The resumption of the Daryl Morey–James Harden bromance was a long time in the making. Almost from the moment Morey took over as the Sixers’ president of basketball operations 15 months ago, he seemed to be trying to airlift Harden to South Broad Street. The intervening year and change has been nothing if not eventful for all parties, featuring: playoff meltdowns, arguments over vaccines, wildcat strikes, and a level of passive-aggressiveness hitherto unexplored in American professional sports. And for eight months, rumors swirled of a potential trade that would send Harden to Philly and Ben Simmons somewhere else—anywhere else, really. Then, on Thursday, it finally happened: Harden and Paul Millsap are on their way down the Jersey Turnpike, and Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks are heading to Brooklyn.
If this deal was not in fact inevitable, then it was such a blindingly obvious resolution that any alternative course felt like a counterfactual created for argument’s sake. To paraphrase the pop country standard: Every long lost dream led Harden to where Morey was. But where did this broken road originate?
Consider: Eight months ago, during the Sixers’ second-round playoff series against the Hawks, Simmons’s offensive self-confidence shriveled up and vanished overnight. In the last three games of the series, he attempted just 14 field goals and converted just seven of 20 free throw attempts. The low point was not the blown 26-point lead in Game 5, but an unforgettable play late in Game 7. With three and a half minutes to go in a two-point contest, Simmons went up for an open dunk but changed his mind, instead passing to a bewildered Matisse Thybulle.
It was clear from that moment that despite the four years and $147 million remaining on his contract, Simmons’s time in Philadelphia was effectively over. No star player could come back from that. Especially in Philadelphia, whose denizens had cut Simmons a lot of slack as he’d failed to develop a jump shot through four years in the league. But that patience had expired, and better players had been run out of town on a rail for less.
Simmons didn’t report to camp, then reported, and then went home; Morey, his star playmaker, and the fans ironically all found themselves desperately wanting the same thing, which was Simmons out of Philly. Joel Embiid was playing better than any Sixer in decades, and he needed help fast. There were plenty of rumored deals along the way. Had the longstanding Simmons-to-Sacramento gossip paid off, it would’ve been a happy solution for many Philly fans—even if the return was just Tyrese Haliburton and the satisfaction of exiling a hated player to a city one of my coworkers once called the Cincinnati of California. And Morey had plenty of other options, too: Simmons to Atlanta for a package centered on John Collins. Simmons and Tobias Harris’s Comcast Center–sized contract to Minnesota for draft picks. Simmons to the moon for helium-3 mining rights. Whatever.
But as Simmons held out, Morey showed he could hold out even longer. As recently as a week ago, it seemed likely that said holdout would run into the summer, all but condemning Embiid to another conference semifinal of looking around in vain for anyone to pass to. But eventually, Morey not only got the player he wanted all along from a division rival, he did so without sacrificing defensive wizard Matisse Thybulle or Tyrese Maxey, the young point guard who’s blossomed into a star in the making in Simmons’s absence. This Morey accomplished by having, in the words of another celebrated heartland poet, the longest view in the room.
At the risk of reinvigorating the most tired thread of NBA discourse since Jordan vs. LeBron, the Sixers are on a journey that began when they turned the team over to Sam Hinkie in 2013. If the Process were a person and raised in Delaware County, it would be old enough to wear an Allen Iverson jersey to the Wells Fargo Center and join in the heavily accented “Ass-hole! Ass-hole!” chants that will rain down on Simmons on March 10, when his Nets play in Philadelphia. But the Process begat Embiid, and therefore remains the narrative and deterministic factor for this team.
In a previous (extremely bored and way-too-online) lifetime, I was a Sixers blogger and a die-hard Process truster. Nearly a decade’s worth of perspective leaves me somewhat ambivalent about Hinkie, who, in addition to setting the wheels in motion for the Sixers’ current run as a title contender, also did a lot of inexplicable shit, like drafting Jahlil Okafor no. 3 overall. But it’s easy to understand why so many of us bought into the project at the time.
The reason we trusted a shady business school weirdo like Hinkie is simple: He came with the imprimatur of the man credited with bringing sabermetrics to basketball. Morey was Hinkie’s former boss in Houston, and while the comparisons between Morey and Billy Beane are endless and hackneyed, that’s because they’re accurate, right down to the fact that neither has ever built a team that so much as played for a championship.
The Process was a synthesis of old ideas and new: Tanking has been around as long as there’s been a draft, but Hinkie undertook the most ruthless bare-bones rebuild in NBA history in the hopes of finding at least one homegrown superstar whom he could then build around while using empirical processes to identify undervalued supporting players.
If nothing else, it provided a welcome change from the Sixers’ frustrating status quo. In my lifetime, the team had made two splashy moves—drafting Allen Iverson and trading for Dikembe Mutombo in 2001—that seemingly brought them into title contention. Iverson propped up a franchise that was otherwise committed to building boring teams that played outmoded, somnambulant basketball. After he left, there wasn’t much to root for and no clear sign that anything would get better anytime soon. So even if the first few years of the Process would be bumpy—and boy, were they ever bumpy—tanking felt like a plausible path to a championship someday.
That faith remained even when Hinkie parted ways with the Sixers less than three years into his tenure, so great was the arsenal of talent and draft picks he’d assembled. Three successive front-office regimes, including Morey’s, got the chance to evolve Hinkie’s core of Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and innumerable picks and swaps. And six weeks after Hinkie’s infamous Rachel Green–like resignation letter hit the internet, the Sixers won the draft lottery, giving them the pick that would turn into Simmons. When the decisive lottery ball dropped, I was at the Rights to Ricky Sanchez lottery party in Philadelphia, lifting my brother clear off his feet and screaming my head off with joy, as if the championship was a fait accompli. These two bookend moments of Simmons’s tenure—the lottery and the pass against Atlanta—remain my two most vivid post-Iverson Sixers memories.
But the five years that followed Hinkie’s departure were just as agonizing as those that came before—full of mirages and false dawns. Markelle Fultz’s yips, the magnets-in-the-rim shot, talking ourselves into Al Horford and Embiid playing together. And the less said about Collar Guy and his burners, the better.
But Harden is not only the best player Embiid’s ever had to work with; he solves so many of the problems Philly has never been able to overcome. In the playoffs, the Sixers offense is consistently bogged down when it can’t score in transition or force the ball to Embiid. That’s because, apart from the six-month-long Jimmy Butler era, Embiid has never played with a star who’s capable of creating his own shot. And to say Harden can create his own shot is an understatement of titanic proportions. Considering what each player has done with lesser teammates, an Embiid-Harden two-man game could be genuinely unguardable. And the neutron star–like gravitational effect Simmons had on opposing defenses is gone, as Harden can spread the floor like no guard Embiid has ever played with.
To fly the Mission Accomplished banner over the Embiid-Harden union is to risk repeating the mistakes of Retweet Armageddon. There’s still a long way to go to make the NBA Finals, let alone win it. But if this is the last key move, the trade that empowers Embiid to finally bring a trophy to Philadelphia, then there’s a poetic symmetry to the fact that Morey, Hinkie’s mentor, was the one to make it happen. The teacher completes his pupil’s vision.