Ben Simmons has wanted out of Philadelphia since last summer. James Harden wanted out of Brooklyn since some point this season, when he started mailing it in.
That led to a blockbuster trade hours before the deadline where both players got what they wanted — Harden and Simmons were traded for each other. But will that be good for their teams? There are championship-level rewards for the team and player where this goes right, but there are GMs looking for jobs/tarnished player legacies for the team where this trade goes sideways.
Right now, you can make a case for a lot of winners, but in a couple of years we’re going to look back on this and see some clear losers. There are so many questions.
Let’s break down the winners — with caveats — and losers from this blockbuster. But first, here is the deal:
The 76ers receive: James Harden, Paul Millsap
The Nets receive: Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, two first-round picks
WINNER: DARYL MOREY… IF PHILLY WINS IT ALL
Daryl Morey got what he wanted — he and James Harden are back together on a contender.
But the price was steep: An elite shooter in Curry, two first-round picks, plus the 76ers are going to have to pay Harden four years, $222.8 million on top of the $47.4 he just opted into for next season. That’s five years, $270 million taking Harden through age 37. The 76ers will regret the last year or two of that contract.
Morey gave up flexibility and options to take a swing at winning it all in the next couple of seasons. That’s a good thing — more teams should make home run swings. But home run swings also lead to more strikeouts, which could be the case for Morey and the 76ers. He has boxed himself in with this trade.
WINNER: BROOKLYN NETS… IF BEN SIMMONS FITS DURING PLAYOFFS
What Brooklyn had done for the first 54 games this season was not working. Harden was unhappy, his attitude was bringing the Nets down. This team needed a change.
It got one — a change that looks great on paper.
Simmons’ ability to push the ball in transition, his passing, and his elite perimeter defense should mesh beautifully with the isolation game of Kyrie Irving and the he-does-everything-well game of Kevin Durant. It’s easy to envision the Nets forcing a miss, Simmons pushing the ball up the court, pulling it back because nothing is there, and getting it to Durant to run the halfcourt set and letting him work. Good luck stopping that offense.
If it can get healthy, this Nets team should be a regular season powerhouse. If Simmons is truly mentally ready to play, there should be a seamless fit with this roster during the first 82 games.
The questions about this trade come in the playoffs, specifically the second round and beyond. Elite teams will force the Nets away from strengths and to deeper options in the playbook — they are going to force Simmons to shoot, and they are going to foul him and send him to the free throw line. Simmons wilted in the pressure cooker of Philadelphia in the playoffs next to Embiid — playing next to Durant in New York turns the fire up to new levels. Durant, Irving, Mills and others on the Nets’ roster have proven they can handle the heat. How will Simmons respond?
Nets GM Sean Marks did what he had to. Harden wasn’t happy — when was the last time he was happy for an extended period on the court? — and it was time to make a change. Getting Simmons could prove to be a brilliant and the final step needed to bring Brooklyn a title, but it comes down to how Simmons fits and how well he is prepared for the pressure of the playoffs in New York.
WINNER: PHILADELPHIA 76ERS… IF JAMES HARDEN IS HEALTHY, ENGAGED
Does James Harden fit well with Joel Embiid? It may not be as smooth and natural as people expect. Harden has always preferred rim-running bigs he could lob to, but who also vacated the space and let him work. Embiid is not a screen-and-roll guy. Embiid wants the ball on the block, or 15 feet out so he can face up, but that leaves Harden off the ball, where he tends to lose focus and start coasting through games. Embiid can space the floor and draw an opposing center out, away from protecting the paint and opening up lanes for Harden to drive, but the best use of Embiid is not him standing in the corner as a decoy.
Great players tend to figure out how to play together, and while this may not be natural for Philly, the smart money is on Embiid and Harden figuring it out.
They have to figure it out. Pretty quickly.
Harden is 32 and has shown signs of decline this season (although was it decline or his famed disinterest?). Joel Embiid is in his prime and playing like an MVP, but he has an injury history — and a foot injury history specifically — that could cut short some seasons. The window for the 76ers is not going to be terribly long; they need to take full advantage of it from the start.
Bottom line — Philly got better. Their title chances this season went up… if the 76ers get the healthy, engaged, focused Harden. If Philly does get that Harden, then for how long? The 76ers gave up a lot of depth to get Harden, they need the All-NBA version of him to make a title run.
LOSERS: KINGS, TIMBERWOLVES, PACERS, CAVALIERS, SPURS, EVERY OTHER SMALL MARKET TEAM CHASING SIMMONS
Simmons already got his max extension, he is under contract for four more years after this one. That drew small- and mid-market teams into the Simons trade mix early and aggressively — here was a chance for them to land a superstar player, one that would be under contract with them for years. Superstars get drafted into smaller markets, but they rarely go there as a free agent. Here was a chance for a team to trade for a young All-Star and build something around him. It was a rare opportunity.
They tried. Teams called and made offers.
Ben Simmons ended up in Brooklyn anyway.
That wasn’t a small market bias — Morey wanted Harden, and Harden happened to be in Brooklyn — but it is a loss, a missed opportunity for teams that struggle to get this level of star in free agency.
WINNER: MEEK MILL
The Philadelphia rapper is tight with James Harden. This couldn’t have gone much better for him.