals darlings to an expensive contender in a matter of months. They deemed a 23 year-old Harden, who back then was only a sixth man, to be the odd man out of their salary cap equation. Morey, then the brains of the Houston Rockets, seized the opportunity, forking over Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks and a second rounder for Harden and his new contract.


Martin was out of the league a few years later, Lamb carved out a role as a rotational wing, and the picks became Steven Adams, Mitch McGary and Alex Abrines. Harden became a perennial All-NBA guy and Most Valuable Player candidate, won three scoring titles, led the league in assists once, and led the team that came closest to dethroning the Golden State Warriors' dynasty. That trade was one of the most influential in league history, both as a celebration of Morey's basketball acumen and as a cautionary tale of how context can cloud player evaluation.


When Morey left the Rockets and took the Sixers job back in 2020, even he couldn't have seen what was coming. Harden demanded a trade soon after Morey's departure, because he saw that Houston was gearing up to tear it down and rebuild. The saga met its end early in the 2020-21 season, when the Nets and Sixers went into an arms race for the dynamic guard. Harden chose Brooklyn, so the Rockets took the Nets' package of four first round picks, three swaps, Jarrett Allen (who was rerouted to the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Caris LeVert (flipped to the Indiana Pacers for Victor Oladipo). Morey's offer, which presumably included Simmons and another asset, was definitely strong enough, but in the end it was not the winner.


Fast forward to the present, and we're seeing a similar story unfold. Harden is struggling with the Nets, being asked to carry a heavy burden while Kevin Durant nurses an injury and Kyrie Irving refuses to get vaccinated. With a player option looming at the end of the season, Harden's wandering eyes are starting to put pressure on Nets' leadership.


Will Harden's outlook improve as the Nets get back to full strength? Or will his apathy continue past the deadline, torpedoing the Nets' title hopes and nudging them into an even tougher spot in the offseason? Recent reports have tried to answer both these questions, which is a dead giveaway that each side is using media back-channels to gain leverage.


The case for trading for Harden now


Time is the strongest argument for action, as Harden teaming up with Embiid now would be an extra season of legitimate title contention. I already discussed their on-court fit the last time Harden was linked to the Sixers, so if you're still skeptical, check out my piece from last year.


Additionally, it is easier to fit Harden's next contract into the Sixers' salary cap situation if he's already a Sixer. Trading for a player also means trading for his Bird Rights, which are basically a monetary advantage teams get to retain their own players. The Sixers would not have to clear cap space to sign him outright, nor would they have to get into a sign-and-trade bidding war in July. He'd already be here, all but assuring that he's a Sixer for the next half decade.


Lastly, if the pairing doesn't work as smoothly as hoped, the Sixers would still have an out before paying him that max deal. Making the trade for Harden now offers the Sixers some insurance against doomsday-type scenarios while boosting their odds of keeping him long-term. It would cost them a valuable asset or two on top of Simmons, but it would also remove some crucial risks.


The case for waiting until free agency


On the flip side, the Sixers could pay substantially less for Harden in a few months if they can hold off. If July 1st comes around and Harden zeroes in on Philadelphia as his preferred destination, he can force his way there whether Brooklyn likes it or not. And in that scenario, the team trading away the coveted free agent (Brooklyn) typically gets way less than full value for the player (think Josh Richardson for Jimmy Butler). If the Sixers are confident that Harden will sign with them regardless, then they are better off waiting and getting him for less.


This would also make it easier to build around Harden and Embiid. Instead of trading Simmons and, say, Matisse Thybulle immediately, you could just trade Simmons for Harden straight-up in July, and retain Thybulle as either a member of the core or an extra trade asset. The same goes for Seth Curry, a player who fits so well with Embiid and who will also be on a very attractive expiring contract next season.


Finally, confidence in Harden eventually signing with the Sixers would also expand the types of packages they could take for Simmons now. Instead of having to trade him for the exact right player they want, they can take a "B+" package with a few good players who help Embiid now who could also help execute a sign-and-trade in July. They could also use Simmons as a way to offload Tobias Harris' contract, getting quality players in return while also opening up cap space to dangle over Brooklyn's head.


John Collins, Tyrese Haliburton
Kyle Terada, USA Today Sports

Other Deals


Several teams have talked with the Sixers about Simmons to varying degrees, but many of them are at the table for the same reason the Sixers won't bite: they don't have that game-changer, or if they do, they are looking to pair that guy with Simmons. The teams that get mentioned the most on the rumor mill are those looking for a second or third cornerstone, not to trade their own guy for Simmons. This is why the Pacers offered Malcolm Brogdon and a mid first rounder, why the Sacramento Kings won't trade Tyrese Haliburton, and why the Minnesota Timberwolves can't make traction despite such a strong push.


It is rare for a team to have a player: (A) as good as Simmons, (B) under team control for multiple years, and also (C) expendable. But if Morey is willing to tone down his asking price just a bit, the wheels may start to turn.


The Timberwolves are reportedly willing to take on Harris in a Simmons trade, per Shams Charania of The Athletic. They don't appear willing to trade much of value back to Philly to pull this off (which is fair given the enormous financial commitment) but it's not like they have much to send out in the first place. If a trade is made with Minnesota, it would most likely be because of the salary relief the Sixers would gain, rather than the value.


To approach Simmons' and Harris' combined cap hit, the Timberwolves could send out D'Angelo Russell and the expiring contracts of Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince. Russell's contract ends a year earlier than Harris', and he would be a much better fit with Embiid even if he is less talented. Beverley would also add value to a point guard room that currently houses Furkan Korkmaz; he might be available in a non-Simmons trade too.


Sacramento reportedly backed out of Simmons talks, but leaks like that around this time of year are generally posturing to get another team to crack. The Kings are "out" of the Simmons sweepstakes until they're back in. They could likely get back in the running in one of two ways: either they dangle Haliburton, or they take on Harris. There were already rumblings that they could do the latter, and I would not rule out the former either. It's the Kings.


They can get to that $69 million figure rather easily: Harrison Barnes ($20.2M), Buddy Hield ($23.0M), Marvin Bagley III ($11.3M) and Tristan Thompson ($9.7M) add up to $64.3 million. If Haliburton is on the table, the Sixers can just swap Simmons for Haliburton, a pick or two, and some combination of the above contracts.


A late arrival to the party was the Atlanta Hawks, who are looking to consolidate their abundance of assets. They reached the Eastern Conference Finals ahead of schedule last year, and now their cap sheet is about to get a bit crowded. The most sensible and efficient move would be to upgrade on one of their core players not named Trae Young, sweeten the pot with a few of ancillary assets and players, and get a legitimate game-changer. That's why Simmons makes a lot of sense for them.


Atlanta is not a great match for Philly's talent demands, but they may have enough players of need to offset that. The Hawks are stocked with good wings like Bogdan Bogdanovic and De'Andre Hunter, and peripheral pieces like Jalen Johnson and a first rounder could be rerouted to a third team, from which the Sixers could land a quality guard. John Collins matches up well with Simmons' salary, and is a very good player that approaches what the Sixers are looking for talent-wise, but he's only a good fit if Harris is also traded. The Hawks seem unlikely to engage in that, given their future cap situation with Young, Kevin Huerter, and Clint Capela all making major money next year.


Conclusion


The Harden storyline is relatively new to the scene, which arouses some suspicion on its legitimacy and source. Every rumor that has come out in the last few days to weeks, and every drip of news we get until Thursday, all have a driving force behind them. An agenda. Until a trade actually happens, none of it can be taken too seriously.


But the Harden smoke is quite strong. If he's available for a reasonable price (i.e. not Tyrese Maxey), the Sixers should make a strong push for him. He is far and away the best player that has been linked to Simmons to this point. At his best, even if he's not an MVP candidate anymore, he would solve so many of the Sixers' problems and elevate them into title contention. That is reason enough to seriously explore it.


I'm also of the belief that they can have their cake and eat it too. They can get a package for Simmons this week that yields both short and long-term equity. Maybe the Nets would prefer depth and draft picks to a star like Simmons. Who's to say the Portland Trail Blazers would rather have Simmons on a max deal than cost-controlled assets when they finally trade Damian Lillard?


If the offers currently out there all stink, then it's reasonable for the Sixers to hold off. The thing is, I simply don't believe that's the case. There has to be someone getting close to Morey's asking price. And I think on Thursday, that deal will have been agreed upon.


Prediction: Simmons is traded to the Hawks for Bogdanovic, Hunter, a top-4 protected first in 2022 and an unprotected first in 2025. Harris is not traded. The Sixers make move for a backup point guard using Paul Reed.