Call me old-fashioned, but bring on the Nets. Bring on James Harden. Bring on a future with Ben Simmons and Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and a full complement of first-round picks at the Sixers’ disposal. Bring on a team that is built the way the old codgers used to build them.
Once upon a time, championships were expected to be earned, not conjured from thin air. Once upon a time, a general manager wouldn’t dream of trading a 24-year-old two-way force for a 31-year-old scorer, let alone one who reduced his last team to a smoldering pile of rubble. Daryl Morey might have dreamed it, but he didn’t do it, and now the rest of us get to see what these Sixers can become.
Do I believe all of this with every ounce of my being? Of course not. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s a world where James Harden is on his way to Philadelphia and the local columnist is breathlessly envisioning the havoc that he and Joel Embiid will wreak. In this world, the Sixers are now the prohibitive favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Caris LeVert is in Brooklyn, Victor Oladipo is in Indianapolis, and the Nets have not mortgaged their future by trading away four first-round picks and making four pick swaps. Maybe Maxey is in Houston. Maybe he isn’t. The headline is that Harden is a Sixer, and the Sixers are now as close to a title as they have been in 38 years.
In this world, Morey’s decision to trade Simmons is a painful but necessary move that a championship team must make. Trophies are won by players who are elite at scoring, not by players who are good-to-very-good at a variety of things. If parting ways with Simmons was the only way to pair Embiid with the game’s greatest isolation player, then parting ways with Simmons was the thing that needed to be done. What the Sixers did in this world is what the Nets did in the real one: make a bold move that will maximize their chances of winning a title within the next two seasons.
These worlds have one thing in common: the man who breathed them into existence. The multiverse is Daryl Morey’s Choose Your Own Adventure, and the only sensible opinion is to defer to his judgment. From the beginning, this was his game to play. Nobody knows the particulars better than he does. He spent eight years building a basketball team around Harden in Houston. He has spent a month watching the Sixers from the best seat in the house. How could anybody pretend to have a better assessment of the value of pairing one with the other?
Maybe that sounds like a cop-out, but this is one of those situations where the buck should stop there. The fact that Morey did not make the deal is evidence enough that the deal should not have been made. According to the sources I’ve spoken with, the Rockets made it clear from the beginning that the Sixers would need to pay a prohibitively high price to land Harden. In paying that price — the final ask, according to Inquirer beat writers Keith Pompey and Marc Narducci, included Simmons, Maxey, and Thybulle — they would have been limiting their future to one of two potential outcomes. Either Harden would work out, or he wouldn’t. In the latter event, the Sixers would be forced to pivot with both feet nailed to the court.
The package wasn’t right. The risk wasn’t right. Most of all, the timing wasn’t right. Perhaps the calculus would have changed closer to the trade deadline, but the Rockets clearly felt the need to strike a deal before Harden could erode any more of their leverage. If Houston was insisting on Simmons, Maxey, Thybulle, and picks, Morey was right to conclude it absurd.
Which brings us to now. The Nets’ acquisition of Harden cements them as the undisputed favorites in the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA. That means, in relative terms, the Sixers just got worse. But it also means they have an opportunity to chart their own unique course to contention. In his short time on the job, Morey has assembled a fun roster that has plenty of potential to grow into itself. Already this season, we’ve seen Maxey emerge as a legitimate rotation player with flashes of future stardom. We’ve seen Shake Milton continue his development into a potent scorer. We’ve seen Seth Curry demonstrate the impact that an elite shooter can have when paired with Embiid. There is a lot to like about this team, and lots of room to maneuver.
Of course, the NBA is a place where generational scorers trump all. There’s a chance we look back and realize that the Sixers should have done whatever it took to land such a player. But all we have now is the information at hand, along with the track record of the man who is making the decisions. Morey should get the benefit of the doubt. Time will be the judge.