If you’d prefer for the James Harden chatter to stop and to focus solely on the Sixers’ roster as it is, we don’t blame you.
That said, the fact that a three-time NBA scoring champion has been persistently linked with the Sixers is unavoidable and worth analyzing.
It’s of course impossible to evaluate a Harden trade without knowing the exact terms, but we take a look below, in broad strokes, at arguments for and against the Sixers dealing for the 2017-18 NBA MVP:
Arguments for a Harden trade
-Harden is a one-man offensive machine. He combines ultra-high usage with excellent efficiency and has led the NBA in both made three-pointers and free throws the last three seasons. Most teams in the league should have serious interest in that type of player.
-The Sixers, in particular, stand to benefit from what Harden offers. He’d address weaknesses last season in shot creation, three-point volume and ability to draw foul shots. Both by the eye test and the statistics, he’s the best isolation player in the league. While it will almost certainly take a lot to acquire him, it’s difficult to overstate how much he’d help the Sixers’ offense — at least in theory.
-Harden is a known quantity, for better and for worse. The positive side of that is, barring injury (and he's been a very durable player), the odds of him continuing to be exceptionally good on offense are high. There’s no quirky defense that’s going to be his Achilles' heel at this point. If you blitz or recklessly double team him, he will find wide-open shots for his teammates.
-The opportunities to trade for Harden-like players are rare. At his introductory press conference, Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said, “I start with championship probability and basically work backwards from that.” We don’t yet have a great sense of the 2020-21 Sixers’ championship probability, but a Harden trade would almost certainly boost it in the short term.
-If Morey and the Sixers play the situation right, they might be able to snag Harden for less than he’s worth. The Rockets have thus far wanted a young star and substantial draft assets in return, according to multiple reports, but perhaps the team’s asking price will lower as this saga progresses. For instance, if the stalemate lasts well into the regular season and no team has made an offer to Houston’s liking, might the Rockets be less obstinate on needing multiple first-round picks? Might their definition of a “young star” change?
Arguments against a Harden trade
-The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported last Friday that the Sixers “insist (for now) they will not trade Ben Simmons,” although Stein still said the Sixers are the most likely trade destination for Harden.
It's clear why the Sixers would believe in Simmons. The 24-year-old is a gifted and versatile defender, and he just made the All-Defensive First Team in his third full NBA season. He’s also scintillating in the open floor and very skilled at setting up three-point shooters. Simmons hasn’t played a game yet for a team that’s improved its shooting and spacing through the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green, and he has a new head coach in Doc Rivers who’s excited about the prospects of him playing a “free” and fast style.
-The 31-year-old Harden is under contract for two more seasons and then has a $47.4 million player option in 2022-23. Simmons is in the first season of his five-year extension. Simmons is cheaper, under contract for longer and has a greater chance at becoming a better player than he already is during his current deal.
-It wouldn’t significantly deter this writer, but it’s accurate to characterize Harden as not being pristine on the accountability front, a much-discussed topic of late for the Sixers. In fact, The Athletic reported last month that Russell Westbrook requested a trade from Houston because he was “uneasy about the team’s accountability and culture.”
-As a counterargument to the point about championship probability, Harden has never won a title. That’s not to say he’s incapable of doing so or that he’s the only one at fault for his teams’ playoff disappointments, but it’s a notable fact nevertheless. No star is guaranteed to lift a team over the top, Harden included.
-Morey did well to construct a team this offseason with Simmons and Joel Embiid at the front of his mind. Embiid asked for shooting and received it, while Simmons should now have more space to attack the rim and kick out to players willing and eager to fire. And, unlike the previous front office regime, Morey enhanced the Sixers’ flexibility and backed the team out of an unenviable spot. Trading for Harden would be a massive commitment to one player — albeit someone with special talents that Morey knows how to build around — and narrow the Sixers’ options.