Thirteen months ago, the Nets went all in for James Harden. They traded Jarrett Allen. They traded Caris LeVert. They traded all of their roster depth and the rights to their next seven first-round picks, all to unite Harden with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form a spectacular Big Three.
And all that work amounted to one second-round playoff appearance for the trio, 16 total games together, and a whole galaxy of what-ifs.
Roughly 90 minutes before the trade deadline on Thursday, the Nets reportedly agreed to pull the plug on this soap opera by trading Harden and Paul Millsap to the 76ers—working through their own lengthy personnel drama—for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks. The most captivating strands of the past year of NBA rumors coalesced in one mega-trade, which simultaneously jostles this year’s wide-open Eastern Conference race and alters the next half-decade of the league’s landscape.
With Harden finally back together with Daryl Morey, his former GM on the Rockets, and with Simmons finally gone from the only NBA team he’s ever represented, it might seem as if the drama has finally ended. Yet now that the players involved must actually play basketball, the drama might have only just begun.
Let’s start with the 76ers, whose championship chances skyrocketed Thursday. Thanks to an MVP-level season from Joel Embiid, the 76ers sat comfortably in playoff position—fifth place in the East, but only 2.5 games out of first—with zero production out of Simmons’s roster spot, and now can essentially replace Curry with Harden. That’s an obvious upgrade, even if there are questions about Harden’s current form.
On offense, Harden still dominates the ball about as much as ever, leading the league once again in possession time. He is an elite isolation scorer and a prolific pick-and-roll creator—easily the best with whom Embiid has ever partnered. The 76ers big man is the league’s premiere post-up threat, but he has never set all that many screens for a center; over the past three seasons, his 32.7 picks per 100 possessions rank just 73rd out of 116 players with at least 1,000 picks, per Second Spectrum.
As long as the secondary players don’t lose their jump shots—Danny Green, Tyrese Maxey, and Georges Niang are all at 39 percent or higher from distance this season—the 76ers should be able to score against any defense, in a variety of ways: the Harden-Embiid two-man game, Harden by himself, Embiid in the post. And by retaining Matisse Thybulle instead of including him in the trade, the 76ers still have all the core members of a defense that ranks 11th in efficiency; looking only at their performance with Embiid on the floor, they’d rank sixth.
But questions linger—they have to, given the uncertainty around Harden’s finish in Brooklyn, or else the Nets wouldn’t have considered trading him even amid the player empowerment Sturm und Drang. Namely: Is Harden, at age 32, with more than 36,000 career minutes (counting playoffs) on his legs, still the same player for whom the Nets traded so many players and picks just a year ago? Harden’s true shooting percentage is down to 57.6 percent this season, easily the lowest since he was a rookie, and that’s because of struggles from the field, not any changes to his free throw rate.
Those concerns only amplify projecting beyond this season, with Harden reportedly poised to opt in to his $47.3 million option for next season and in line for a much larger raise afterward. Moreover, even at his peak, he rather infamously failed to register the same sort of postseason impact as he did in the regular season. It’s unclear whether that past is predictive—Kyle Lowry failed in the playoffs until he succeeded; Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks failed in the playoffs until they succeeded—but the fact remains that both post-Thunder Harden and the post-Process 76ers are still searching for their first real taste of playoff success.
Harden didn’t find it in Brooklyn last season, thanks to injuries to both himself and Irving, and thanks to Kevin Durant’s oversized shoe. Harden came to Brooklyn in an apparent coup, the finishing touch on a roster built for NBA supremacy. He now leaves town in ignominy, missing the Nets’ last three games due to a hamstring strain amid swirling rumors, and a nine-game losing streak for the team. In his last game as a Net, he shot 2-for-11 and scored four points in a defeat in Sacramento.
From that perspective, the addition of Simmons and Curry—not to mention clawing back two first-round picks—could boost Brooklyn just as Harden’s addition boosts Philadelphia. Curry works as a reasonable Joe Harris replacement, with the latter still suffering the effects of an ankle injury and cramping the Nets’ spacing in his absence.
And Simmons theoretically clarifies the Nets’ defensive problems—always the factor that could hold them back with scorers like Irving and Durant on the roster. The Nets are tied for 20th in defensive rating this season after ranking 22nd last season, and they lacked strong playoff bona fides on both a team level and individually. This season, the two Nets who have spent the most time guarding opposing no. 1 options are rookie Kessler Edwards and DeAndre’ Bembry, according to Bball Index.
Maybe that imbalance wouldn’t have mattered if Harden, Irving, and Durant were all healthy and available at the same time. Winning games 140-130 counts just as much as winning 115-105. But they weren’t—not last year, when the injuries mounted against Milwaukee, and not this year, when Durant hurt his knee and Irving refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
As a tall, rangy, mobile menace on the defensive end, Simmons—who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season—is an ideal fit in the Nets’ scheme. Brooklyn switches on 29.5 percent of opposing picks this season, per Second Spectrum, the seventh-highest mark in the league; among teams with a winning record, only the Celtics and Heat rank higher. Simmons can defend the best guard or wing on the Nets’ opponents and hold his own on switches onto bigs. (Hello, the next Nets-76ers game, when Simmons will probably, at some point, guard Harden and switch onto Embiid.)
Yet just like Harden in Philadelphia, Simmons is a theoretical but not proven fit in Brooklyn. Again, he was available for a reason. What is Simmons’s current fitness level, given that he hasn’t played an NBA game since June? Is he OK joining Irving and Durant, rather than—as Kevin O’Connor reported in the fall—going to “a team built around him on offense”? Can he toggle between presumably playing point guard in home games, when Irving is restricted from playing, and moving off-ball on the road?
Even setting aside the strange Simmons situation, this deal is a blockbuster with no perfect precedent, with a player of Harden’s stature—a former MVP still near his prime, if now firmly on the downswing of his career—being traded twice in this manner in such close succession. Russell Westbrook was traded three times in a two-year span, albeit with much less present-day value than Harden brings. Wilt Chamberlain was traded twice, but his deals came three years apart. Four years removed from winning MVP, Bob McAdoo was traded twice in a span of eight months, though unlike Harden, the 2018 MVP, McAdoo did not ask to be dealt. (McAdoo’s deals also arose under circumstances that could not possibly happen today: When the Knicks traded him to Boston for three first-round picks, only the owners negotiated; the team’s GMs and coaches weren’t even consulted, leading Red Auerbach to reportedly almost quit the Celtics. Let’s have Sean Marks threaten to quit tomorrow to one-up the McAdoo chaos.)
Yet removed from the months of angst leading up to this trade, with all the rumors and fake trade proposals and passive-aggressive posturing between parties, it’s hard not to look at this ultimate outcome as a potential happy ending for all involved. Morey got his star, rather than settling for a package of secondary players and picks for Simmons. Harden got out of Brooklyn. Embiid got a scoring guard. The Nets got a superb defender. Simmons got out of Philly. And the rest of the NBA season got much more interesting on the court, with two championship contenders now adjusting to new lineups, in a tight race to avoid the play-in tournament, with the playoffs fast approaching and so many legacies—for Harden, for Simmons, for Embiid, for Durant, for Irving, for Morey, for the Process overall—on the edge.