Seeking their first NBA Championship in nearly 40 years, The Philadelphia 76ers acquired James Harden in a blockbuster trade which sent Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two future first-round picks to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Harden and Paul Millsap. The Sixers are 2-0 with both Harden and MVP favorite Joel Embiid on the floor together, and the NBA has been put on notice.
Harden has been traded three times during his 13 year NBA career. Each of those trades was orchestrated by General Manager Daryl Morey.
Back in 2012, Morey famously facilitated a James Harden trade while he was the Houston Rockets GM. Harden was coming off a campaign where he won NBA 6th Man of the Year as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder while playing alongside budding superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Harden demanded a max contract extension from Sam Presti and the Thunder. The two sides weren’t too far apart on money. Thunder GM Presti decided to cut bait and see what he could get for Harden, fearing he might leave as a free agent.
Morey knew Harden was about to become a star, and when the rare opportunity to acquire one arose, he pounced. That trade involved Harden going to Houston, with the Rockets sending Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two future first-round picks who became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary to the Thunder. Nearly a decade after this trade, it’s widely considered a coup by Morey and the biggest gaffe of Presti’s otherwise storied career.
By 2017 Harden had in fact become an unrivaled superstar and the Rockets appeared to be close to competing for a title. Morey saw an opportunity to add a second elite ball-dominant guard to complement Harden while they chased an NBA title. The Rockets acquired Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, and their 2018 first-round pick. Paul & Harden led the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals in their first season together. Harden was crowned league MVP.
Late-season injuries to Chris Paul prevented the Rockets from winning a title in his two seasons in Houston, but Morey showed his willingness to pull the trigger to acquire a second star.
Fast forward to 2021. Harden asks the Rockets to trade him to a contender. Morey trades him to the Brooklyn Nets before stepping down from his role and eventually being hired as the new Sixers GM. Harden, a recent league MVP in the prime of his career still seeking his first NBA championship, would now join a roster in Brooklyn with two other superstars, Durant and Kyrie Irving. By all measures, the Brooklyn experiment was as exciting as it was a failure. Over the course of one and half seasons, the Nets 3 stars played fewer than 30 games together. Reports began surfacing of Harden’s discontent in Brooklyn. A supposed hamstring injury kept him out of multiple games leading up to the trade deadline.
In Philadelphia, Morey and the Sixers were still searching for a trade partner for former NBA Defensive Player of the year Ben Simmons. Simmons was all but alienated from his team and city for his offensive deficiencies which culminated in last year’s playoff exit. News of Harden’s detachment from his Nets teammates began ramping up. Rumors began circulating about a potential Harden exit from Brooklyn. And Morey did what he does best – swung perhaps the biggest blockbuster trade of his career in acquiring Harden for Simmons.
So now the debate for who “won” the Harden/Simmons trade will take center stage. It’s too soon to speculate how adding Simmons will impact the Nets. Durant remains out with an injury but should return soon. Irving remains unable to play in Nets’ home games. Simmons experienced a setback while ramping up basketball activities.
The early returns for the Sixers should have the entire NBA on notice. Harden’s hamstring “injury” appears to be a thing of the past. He looks spry, motivated and most of all, happy to be on a team that has its pieces playing at a high level. The Sixers are 2-0 with both Harden and Embiid and their chemistry already appears to be locked in. Harden posted a near triple-double in his debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves and then returned to NYC on Sunday to post a triple-double and remind the league [and lowly Knicks] that he’s still a superstar.
It’s too soon to know who “won” this trade. But two things occurred in Sunday’s matinee between the Sixers and Knicks that might give us some indication of what to expect.
About halfway through the first quarter, Joel Embiid took an awkward step that landed on Evan Fournier’s foot, his knee buckled and he crashed to the floor. MSG went silent. For just a moment the world wondered if this experiment was over before it even began. But Embiid would soon get back on his feet and shake off the spill. And the Sixers avoided what would have been a devastating blow to the team’s chances at competing for a title.
Injuries happen. Big men in the NBA, Embiid especially early in his career, are prone to them. The Sixers included Andre Drummond in the trade with the Nets, who at the very least provided an insurance policy for an Embiid injury. The Sixers’ options behind Embiid now include Paul Reed, Paul Millsap, and recently signed Willie Cauley-Stein. Even with Harden on their roster, the Sixers aren’t title contenders if Embiid goes down with a serious injury. He must stay on the court and continue playing at an MVP level for this experiment to work.
Late in the 4th quarter, the Knicks closed the gap to three points and regained some momentum. Harden grabbed a rebound and led the transition back up the floor. With two defenders guarding him at the top of the key, Joel Embiid came charging up the court. Harden threaded a perfect bounce pass between two defenders, catching Embiid in stride and leading to a ferocious dunk. MSG was brought to its feet and the Sixers all but secured the win. The duo appears to be unstoppable. And we’re probably just scratching the surface of what they can accomplish together.
It may take weeks or even months for us to know how the trade will impact the Nets. The Sixers, who were already very good before Morey dealt for Harden, just got a whole lot better.
And on Sunday, Harden and Embiid made sure we all knew it.
Main Image: Embed from Getty Images