Two weeks ago, Daryl Morey said something that would have drawn a lot more attention had we known then what we know now.
At the time, there was little reason to think that James Harden would begin a full-court press on the Houston Rockets' front office, or that his representatives would identify the Brooklyn Nets and the Sixers as his preferred destinations. Likewise, nobody could predict the preemptive strike that the Milwaukee Bucks would execute on the rest of the Eastern Conference. Nor could they envision the height at which the championship bar would sit.
So when Morey articulated the approach he takes to building a roster, there was no reason to consider his words with much in the way of urgency.
“I start with championship probability and work backward from that, over a time frame of one-to-three years, basically,” the Sixers' new president of basketball operations said. “Start with championship probability, figure out how our team looks compared to teams in the past who have won the championship, and where do we stack up or not. I know that’s high level, but that’s pretty much how I look at it every year."
Given the recent machinations of Harden and the Bucks, the philosophy suddenly sounds a lot more concrete. Milwaukee’s additions of Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic to two-time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and longtime sidekick Khris Middleton leave the Bucks with the most talented roster in the conference. The Nets could supplant the Bucks as the East’s team to beat if they find a way to add Harden to a roster that already features Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
If Morey’s goal is to maximize the Sixers' chances of winning a title over the next three years, which of the following scenarios achieves that objective?
1) An Eastern Conference where the Nets have Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, and the Sixers have Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
2) An Eastern Conference where the Nets have Durant and Irving and the Sixers have Harden and Embiid.
When you look at things from that perspective, the question of whether the Sixers should dangle Simmons in a trade for Harden becomes one of those things that almost answers itself. Unless Simmons is in the midst of a radical four-month transformation, he will enter the 2020-21 season as the same player we saw at the end of 2019-20. That player isn’t close to being the type of situationally independent offensive force that is capable of winning postseason games on his own. Simmons has loads of potential, and rare physical gifts, and a two-way game that would dramatically improve any team. But he isn’t unstoppable with the ball in his hands, and that alone makes him less of a championship player than Harden.
This isn’t a debate, really. Harden’s scoring prowess has single-handedly made the Rockets a legitimate contender for six straight seasons. If you asked 30 general managers to pick one of the two to win them a game tomorrow, all 30 would laugh. That’s not a knock on Simmons. It’s the reality of Harden’s gifts. The guy has averaged 30-plus points per game for three straight seasons. He is smart, he can shoot, and he is the most devastating isolation scorer in the league. He has enough flaws to warrant a discussion about his standing among the game’s true centerpieces. But the question isn’t whether you’d rather build a team around him or Giannis or LeBron. It’s whether the Sixers are better with him or Simmons.
The real calculus starts when you move the window further out from the present. At 31, Harden is in the final stage of his physical prime. Simmons is seven years younger, with the size, speed, and natural feel for the game that gives him a ceiling that is higher than even the one Harden has reached. He is a better defender, a better rebounder than Harden ever was. If he ever develops into a legitimate primary scoring option, you could easily make the case that he is the more ideal championship player.
But that brings us back to the timeline that Morey uses for his vision. One to three years. That might sound shortsighted for a guy who is regarded as one of the league’s most forward-thinking executives, but the NBA is a place where you can’t afford to think too long. One moment, you are building your team around the league’s best scorer. The next, you are scrambling to accommodate his request to be traded with two years left on his deal. Trading Simmons for Harden comes with the risk that Simmons emerges as the better all-around player over the next three years. But not trading him comes with its own basket of uncertainties, starting with the chance that he someday decides he’d rather play somewhere else.
At some point, you’re left with the realization that the uncertainties cancel out, and the best way to proceed is to make whatever move makes you the best basketball team in the present. In an ideal world, Harden wants to play for the Sixers, and Morey finds a way to make that happen without including Simmons. In a less ideal world, he finds a creative way to use Simmons to land Harden and more. The only unideal world is the one the Sixers currently inhabit, where they are counting on last year’s roster to win a conference with two new super teams.