The NBA trade deadline is tomorrow and the most intriguing deal is, as is often the case, the one that may not happen. The basketball world is abuzz at the possibility of the Philadelphia 76ers trading Ben Simmons to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for James Harden. There are conflicting reports from the reporting world about the likelihood of this possibility. Brian Windhorst is convinced it's nearing completion while Adrian Wojnarowski isn't nearly as bullish. Both fanbases will live on the edge of their seats until Thursday at 3 p.m., when a deal is officially done or the deadline passes.
It is intriguing in part because it seems to makes perfect sense. Simmons will never suit up for the team again and is currently just a wasted roster spot. Daryl Morey is among the several former Houston Rockets executives in Philly's front office and know Harden as well as anybody. Joel Embiid is a Tier One superstar who needs additional shot creation around him to reach his full potential. Harden's current attitude is reminiscent of his final days with the Rockets, indicating he will leave of his own volition as soon as possible.
Trading Harden for Simmons ensures both teams get what they want in a rare win-win trade. The Sixers wash themselves clean of the Simmons debacle while acquiring a player with precisely the kind of skill set needed to take their team to the next level. The Nets will have something to show for the Harden trade and acquire a player who can easily cover for many weaknesses on the roster.
But it does not make perfect sense. Not for the Sixers. Trading Simmons for Harden would be a huge mistake.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the Sixers are doing themselves a disservice by refusing to trade Simmons while Embiid plays at an MVP level. Giving him up for Harden obviously improves the team significantly, if only because he'll actually play. But it's not just trading for Harden this season. If the Sixers do acquire the former MVP, he'll come with the expectation that he'll receive a max extension worth up to $220 million this offseason.
Trading Simmons for Harden means tethering Embiid's prime years to a player who has not performed at an MVP-caliber level in a few season and has barely been at All-Star level this year. What's more, the injury bug has struck Harden hard over the last two seasons. He hasn't played the last week and a half for Brooklyn due to a myriad of minor injuries, from a hand sprain to the same type of hamstring injury that effectively made him a bystander in the playoffs last year. That is worrisome for any player, much less a guy who wants a max extension, and especially when that player's star is Embiid, who has his own lengthy and concerning list of injuries that could rear its ugly head at any moment. There are more futures in which the Sixers spiral because Harden or Embiid (or both) get hurt than there are futures where Philly is celebrating a title because both stayed healthy and mesh perfectly.
With that argument made, it's time to consider the alternatives. Not trading Simmons for Harden and accepting that the All-NBA defender is a sunk cost for the year would be awful. No doubt about it. A tough pill to swallow. But someone will trade for Simmons this offseason. Trading Simmons for a non-superstar would certainly also sting for Morey, but acquiring a bunch of supporting pieces that fit well around Embiid wouldn't be the end of the world. Morey could pivot those into a superstar trade. He's a creative guy. Trading for Harden could pay bigger dividends than a smaller Simmons trade ever would, but it could also crash and burn spectacularly, leaving the Sixers with nothing but wasted time for their troubles. The latter, again, seems more likely than the former given the context of where Harden is at in his career right now.
Aside from all those concerns, the possibility remains that the Sixers could simply sign Harden outright this summer. They'd have to trade assets to dump Tobias Harris' contract, and send out Simmons without receiving a lot in return, but they could do it. This way is probably preferable to the Sixers because they wouldn't be gifting a division rival an elite defender and playmaker who forced his way out of town. Philly can still use Simmons to acquire useful players on rookie deals while getting its superstar. It would be a way for Morey to hedge his bets. If Harden doesn't work out, at least the Sixers still got something useful back for Simmons. If it does work out, everybody wins except the Nets, which is great news for Philadelphia.
If the Sixers trade Simmons for Harden, they're putting all their eggs into that basket. It's the kind of high-risk, high-reward move that Morey is known for. But everything about Harden's tenure with Brooklyn screams that it's a bad idea. And there's no real reason to make that bet given what can happen this offseason. The Sixers need to get something for Simmons, and wasting this year of Embiid would hurt, but it would hurt far more if they gamble and lose on Harden because of injury or dispute or whatever other problems could come up.
Philly has its superstar. They need another for a legitimate chance at title contention. Harden, at 33 years-old, with recurring injuries, with a plummeting shooting percentage, with the expectation of receiving a contract that would destroy any flexibility the Sixers have, is not that star.