James Harden-Ben Simmons trade a unique in-season star swap between contenders

James Harden and Ben Simmons in Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers
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The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers entered the season holding identical ambition.

“Our goal is to be the last team standing,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said.

“I’m focused on winning the title,” 76ers president Daryl Morey said.

A championship is obviously a zero-sum game. Only one team can win the 2022 title. Helping your opponent means hurting yourself.

Yet, Brooklyn and Philadelphia just exchanged stars James Harden and Ben Simmons in a blockbuster trade yesterday.

An All-Star the last 10 years, Harden provides an immediate upgrade to the 76ers, who previously counted Joel Embiid as their lone star. Philadelphia is clearly pushing hard for a championship sooner than later.

The Nets have a longer horizon, acquiring the star who’s seven years younger and two first-round picks. But make no mistake: With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn is still aiming for a title this year. Simmons, on paper, can aid that effort.

Star-for-star trades are rare. Championship contenders, let alone contenders within the same conference, swapping stars during the season? It’s unprecedented.

I set wide parameters to find trades that at all resembled this one: Playoff teams making an in-season trade of a player who’d been an All-Star within one season for another player who’d been an All-Star within one season. Only one deal matched.

The Detroit Pistons sent Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson in 2008. In the midst of making five straight All-Star games, Billups helped Denver reach the Western Conference finals. But Iverson – who was very good for the Nuggets the season prior – quickly deteriorated in Detroit, though continued to make All-Star games thanks to the fan vote. The Pistons finished just 39-43 and got swept in the first round – about as far from championship contention as a playoff team can be.

There were a few other trades that also came within shouting distance of resembling the Harden-Simmons deal.

In 1999, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Eddie Jones (an All-Star the prior two seasons and the next season*) to the Charlotte Hornets for Glen Rice (an All-Star the prior three seasons). Having not played for Charlotte due to injury that season, Rice started between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles and helped the Lakers reach the second round. The Hornets, 5-11 at the time of the trade, surged with Jones. But they finished one game out of the playoffs at 26-24.**

*There was no All-Star game in 1999 due to a lockout.

**The No. 8 seed in the East that year, the New York Knicks, reached the NBA Finals.

The 2003 Seattle SuperSonics-Milwaukee Bucks trade featuring Ray Allen (an All-Star the prior three seasons then seven more times in his career) and Gary Payton (a ninth-time All-Star that season) stands out as a deadline classic. Descending from stardom as he aged, Payton didn’t provide the desired boost in Milwaukee, which lost in the first round. He signed with the Lakers that summer. Allen did more for the SuperSonics, but they were just 22-30 when they acquired him. Seattle finished 40-42, four games out of the playoffs.

The Nuggets won 50 games while trading Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks during the 2010-11 season. Not only did the Knicks get an all-time great in his prime in Anthony, they also acquired Billups (who’d made the previous five All-Star games, though was rapidly declining) in the deal. New York finished 42-40 and got swept in the first round. But none of the key players Denver acquired – Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler (who were helping the Knicks win before the trade) – rose to the level of stardom.

Teams are just beyond reluctant to make this type of trade, potentially helping a foe. Those four other examples were all cross-conference deals.

It obviously took unique circumstances for the Nets and 76ers to execute yesterday’s trade. Simmons requested a trade, had been sitting out all season and threatened never to report. Harden, who could’ve become a free agent this summer, was frustrated in Brooklyn and sulking.

To be fair, perhaps this deal will look different in hindsight.

Maybe it’s presumptuous to assume the Nets will make the playoffs. They’ve lost 10 straight, falling to eighth in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn could continue to struggle until Durant gets healthy.

An All-Star the previous three years, Simmons might not rediscover that level. He has cited mental-health issues for his absence, and he faced confidence issues before.

But the picture looks clear enough today: Pressed into dire straits, two championship contenders – who could meet in the playoffs – took the extraordinary step of swapping stars during the season.

It’s a fantastic test of the Nets and 76ers.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.




Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks


MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.