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Harden-for-Simmons Is Happening. Eventually. Probably. Or Not.

There’s no denial that can sink the buzz surrounding the potential Nets-Sixers blockbuster. It’s a trade that makes too much sense not to happen, and it’s one that all parties—Brooklyn, Philly, Klutch, etc.—should want.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re finally here. It’s trade deadline week. And the action has already begun. First, the Clippers and Blazers broke bread on Friday. Then the Pacers shipped Caris LeVert to the Cavaliers on Sunday, setting the pace for what could be an action-packed week leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline. But the potential trade that most people are focusing on is a James Harden–for–Ben Simmons swap between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Trades of this magnitude are uncommon, especially when there’s so much public discourse surrounding it.

It’s a strange story, really. Simmons folded in the playoffs and now he’s sacrificing his salary to get out of Philadelphia. Gus Williams is the last guy to hold out for an entire season, which he did during the prime of his career over a contract dispute with the Sonics in 1980-81. That was over 40 years ago!

Only 15 months ago, Harden started sulking in Houston as part of his plot to get the hell out. Now, just one year after he landed in Brooklyn, he might want out again. Lately, Harden is playing defense with the same lack of focus and lackadaisical effort that he did when he was desperately trying to escape Houston.

(A quick aside: This all reminds me of the 2018 season of The Bachelor when Arie chose Becca but then changed his mind months after proposing because he wanted to date Lauren, who was his runner-up. “If I could rewind time I would change things but the simple fact is that I made a huge mistake,” Arie said. Maybe Harden can relate.)

But Steve Nash doesn’t see a star begging to leave. On Sunday, before the Nets dropped their eighth straight game to fall to seventh place in the East, Brooklyn’s head coach said the team will not trade Harden before the deadline. “I’ve talked to James, he wants to be here and he wants to be here long term as well,” Nash told reporters. “We’re building with James and we think we have the best chance to win with James. So I don’t think anything’s changed on the inside in our locker room, in our communication. It’s just all the noise from the outside.”

Maybe the weirdest aspect of this story is just how public all of it has been. Whether it’s a report by Adrian Wojnarowski or Shams Charania, or a nugget dropped by Kendrick Perkins, no matter who you get your news from, this saga is out there with so much information and detail about why it’s a thing. While Harden might operate like a Bachelor lead, NBA executives, coaches, and agents devour rumors and reports the way someone might consume Game of Thrones. Every word has meaning. Every action has a purpose. It’s less about what was said and more about why it was said. So when Nash says the Nets will keep Harden, executives don’t necessarily take him at his word. They think: “Nash is open in response to the question because Brooklyn is trying to hold on to what leverage it has for a potential trade.”

The best-case scenario for Philly and the worst-case scenario for Brooklyn would be if Harden meets with management this week and outright tells the team he wants out, or that he will strongly consider leaving this summer. If that happens, the Nets would be in a similar spot as the Sixers are now with Simmons. That would kill their leverage. Unless, that is, they can keep it a secret behind closed doors and maintain a public line of: “We’re not trading Harden. He wants to be here.”

Klutch Sports, which represents Simmons, would love to free its client from Philadelphia, especially if it could get him to a championship contender in Brooklyn. Philadelphia and Klutch have aligned objectives, though their tactics clash. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Sunday that the Sixers and Nets “will engage in dialogue on a deal around Simmons for Harden.” He added that Philadelphia has role players like Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, and Matisse Thybulle “that could sweeten a potential package.”

In a Harden-for-Simmons deal, Philly would need to add about $2.5 million or more in salary to make it a valid trade. But I’m told someone like Danny Green is more likely to be included than one of Philly’s young players. Curry is an integral part of the Sixers’ offense, and without Thybulle they’d lack a perimeter stopper. Harden would provide more than Simmons does on offense, but the latter’s absence is still massive on defense. Philly understandably wants to keep Thybulle. Green is more expendable. He’s useful, but not quite in his prime anymore.

Sources say Maxey is totally off the table. He’s only 21, and is averaging 16.9 points and 4.8 assists per game in the second year of his career. He hustles on defense, is selfless and clutch, and does wild things like hitting layups while falling horizontally out of bounds. He can drain shots off the dribble and now he’s comfortably making 3s.

Harden is 32 and hasn’t looked like the same All-NBA-level player for two years now. He’s about to demand a four-year extension that could be worth over $230 million, but he was an MVP, and now he’s just an All-Star. Maxey is at the beginning of his career arc. What if Harden is nearing the end of his?

I’d worry about committing to all that future money if I were the Nets. Simmons would allow the franchise to maintain more financial flexibility; he is still just 25. Harden could fall off, which matters less for the Sixers since their priority is to immediately maximize another potential MVP season from Embiid, who has a long injury history. The Sixers need to worry about now, and if Maxey ascends, Harden could eventually evolve into a more complementary role.

The fantasy of Harden in Philly won’t go away unless Harden makes a firm public commitment to Brooklyn or signs his extension. Even if there’s no trade before Thursday’s deadline, Harden will be at the top of the Sixers’ list this summer.

Wojnarowski reported last week that the Nets would not engage in any offers for Harden. Even as recently as Sunday, I was told the Nets have not had any serious talks. This is perhaps why Charania says the expectation is that they will engage in discussions, not that they already have. Woj concluded his report with this sentence: “Brooklyn knows if they win, if they win big, if they win a championship, that’s their best way to handle the situation and keep this group together moving forward.”

Winning is the only thing that would make Harden a lock to stay. But there was also this from Woj, about Kevin Durant: “When he comes back from his knee injury, probably sometime after [the] All-Star break in February, he wants a group there that is as committed as him to winning those titles.”

We won’t know until Thursday whether Harden is that player. Or whether it’s actually Simmons, who could be eager to prove himself after his prolonged absence. Kyrie Irving himself said on Sunday: “Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Simmons is far from the perfect player. He’s inconsistent. He’s allergic to shooting. He was a deer in the headlights in the biggest moment of his career. Maybe the Nets will roll with Harden after all. Not that long ago, the Nets were looking like Finals favorites. Brooklyn had the East’s best record for most of the season until the Bulls took the top spot on January 1. Now they have the league’s longest active losing streak, KD is out with a sprained MCL, and Kyrie is still a part-time player because of his vaccination status. Even Joe Harris has had setbacks with his recovery from ankle surgery. What was supposed to be a fairy-tale season has turned into a nightmare, and right now it’s a confusing one at that.

Between now and Thursday, this story will likely zig and zag again. But in my opinion, everyone involved should want this trade to happen immediately. Harden. Simmons. The Sixers. The Nets. Klutch. All of them.

Pairing Harden with Joel Embiid would be a dream scenario for Daryl Morey. Harden has never played with a big like Embiid, and Embiid has never played with a pick-and-roll playmaker like Harden. They would need to adapt to each other since Embiid prefers to pop instead of roll, but Harden has thrived with lob threats like Clint Capela and shooters like Ryan Anderson. More so, Harden would need to buy into playing off the ball and engaging on defense. But it’d be an automatic upgrade for Philadelphia to have Harden, a former MVP, instead of a guy who’s not even playing and doesn’t want to be there.

Simmons on the Nets would beat many, if not all, of the realistic outcomes to this ongoing stalemate. It’s a great basketball fit that could be beneficial in both rejuvenating and redefining his career.

Brooklyn’s defensive scheme under Nash leans heavily on switching, which is an ideal match for Simmons, who at 6-foot-11 has size to battle with larger scorers and the agility to envelope smaller guards. Simmons is one of the NBA’s best at defending across positions, a truly dominant defender who can cause chaos leading to offense.

Simmons would become the face of Brooklyn’s defense, and just imagine a frontcourt with him and Durant. He could be heavily utilized in small-ball lineups as a center, flanked by Durant, Irving, Harris, and Patty Mills. It would be one of the most lethal scoring lineups in the NBA. Nash could add a dash of defense or size to give his lineups a totally different feel. And if Irving is out, Simmons could take on a more significant offensive role. Simmons could play with anyone on Brooklyn’s roster, which is a rarity considering his limitations as a shooter. He can defend anyone and he can do all the things Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown are asked to do now on offense—but with All-NBA talent.

Simmons screening for Irving would turn him into a short-roll weapon, and his picks for Durant would lead to nightmarish mismatches for the opposing defense. In certain situations, he could even run the offense as an offensive hub on the elbow. Simmons has a skill set that would provide the Nets with the ability to shapeshift styles.

It is only natural for the Nets to worry about losing Harden until he signs an extension. They know what he did to get out of Houston. They know their own issues. Harden will do anything to get what he wants. Maybe the Nets will keep Harden anyway. Maybe New York will remove the vaccine mandate and Irving will be able to play home games, and the Nets will make a deep playoff run and maybe even win the NBA Finals. Maybe by July, Harden will be ready to re-sign and run it back.

But Brooklyn knows that no part of that fantasy is a certainty. If New York doesn’t change its laws, Irving will continue to be a part-time player and a full-time nuisance. And even if Irving is available every night, the competition in the East is stiff.

The Nets should obviously try to siphon as much value out of the Sixers as they can. Maybe Maxey, Curry, and Thybulle are off the table. But Green would be a plug-and-play role player. In general, league sources say Brooklyn is scouring the trade market for shooting on the wing. Maybe Philly will end up adding some draft compensation to make up the difference. The Sixers have the ability to add their first-rounder in 2022 or 2023, a first in 2027, a first-round pick swap in 2024 and 2028, and five seconds. They will be reluctant to give up any picks, but that’s part of negotiating.

It’s established that Morey has a basketball crush on Harden. Harden is friends with Michael Rubin, who is a part owner of the 76ers, and he’s close with former Rockets CEO Tad Brown, who’s now the Sixers’ CEO. They cannot speak with Harden. But their history together in Houston was a factor in his interest in Philadelphia even before the trade to Brooklyn.

There’s no denying that the current situation stinks for the Nets. They got KD and Kyrie, waited a year for KD to play, then gave up a bunch of talented prospects and future draft picks to get Harden, and one year later they’re in this mess? Contending for a championship is supposed to be fun. And this is not. But it could be.

Just imagine Nets at Sixers for the first time if Harden-for-Simmons happens. The boos Simmons would hear every time he touches the ball. The intensity with which Simmons would defend Harden as Embiid screens for him. Two teams with NBA Finals hopes could help each other with a trade and a new rivalry could be born. It could lead to a series—and a story—we’d remember forever.

It’s all playing out in public right now, with an endless stream of leaks. It’s unusual for any potential trade of this magnitude to be so out in the open. We’re in the middle of a negotiation. If the trade becomes a reality, we also might be in the middle of one of the NBA’s most dramatic seasons.