As soon as the reports emerged that Daryl Morey would be hired by the Sixers to take over basketball operations, the rumblings followed. Rumblings that maybe, just maybe, he could engineer one of his mastermind trades to bring eight-time All-Star James Harden to Philadelphia.
Sure enough, a day after Morey was introduced in his new position to the media, NBA insider Shams Charania reported that the Sixers are interested in bringing Harden east.
Houston currently has no interest in parting with the former league MVP. It would certainly cost the Sixers either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, plus either more players or picks to get the deal done. Since having Harden and Simmons on the floor at the same time would render one of them worthless without the ball, moving Simmons would have to be the play here.
And I think it’s worth a good, hard look.
I won’t discount what Simmons brings to the Sixers — he’s as fast, with or without the ball, as anyone in the league. He may be the league’s most versatile defender, and has very good floor vision. He’s also seven years younger than Harden. But the wealth of talents that Harden has far outweighs that of Simmons.
While Harden can’t approach Simmons’ defensive abilities, the Sixers point guard simply can’t do what Harden can do offensively. He may never be able to. There isn’t a better scorer in the league right now than Harden. He averaged 34.3 points per game this past season to lead the NBA, his third straight scoring title. Simmons’ career high for points in a game is 34, done twice.
What’s more — and this has been missing since Jimmy Butler left town — Harden has a singular ability to get off his own shot, seemingly from anywhere inside half court. His step-back jumper is like the Crane Kick from the old Karate Kid movie: when done correctly, it’s indefensible.
When you get down to the “guts of the game,” as Marc Zumoff likes to say — in the fourth quarter, in playoff games, when you have to score — Harden wants the ball, and he wants to take the shot. He wants to put that dagger through your heart, then stare at your bench on the way back up court, as if to say, “Everyone in the building knew I was shooting, and you still couldn’t stop it.”
And unlike Simmons in crunch time, he’s unafraid of bulling his way into the lane and earning two points at the free throw line. He’s an 86 percent free throw shooter for his career. Last season, Simmons missed five more free throws than Harden (113 to 108). Harden attempted 800 free throws; Simmons 298.
Harden does all this scoring while also keeping his teammates happy. He averaged 7.5 assists per game this past season, a tick below Simmons’ 8.0. If you figure about 2.3 points per assist, Harden brought the Rockets more than 51 points per game through points and passes that led to points. Every night.
Today’s NBA is about spacing, right? Name a ball-dominant player who would give his teammates more space than a guy with almost unrivaled range. Harden does his business “above the break,” the area beyond the three-point line away from the sidelines, where the line is curved. You want to double him, 30 feet from the basket? He’ll find someone on an island, far away from any defender. You want to double Embiid in the post? You’re one, maybe two passes away from a Harden open three.
What could benefit Harden potentially coming to a team like the Sixers is that he wouldn’t have to expend so much energy every game to hit those numbers. With Embiid and Tobias Harris, two proven scorers riding shotgun, Harden could scale back his minutes and his work rate so he could be fresher in the fourth quarter, and deep into the postseason.
Again, this is not a slight against Simmons. He’s a rare talent who is close to being one of the top 20 players in the league and the young age of 24. But the possibility of Harden in a Sixers uniform, however unlikely it looks today, is worth the conversation.