The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
James Harden’s unhappiness with the Houston Rockets is the worst-kept secret in the NBA.
Every day, we are treated to an update that comes back to this: The one-time MVP wants out of Houston, and the Rockets are unwilling to trade him for pennies on the dollar. The swap of Russell Westbrook for John Wall, the signing of Christian Wood ... none of it has changed Harden’s mind. And none of it was done with the sole purpose of persuading him to stay. They are done catering to the superstar’s every demand.
Harden’s list of preferred destinations may expand or contract, but one way or another, he will be dealt by the trade deadline, if not far sooner. The rest is just theater.
And the Philadelphia 76ers are the only trade partner that makes much sense. They are one of two teams on Harden’s short list, and they have what the Brooklyn Nets do not: Ben Simmons, a 24-year-old All-NBA and All-Defensive talent who is entering the first season of a five-year maximum contract extension. The Rockets can sell Simmons as the face of their franchise, at least until he orchestrates his exit from Houston.
Per reports from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Philadelphia is willing to include the former No. 1 overall pick in a deal after months of insisting new head coach Doc Rivers will have a shot at mending the relationship between Simmons and Joel Embiid. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey denied those reports, flat-out telling Charania, “We are not trading Ben Simmons,” but he knows full well the skill sets of Simmons and Embiid prevent each from maximizing his true potential.
Rockets general manager Rafael Stone, who worked under Morey for more than a decade in Houston, also knows this. Harden is a far better fit in Philadelphia. The three-time defending scoring champion instantly transforms a middling offense into an elite one, and Embiid masks many of Harden’s defensive limitations.
Morey may also be one of the few shot-callers left to believe in Harden as a player worthy of mortgaging a bright future for a potential championship present. Morey was among those with the Rockets who, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, catered to Harden at every turn. It led to feuds with coaches and teammates, even some exits, but the scathing report was a reminder of Morey’s belief that Harden was worth the headache.
And it does not take a behind-the-scenes look to see how much a headache Harden can be. He arrived late to training camp, choosing instead to party in Atlanta and Las Vegas with no regard for the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. He is also a supremely talented player and arguably the greatest offense player of his generation.
Houston is operating as if Harden is gone. Stone traded Robert Covington for a pair of first-round picks, sent one to the Detroit Pistons in the sign-and-trade for Wood — a 25-year-old building block for the future, regardless of Harden’s presence — and added another first-rounder in the Westbrook deal, which returned a worse point guard who has not played in two years. P.J. Tucker may join Harden on his way out of town.
Reports have indicated Stone is seeking draft assets in addition to Simmons. He can seek all he wants, but Morey can and should hold back any first-round picks until his protege can field an offer that would force some sweetening. The Rockets will do no better than Simmons, picks or no picks. Other rising stars of his ilk — Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, to name a few — are not on the table for Harden.
The Miami Heat can offer a package centered around Tyler Herro, as the Brooklyn Nets have around Caris LeVert. Every team with a second-tier young gun will put a similar four-quarters-for-a-dollar deal on the table, but Miami and Brooklyn are both reportedly on Harden’s list and among few teams that can expect Harden to sign an extension beyond 2022. Milwaukee is on that list, too, but void of tradable young talent.
And Morey can trump them all with Simmons, probably without even adding a single pick. The Sixers could sell just about anyone on Simmons becoming a superstar on a team built to complement him, regardless of his inability and unwillingness to shoot. It makes too much sense. So, why hasn’t this trade happened yet?
Who knows? Maybe they want to avoid the optics — in the eyes of the league or Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta — of Morey leaving Houston for Philadelphia, recommending Stone for the position he vacated, and then acquiring Harden before the season even starts. Maybe Morey is waiting for some of his salary-filling contracts to clear restrictions on being traded. Maybe he wants to see if Rivers can scheme a successful Simmons-Embiid partnership. Maybe Stone wants to find a suitor who will help him squeeze a pick or two out of the Sixers. Or maybe he wants to see if Simmons is healthy after back and knee injuries last season.
Whatever the reason, Harden will be on the 76ers before season’s end, gifted by Christmas or not.
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