Are the 76ers trying to bluff the Brooklyn Nets into making a trade?
Are they finding ways to insist that their Atlantic Division rivals deliver James Harden for Ben Simmons in a deal before Thursday’s trade deadline? Are they telling the Nets they’ll miss out on getting anything in return for the Nets’ player?
Multiple sources said the Nets and Sixers engaged in trade discussions Tuesday and bickered over pieces to add to a potential deal.
Sources also confirmed that the Sixers have had conversations with the Oklahoma City Thunder about Tobias Harris. A person close to the Sixers downplayed the discussions, saying the Thunder are just one of several teams with available cap space that have inquired about taking in salary in exchange for draft picks. The person says Harris has nothing to be concerned about.
And at this point, the Sixers know trading Harris to the Thunder could be perceived as giving up on this season.
That could be hard to justify, considering they’re 2½ games behind the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference after Tuesday’s 114-109 home loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Yet, it’s no secret that the Sixers have been shopping Harris and his lucrative contract despite saying otherwise. The power forward is making $35.9 million this season and has two years and $76.9 million left on his deal.
But trading Harris, the Sixers’ second-best player, during a season when Joel Embiid is putting up magical numbers would be a tough sell in Philly. Not only is he their second-best player, but Harris is starting to find his groove and play at the high level he played at last season.
The Sixers are confident that they can get Harden this summer. But even being 100% confident might not justify what would be perceived as wasting one of Embiid’s prime seasons. The Sixers want to continue winning, and know Harris is vital to their success. So it would be hard to imagine them moving him to OKC this week.
There have been whispers about the possibility of the Sixers shipping Harris to the Thunder before the deadline as a salary-cap dump.
If that happens, some expect the Sixers will attempt to dump Simmons’ salary to another team that can take on his contract in exchange for assets around June’s draft.
After trading Robert Covington and Norman Powell to the Los Angeles Clippers and CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Portland Trail Blazers will have enough cap space to do so this summer. That’s intriguing because Damian Lillard has an interest in playing alongside Simmons.
The Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs will also have space to accommodate that type of trade. The Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets, if they waive John Wall and restructure his contract, could also be in play.
So this scenario would provide the cap space available for the Sixers to sign Harden as a free agent this summer if he opts out of his $47.4 million contract for next season. The Nets would lose Harden and receive nothing in return should that happen.
The salary cap for next season is $121 million and the Sixers currently have an active roster cap hit of $150 million for the 2022-23 campaign. The Sixers would need to shed $76 million in order to offer Harden the $47 million he would lose by leaving Brooklyn. So the Sixers would definitely have to trade Harris (who is scheduled to make $37.6 million next season) and Simmons ($35.4 million) to make that happen.
With around $32 million in cap space, the Thunder could find a way to make Harris’ salary work. But for OKC to take on that huge contract, the Sixers would have to add assets — either draft picks or young players — to make that deal work.
It would most likely have to be a down-the-line pick, with the Thunder already acquiring picks. But that’s not the best option and perhaps an unrealistic one at this point.
But this is a move the Sixers could make in June. As The Athletic pointed out, they could also waive Harris in the offseason and stretch the remaining two years of his contract over five years at $13.5 million per year.
Doing that, and trading Furkan Korkmaz to a team that will pay the $5 million he’s set to make next season could free up around $46 million for Harden next season. Sources have said the Indiana Pacers had some interest, thinking he could flourish with a change of scenery. If the Sixers don’t want to trade Korkmaz, they could waive three of the four players — Shake Milton (team option), Isaiah Joe, Paul Reed, and Charles Bassey — with non-guaranteed deals or a team option for next season.
But the best move would be to acquire Harden for Simmons before Thursday’s deadline.
That would elevate the Sixers from a competitive standpoint by pairing Harden with Embiid. Harris could also thrive while getting a lot of open shots playing alongside an All-Star duo that will draw a lot of attention.
Publicly, the Nets say they want to keep Harden for the rest of the season.
However, sources say they’re split behind closed doors. Some want to get rid of him now, thinking that he’s quit on the team and is hurting the chemistry. Harden has publicly told his teammates, coaches and team personnel that he wants to stay in Brooklyn. However, word keeps leaking out that he wants to play for the Sixers.
While valid or not, some in New York and around the league are questioning the severity of the left hamstring tightness that sidelined him the past three games. There are also some who believe things will get better once Kevin Durant returns from injury. They think everything will be fine if the Nets win the NBA title.
But what if they don’t? Brooklyn must think long and hard about what it will do because the Sixers may have options available to get him no matter what the Nets decide.