Rumors of a James Harden trade have been percolating for a while, and while the Sixers have long been considered a logical destination, for the first time they’ve been confirmed as a legitimate landing spot for the former MVP and 3-time scoring champ, who was previously committed to forcing his way to Brooklyn or possibly running it back in Houston.
Reporting w/ @ESPN_MacMahon: James Harden has recently indicated to Houston he'd be open to a trade to Philadelphia or other contenders. So far, no substantive talks with Sixers. Daryl Morey's been adamant he wants to keep his two young stars. https://t.co/9ZFKB8MSGx— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 8, 2020
Look, it’s impossible to know what trade discussions might look like between the two teams, but the long-assumed base to any Harden package is Ben Simmons. While I personally don’t want to see Ben moved for Harden right now (Morey reportedly agrees) I‘m not necessarily against it—though that’s not what this piece is about.
It would be a total mistake to assume Houston will definitely fetch an asset on the level of Simmons in exchange for Harden. That would be to blatantly ignore the recent history of trades for disgruntled star players in this league (more on that later). Here’s what a potential non-Simmons package for Harden could look like:
*Disclaimer: Would the Sixers do it? Would Houston do it? Would both decline? As much as I’d like to think so, I don’t have an answer, and neither do you—but I break down the dynamics involved below).
Let’s dive into the arguments for and against this package for each team:
Why Houston declines:
This part is simple—if you’re Houston and you have James Harden (or if you’re any team and you have a superstar player) you don’t give that player up unless you get a blue-chip asset in return (a young, burgeoning star; or a top-three draft pick). Rarely does it work out when a team moves a star player for a haul of role players and mid-tier draft picks.
Why Houston would consider it:
The one variable that undermines any team’s pursuit of a blue-chip piece in return for their star is leverage—when a player openly feigns to be traded things can unravel fast. We’ve seen this in the past with Paul George leaving Indiana, Kawhi leaving San Antonio, AD leaving NOLA, and countless other examples; as much as we like to think a guy will only be moved for a blue-chip, head-turning asset, that’s often not the case. I shouldn’t have to elaborate on why Houston’s leverage is deteriorating by the minute.
Beyond that, let’s not act like there aren’t assets in that package. Thybulle is an elite perimeter defender (not an exaggeration), Milton is a real commodity with a reliable jumper, and Maxey is a lottery-level prospect despite slipping to the 20’s in the draft. Tobias—while on a bad deal and mainly included to make the money work—is the type of distressed asset Houston could look to flip down the line if he excels in their low-stress environment (that’s just Rebuilding/Tanking 101). Throw in the four picks (two should-be late firsts, and two should-be high seconds) and this is as appealing of a package as you’ll see that doesn’t include the aforementioned blue-chip asset.
Would the Sixers do it?
This is a simple argument: you’re getting James Harden, one of the greatest offensive players of all-time, without giving up one of Joel or Ben—let’s not complicate things. Morey argues it’s a star-driven league as much as anyone, so it’s certainly possible that he wouldn’t spare any non-Joel/Ben assets in pursuit of Harden, no matter the quantity.
The fundamental question here is whether or not Morey thinks Ben and Joel need another star to get over the top (I personally don’t believe they do, but that’s beside the point). Once Morey makes that determination he can proceed accordingly; if he thinks they do, and he believes he can scrap for the right pieces to surround a new ‘big three’ then this shouldn’t be a question.
Why the Sixers might decline:
It’s possible—maybe even likely—that Morey believes he’s on the right track of building the ideal supporting cast around Joel and Ben. It’s also possible that he believes he wouldn’t be able to figure out the puzzle around a Harden/Joel/Ben ‘big three’ after moving half of his rotation for him. While Morey is arguably the premier executive at mining for role players on the cheap, even he has his limits—moving all or most of Maxey, Milton, Thybulle, and Tobias would certainly test that.
The Pacers long expected to receive a blue-chip asset in return for Paul George—until they didn’t. The Spurs long declined to move Kawhi unless they received a blue-chip piece in return—no such offers came. The Pelicans held firm on targeting a blue-chipper for AD—until they had to settle for a package of lesser pieces. In two of these three instances the star player threatened to sit out if they weren’t moved, and one did sit out. The Harden situation is rapidly moving toward that same conclusion.
Everyone thinks they can/should/will/must get a blue-chip asset in return for their outward looking superstar—until they don’t. The Sixers and Daryl Morey need to be ready to strike when Houston arrives at that same point.