James Harden to Philadelphia: Why now?

James Harden to Philadelphia: Why now?

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James Harden to Philadelphia: Why now?

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The most significant development since HoopsHype’s trade deadline guide came out is the noise surrounding James Harden. Cause for concern over his future in Brooklyn started when he declined a three-year, $161 million extension last offseason. On the surface, it seemed like a financial decision but just about every major NBA reporter has brought credence to the possibility of Harden leaving Brooklyn for Philadelphia this offseason.

On Friday, Shams Charania reported that the Nets are believed to be open to discussing a trade that would send Harden to the Sixers for Ben Simmons. While this doesn’t automatically mean that they will trade Harden now, it does appear that the Nets are getting around the idea of a change.

Why a trade is best for everyone

nba trade rumors rankings harden to 76ers embiid ben simmons russell westbrook

As discussed on last week’s HoopsHype podcast, the cap space or sign-and-trade routes are the least advantageous ones for all parties. In either of those scenarios, Harden stands to lose a significant amount of money and the Nets can risk losing Harden for nothing.

The Sixers could trade Simmons and Tobias Harris right now in a multi-team deal that would bring them back primarily expiring contracts. This would give them enough cap space to outright sign Harden this offseason, but such maneuvering risks losing assets for nothing in case he changes his mind.

The sign-and-trade route is possible in the offseason and actually wouldn’t require too much sacrifice on the roster other than waiving Danny Green’s non-guaranteed contract. This would be required to fit Harden’s salary since a sign-and-trade would hard-cap the Sixers, limiting their spending to improve the roster for that season.

The best scenario for everyone involved is for Harden to opt-in to his $47 million player option and get traded to the Sixers. This allows him to retain his Bird rights and extend with the Sixers later for up to four years, $223 million. Philadelphia secures Harden in the safest way possible and the Nets have enough leverage to get value back.

Why a trade now is better than a trade later

Daryl Morey

The Eastern Conference is wide open right now with just a four-game separation between the first and sixth seeds. The Sixers are 16-6 in their last 22 games and had the third-best net rating in January. They are doing this well while effectively having $33 million in dead cap in Simmons. And most importantly, Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP candidate again.

Daryl Morey has shown more restraint than most executives might in this situation and his patience has gotten the Sixers to the finish line. If Harden is truly available right now then there could be tremendous pressure from ownership, the coaching staff, and players to get a deal done now. They have a real shot to make it out of the East this season by adding Harden. The narrative of the Sixers “wasting a year of Embiid’s prime” could magnify if they fall short of a deal. The Nets probably realize all this, which is why now would be the best time to strike.

Despite the added pressure on both sides to potentially make a trade before the deadline, there still is no need for Brooklyn to make one. Philadelphia’s interest in Harden isn’t going away, which means whatever package they are considering to offer will still be there. But a trade now given all the circumstances could allow the Nets to extract as much value as possible. The Sixers will have to pay a premium in addition to Simmons to get Harden now, which could include a combination of Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey, Mattisse Thybulle, and first-round picks.

The Nets are currently down three first-round picks going forward in 2022, 2024, and 2026 from originally acquiring Harden. Unfortunately, the Sixers are limited in trading just two first-round picks this season due to Stepien Rule complications from trading their 2025 first-round pick to Oklahoma City.

If Brooklyn wants to recoup as many first-round picks as possible, they would actually be better off making a trade in the offseason. This is because the Sixers can trade up to four first-round picks then, one of which would be their 2022 first-round pick after they make a selection with it.

If the Nets prefer a player-based package, they may have enough leverage days before the trade deadline to be able to get some of these players mentioned in addition to Simmons. Will they get all the players mentioned? Probably not. But even if they can get just one of them in addition to one or two first-round picks and some pick swaps, that is a great return. Not just because they get a young All-Star in Simmons, but also some additional pieces to fill out the rotation and to make another move later.

Does this deal benefit both sides?

Putting aside the possibility that the Nets get an additional player and draft pick compensation in a potential trade, the Harden-for-Simmons swap by itself carries a lot of benefits for them. For starters, the Nets significantly improve their defense. It has been league-average throughout the season but they’ve had one of the worst defensive ratings since the new year. What better way to swing the pendulum than to add arguably the best perimeter defender in the league?

One of the issues in trading for Simmons is that his inability to shoot requires a roster with enough shooters to put around him. The Nets can accommodate that because when they are fully healthy and available, they have more than enough offensive weapons. Having two elite scorers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving puts Simmons in a position to succeed off the ball. Simmons also can handle the ball well enough to occasionally take pressure off the other All-Stars. A frontcourt of Simmons and Durant can allow the Nets to roll some of the best small-ball lineups in the league. There is plenty of optimism that Simmons would be a great basketball fit in Brooklyn.

Simmons is also still just 25 years old and probably has some more room to improve. He earns $33 million this season and is set to earn $35.5 million, $37.9 million, and $40.3 million over the next three seasons. That contract could project to have more positive value than Harden potentially making $55 million per year. The savings can open up a lot of opportunities for Brooklyn.

For example, a trade where Brooklyn takes back Simmons and an additional salary filler like Maxey for Harden and one veteran minimum salary would save them close to $60 million in payroll and luxury tax savings. They could also generate a trade exception worth $11.3 million, the difference between Harden and Simmons’ salaries. The Nets currently have $11.45 million and $6.3 million trade exceptions that might go unused due to how expensive the team currently is. They could become motivated to utilize their trade exceptions after saving so much money.

Joel Embiid introduced before a game

For Philadelphia, Embiid and Harden have the potential to form one of the most dangerous pick-and-roll partnerships in the league. The idea that Harden could unlock more things from Embiid offensively is frightening. Most importantly, the Sixers get a ball-dominant guard who will be their go-to perimeter scorer in late-game situations. The Sixers could be considered favorites to make it out the East this season.

What the Sixers need to figure out is how much stuff are they willing to give the Nets in addition to Simmons. A deal where the Sixers just include the necessary $2.4 million salary filler in addition to Simmons to match for Harden seems justifiable enough on both sides given each player’s likely tractory. But with Simmons on strike and comfortably forfeiting close to $20 million already this season to not play, the Nets should have some more leverage in this situation despite Harden’s desire to be a Sixer.

Maxey could be the lynchpin in negotiations. Brooklyn would probably like a young backcourt talent like him to replace Harden and to be insurance for Irving. They could ask for Thybulle if they want additional defensive help, but filling up their backcourt could be more pressing. Curry seems like the happy medium in addition to draft compensation, but that seems like a package that could be available in the offseason. Requiring at least one of Maxey or Thybulle could be the motivation for Brooklyn to trade Harden now.

The idea of paying Harden his maximum extension amount is what starts making this look like a risky acquisition on the back end. This especially rings true five years from now when Harden is earning close to $62 million at age 37. Sure, Harden’s style could translate well and evolve in a positive way as he ages. Look at about-to-be 37-year-old Chris Paul. But it’s also possible we might be looking back at this as the Sixers doing the Nets a favor. For the Sixers, the race to win a title against a potentially rapidly depreciating contract would immediately start.

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