The Philadelphia 76ers always felt like an ideal trade destination for James Harden. Once longtime general manager Daryl Morey resigned from the Houston Rockets, speculation began on whether Harden would finish his career in Houston. Now that the Sixers have hired Morey to be their President of Basketball Operations, trade machines on the internet are going to be overloaded with Harden-to-Philadelphia trades.
There are many ways the Sixers could acquire Harden, but the package will certainly need to include one of Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. Criticism over the duo’s fit together has always been a concern and their disappointing 2019-20 season has only magnified it. Rivers will do everything he can to maximize their production together, but even if it improves to something sustainable, the fit of Harden with either Simmons or Embiid might still be better. Morey, Harden’s biggest fan, could be at the forefront for the line of thinking that pairing up Harden with Simmons or Embiid will turn them into a championship contender.
Harden has three years remaining on the supermax extension that he signed in 2017. The 31-year-old superstar is owed $41.2 million, $44.3 million, and a player option for $47.4 million through the 2022-23 season. He won’t be getting out of Houston anytime soon unless he demands a trade, and even then Rockets could decide to keep him through the end of his deal.
All indications are that the Rockets will enter the 2020-21 season with the goal of competing for a championship. But as good as they were last season, there is no guarantee they’ll at least repeat the same level of success, especially after the loss of Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets have been very averse to paying the luxury tax the past few seasons, so they may be limited on making upgrades.
Still, the Rockets offseason has left more questions than answers. How sure can they be that they will be competitive with new head coach Stephen Silas? With player salaries increasing, how can they improve the roster if the organization won’t get into the luxury tax? And what if the Rockets get off to a bumpy start? Harden will give the new-look organization the benefit of the doubt, but as the season goes on, reflection from both him and the Rockets could eventually lead to a separation.
Perhaps the bigger question over whether or not either team should agree to a Harden trade: Simmons or Embiid?
It’s hard to say from the Sixers standpoint which star they’d prefer to trade for Harden. One can make the argument to pairing Harden with either. On one hand, Simmons is two years younger than Embiid, defends the perimeter at an elite level, and would make for a deadly transition partner with Harden. His lack of shooting might be what gives Morey reservations on him. On the other hand, Embiid can stretch the floor, provide elite interior defense, and Harden might be able to unlock Embiid even further than what we currently see. It’s one of those things where there’s no wrong answer, the Sixers just need to choose a style.
The Rockets are already getting a star and borderline top 15-20 player in either Embiid or Simmons, so the youth movement might more than justify the need to add picks. Regardless, if a trade were to happen sometime this season, the Sixers would only need to put up $32.9 million in outgoing salary. If they only send out around the minimum required, the Rockets could save around $8 million. The Rockets could probably ask for additional players such as Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, to maximize their return.
For the Rockets, depending on who they acquire for Harden, it could dictate Russell Westbrook’s future. If they choose Embiid, the Rockets could be convinced that he and Westbrook together could compete with Robert Covington, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, and Danuel House surrounding them. If they get Simmons, there really is no sense in playing him with Westbrook. Getting Simmons would very likely mean the Rockets are taking a step back, and could force them to trade Westbrook too.
At the same time, both Simmons and Embiid are under contract through at least 2022, so this trade could still be available to them next season. However, if the Rockets were to trade Harden, they may be better off doing it earlier so they could make subsequent trades to prepare for 2021 free agency. Westbrook’s fit with either star is questionable and his window is shorter at 32-years-old. Perhaps they can trade him for expiring contracts and draft picks.
If the 2021-22 salary cap is $115 million, the original projection for the 2020-21 season, getting off Westbrook’s salary entirely would generate max cap space for another young star to potentially pair with. Such players they could pursue include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Victor Oladipo. They’d also replenishing some of the draft capital they originally traded for Westbrook, and they can keep Covington, Gordon, and House in the process. This would allow the Houston front office to build the roster properly around their new star.
There are many teams that could make a competitive offer for Harden. The Kings, who just hired former assistant to Morey, Monte McNair, could package Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, and picks for him. The Bucks could offer Khris Middleton, picks, and anyone not named Giannis to partner him with Harden. The Nets could also match salaries for Harden and team him up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But none of these teams can offer a superstar like the Sixers can that would really entice the Rockets on pulling the trigger.