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.