The Philadelphia 76ers pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets before Thursday's 3 p.m. trade deadline. The deal sent James Harden and Paul Millsap to the Sixers in exchange for a package centered around Ben Simmons and Seth Curry. The trade was one of the biggest deadline moves in recent NBA history. I break down how this massive trade impacts the Sixers both now and in the future:
The end of the Ben Simmons era in Philadelphia
Shouts of joy were heard all across the Delaware Valley this afternoon when news came down that the Sixers were shipping Simmons out to Brooklyn. The disgruntled All-Star had not played in a single game for the Sixers this season, and he had all but severed his ties with the team completely. The entire situation was well documented all throughout the past six or seven months, so I will not dive into too much detail here.
While Simmons became a hated figure all around Philadelphia, he was at one point believed to be a major part of this team during a time where they had the ability to contend for a championship. He was compared to LeBron James due to his well-rounded skillset. However, things never really clicked and, as the years went by, he stagnated and failed to improve as a scorer, the one crucial aspect of his game that was necessary for him to eventually reach his ceiling.
Things all came to a head when he passed up an open dunk in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year against the Atlanta Hawks. That play, and the resulting after-effects from it, led directly to the end of the Simmons era in Philadelphia.
The past seven months were painful and annoying for anyone following, or writing about, what felt like the never-ending Simmons saga. There were many days spent following reports that in the end proved to be meaningless. However, the saga has officially come to an end in one of the best ways it possibly could have, with a blockbuster trade sending a true superstar player to the Sixers.
Morey's patience pays off
Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey could not have played his cards any more perfectly. Many segments of Sixers fandom had run out of patience with the Simmons saga and were preaching for Morey to trade him for whatever he could get. Morey believed he could end up getting a superstar player in return for Simmons if he waited it out long enough and sent out the right messages (including going on 97.5 The Fanatic earlier this season and saying he would be willing to wait for four years if that is what it would take to get a proper return for Simmons).
Morey beautifully weaved his way through the trade market, stood his ground and played the waiting game. He knew eventually, as the season wore on and the trade deadline got closer, more suitors would open up and perhaps a superstar player would become disgruntled and want out. When he sensed Harden was available before the trade deadline, he carefully maneuvered his way into securing him and reuniting with his best player from his time with the Houston Rockets.
Perhaps the best way his patience paid off was through the "negotiations" (back channel or otherwise) with Nets general manager Sean Marks. Harden reportedly wanted out of Brooklyn and he had declined his player option for this coming season. Morey knew he had the leverage and he properly set up the guidelines of what he would be willing to give up to acquire Harden.
He stood pat on those guidelines, telling Marks he was not giving up either of his young players, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle. He won the staring contest, often metaphorically compared to two trains about to speed right into each other in the days leading up to the trade deadline. He waited until Marks would settle for something he would be willing to give up, which wound up becoming Simmons, Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks.
Morey, in essence, turned two role players (Curry, Drummond), a player who was never going to play in a Sixers uniform again, and two first-round picks into a bonafide top-10 player in basketball. He managed to do it while also holding onto both of his young assets.
Sixers become immediate title contenders
Acquiring Harden immediately put the Sixers into title contention. Joel Embiid has never before played with someone as talented as Harden, and the two should really be able to flourish together. The two-man game with Embiid and Harden should be nearly unstoppable between Embiid's ability in the post and around the paint and Harden's floor spacing and passing abilities.
Harden has the ability to score from anywhere on the court. He is one of the best scorers of this generation, averaging 28.7 points per game in 707 career starts. In terms of his three-point shooting, he might not be a high-percentage shooter, but he hits them at a good enough clip at a high volume to be a threat from beyond the arc. He is shooting 36.2 percent on 7.6 attempts per game from beyond the arc for his career.
He has also expanded his game to become more than just a scorer. Over the last eight seasons, he is averaging 8.6 assists per game. He should be able to step into the starting point guard role with ease. Just look at the two plays below to see how his passing abilities will have a major positive impact for the Sixers.
Even just having something as simple as Harden's ability to make passes like this (i.e. easily set up Embiid when he finds good positioning near the basket) would be helpful for the Sixers. pic.twitter.com/n2k6L5amb3
— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 10, 2022
Embiid isn't a big lob guy, but he's improved his screening and off-ball play this season.
Just imagine how much having James Harden's ridiculous pocket-passing ability would help Embiid/the Sixers. pic.twitter.com/5Pg3LN6IAQ
— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 10, 2022
Maxey did a nice job playing point guard for the Sixers so far this season, but he is still learning the position and is a work in progress. Having Harden, who has the ability to average over 10 assists per game, will be a major upgrade at point for the Sixers. The fit with Harden and Maxey should also work well as it will allow Maxey to focus more on scoring the ball and less on trying to learn how to play point on the fly.
The Vegas oddsmakers had the Sixers at +1200 to win the NBA title before the deadline compared to +750 after, the biggest shift of any team in the league. Having your top four players be Embiid, Harden, Maxey and Tobias Harris has to be one of the best cores of any team in basketball.
Walking through the current roster post-Harden trade
As previously mentioned, the Sixers on paper have arguably the best starting lineup in basketball after the Harden acquisition. Having Harris or a young, developing Maxey be your fourth scoring option is insane.
The only remaining question about the starting lineup is whether to have Thybulle or Danny Green start at small forward. Both players are defensive-minded, but Thybulle has the edge far and above in terms of his defensive abilities. However, the Sixers might want to finish out their starting lineup with Green, a much stronger three-point shooter. If they went with Thybulle, they would not be getting much offensive production. It is a decision the coaching staff will have to weigh, with the potential being likely they could switch the two out depending on the matchup.
The team has enough ball handlers now that the all-bench lineups should be a thing of the past (really, they should not have been a thing to begin with). There should be no excuse for head coach Doc Rivers to ever not have at least one of Harden, Maxey, Harris or Embiid out on the floor. The bench unit has a lack of people who can create and run the offense, so having at least one of those players on the floor at all times should be a necessity going forward.
In order to build one of the best starting fives in basketball, the team did have to give up two of their top role players in Curry, the team's best three-point shooter, and Drummond, the team's best backup big man of the Embiid era. However, it is all worth it to bring in another superstar player to pair with Embiid. Role players can be replaced whereas the chance to acquire a superstar player does not come along often.
The team's current rotation looks like this:
PG: Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton, Myles Powell
SG: James Harden, Isaiah Joe, Jaden Springer
SF: Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Charlie Brown Jr.
PF: Tobias Harris, Georges Niang, Paul Millsap
C: Joel Embiid, Paul Reed, Charles Bassey
One player of intrigue in the rotation is Paul Millsap, otherwise known as the other player the team acquired in the Harden trade. Millsap, at 37 years old, is on the tail end of his career. Regardless, he might be able to be a serviceable bench player for the Sixers. He has some ability to stretch the floor and could even play some stretch five minutes on occasion. However, his future with the team is uncertain, as he could get bought out due to the combination of his declining abilities and that he reportedly wanted more than the 11.3 minutes per game he was playing for the Nets this season.
The Sixers will have to rely on the buyout market to fill out the remaining holes on the roster, such as improving both the backup point guard and backup center spots. Some players who could potentially be bought out include: Dennis Schroder, Eric Bledsoe, Tristan Thompson and Goran Dragic. Buyout candidates often look to go to teams with chances at competing for the title, and after the Harden trade the Sixers should be near the top of that list.
Taking a look at what Harden's next contract will potentially look like
The Sixers knew what they were getting themselves into over the long-term when they traded for Harden. He opted into his player option worth $47.3 million, ensuring he is under the team's control for at least the next two seasons. At that point, the team should have enough info to judge how Harden is playing considering he will be getting up into his mid-30s.
As Derek Bodner broke down in his Daily Six newsletter, Harden will be eligible to earn up to $274.6 million total through the 2026-27 season. The potential contract extension for Harden is massive and will definitely be burdensome for the team, especially considering he will be 37 years old by the end of the extension.
Found this from @DerekBodnerNBA's excellent Daily Six newsletter helpful re: James Harden's financial future.
— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) February 10, 2022
However, the Sixers will have up until the offseason after the 2022-23 season to make their decision on whether to sign Harden to that massive extension. It is assumed the team will definitely extend his contract, but if for some reason (let's say his body is not handling the aging curve well) they choose not to they will have the ability to avoid signing an aging player to one of the biggest contracts in NBA history.
UPDATE: Harden did not opt into his $47.3 million player option, as some earlier reports stated, according to Philly Voice's Kyle Neubeck. It is still likely he will opt into the player option, but now can not do it until after this season is over.
source familiar with the situation tells @thephillyvoice James Harden did not opt into the next year of his deal yesterday, as was reported elsewhere.
Sixers and Harden are both confident and feeling good about where they stand long term, but an important detail nonetheless
— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) February 11, 2022