One of the funny things about Daryl Morey’s reputation as a front-office gunslinger is that his entire career has been built on the foundation of a trade that disproves the notion that the best way to build an NBA title contender is with established NBA superstars.
The first time he acquired James Harden, the price was essentially three first-round picks and a rotation-caliber 28-year-old shooting guard without any elite skills. At the time, Harden was 23 years old and entering his fourth season in the league, putting him close to the same juncture of his career as Ben Simmons is now. Harden was hardly an unknown, but he’d started just seven games in his professional career, and was deemed expendable by a team that was coming off what looked to be the first of several NBA Finals berths. In short, he was not a superstar.
Ten years later, Morey is known as the man who built an offensive juggernaut around Harden in Houston and traded for Chris Paul and then Russell Westbrook and who has now traded for Harden again. Yet it all started with the sort of acquisition that aspiring general managers dream of when they lay their eggheads down to sleep.
An undervalued asset swapped for some overvalued assets. Buying low and selling high. Whenever Morey and Harden meet the media for the first time — Tuesday is the presumptive date of the official introduction — it will be interesting to hear Morey’s thoughts on the decade that has transpired between now and then.
In trading Simmons for Harden, he now finds himself in the same position that Thunder general manager Sam Presti was as he watched his former shooting guard blossom into one of the most devastating isolation scorers in NBA history. Apples to apples, the comparison might be a stretch. Simmons has never shown the alpha scorer’s mentality that Harden possessed even as a sixth man in Oklahoma City. But he is young, and as cost-effective as he will ever be, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that everyone looks back and marvels at the fact that his tenure in Philadelphia ended as it did.
That being said, if you are going to sell out for a mature asset in today’s NBA, Harden is the sort of player you do it for. It has been fascinating to watch reaction to the Sixers’ decision to trade Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and a couple of first-round picks to the Nets in exchange for a nine-time All-Star, three-time scoring champ, and 2017-18 MVP.
If Harden is who he was during his tenure in Houston, the Sixers have a chance to be one of the five most entertaining teams in modern NBA history. One can argue that the Sixers have two of the most unique players at their position of all time. Embiid has yet to achieve the overpowering dominance of Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain, or the technical skill of Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan, but few players have ever offered a better combination of raw power and intuitive finesse. Embiid is a rarity, and so is Harden. Quick, think of a historical comparison for either. Case in point.
The longer you think, the more you should arrive at the realization that Morey’s year-long pursuit of a reunion with his original breadwinner is not the quixotic, white-whale quest that it may seem. Is there risk? No doubt.
The stories coming out of Brooklyn make you wonder whether Harden is a guy who you can ever really know. A year ago, it seemed borderline impossible that his tenure with the Nets would end with a trade to the Sixers. There is a realistic universe where Simmons and Tyrese Maxey are both playing for different teams and Harden is forcing his way out of Philadelphia to Brooklyn. When somebody shows you who they are, believe them, especially when what they show you suggests that they are a 32-year-old malcontent with a deteriorating body. That’s a fair argument. But everything in life is a risk-reward calculation, and the thing that a lot of sober minds seem to be missing is the upside of pairing Harden with Embiid.
The simple truth is that Harden has never played with a big man who is anywhere close to the caliber of Embiid. And Embiid has never played with a perimeter scorer who is anywhere close to the caliber of Harden.
There is no way to project what the sum of the parts will look like now that they are paired with each other. After a year of rumors and speculation and pre-trade-deadline build-up, all that there is left to do is wait and see how it all plays out.
Could Morey regret this? For sure. But there’s also a chance that, a couple of months from now, we see how much he would have regretted passing on the opportunity to find out. The upside is easy to ignore because it is difficult to comprehend.
However big of a gamble this is, there is big value in the odds.