The Ben Simmons Saga is finally over.
On Thursday, the 76ers parted ways with the disgruntled All-Star who refused to play for them in exchange for the player whom Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was, in part, hired to deliver to Philadelphia.
The team acquired perennial All-NBA guard James Harden and Paul Millsap from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks. The teams agreed to the deal before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. The Nets will get the Sixers’ unprotected 2022 first-round pick and a protected 2027 first-rounder.
Brooklyn has the right to defer the 2022 pick until 2023. The 2027 pick is protected 1-8. If that’s not conveyed, it becomes a 2028 first-rounder, protected 1-8. And if that’s not conveyed, it becomes a 2028 second-rounder and $2 million.
The Sixers (32-22) were able to keep third-year swingman Matisse Thybulle, whom the Nets (29-25) coveted. According to sources, the Sixers refused to include Thybulle in the deal. That was the hold up on deadline day, as all the other issues were agreed upon.
But by trading Curry, coach Doc Rivers parted ways with his son-in-law. Curry’s wife, Callie, is Rivers’ daughter. The couple has two children. Rivers recently joked that the Sixers acquired Curry from the Dallas Mavericks on the night of the 2020 draft so he could spend time with his grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Drummond has a longtime friendship with Rivers’ adopted son, Adam Jones. That led to his signing a one-year, veteran minimum deal with the team in August.
The Sixers said Thursday night that Harden would wear No. 1, previously worn by Drummond.
Rivers canceled Thursday morning’s practice, knowing his players’ minds were on the upcoming deadline. The coach was also impacted by the stress of the day.
“I’m just dealing with it,” Rivers said before the trade. “You have no choice. I’ve been in these situations many times. And as a coach, I think what people will never understand about coaching … it’s amazing how many times your heart is broken as a coach.”
Rivers added it’s amazing how times a player can break your heart by going somewhere and becoming mad at you. He said that’s fine.
“I tell young coaches all the time, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You still open your heart up. You still do it over and over again. And [you] understand if you are in the business to win and you sell yourself to win titles, you have to also open your heart up to moments like this and trades, even not winning and getting hurt over and over again and getting back up. And that’s part of the journey of a coach.”
Thursday’s deal ended a five-month standstill after Simmons told the team managing partner Josh Harris, Morey, general manager Elton Brand, and Rivers that he no longer wanted to remain a Sixer and refused to report to training camp.
Simmons did eventually show up to two practices but didn’t engage with teammates and was kicked out of the second practice after he refused to participate in a drill. The point guard was fined for missing all 54 games this season and other discretions.
Of the eight lottery acquisitions the Sixers obtained during The Process, Joel Embiid is now the only one left on the roster.
But Simmons’ departure enabled Sixers ownership to get the man it coveted. And according to sources, acquiring Harden was part of the reason why Morey was named team president on Nov. 2, 2020.
Co-owner Michael Rubin wanted to bring Harden to the Sixers to form a dominant duo with Embiid. Morey has a great relationship with Harden from their days with the Houston Rockets. He was the team’s analytics-driven general manager and Harden was its three-time scoring champion.
Morey attempted to reunite with Harden last season, offering Simmons and Thybulle as part of a trade package. However, the Rockets eventually traded him to the Nets, where the 2018 MVP was part of a Big Three with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
But Harden and his camp have maintained a close relationship with Morey. In addition, Rubin also stayed tight with Harden and his friends. The groups still interact. And the Sixers hired former Houston Rockets CEO Tad Brown as their new CEO for Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment, which oversees the Sixers. Brown and Harden have a great relationship.
So this seemed the perfect pairing, especially when there was grumbling that Harden was unhappy in Brooklyn.
He will opt in to his $47.3 million contract for next season and can sign a four-year, $223 million extension at the start of free agency.
Harden seems like the perfect fit for Embiid. He can get a bucket, finish isolation plays, take opponents off the dribble, and drain step-back three-pointers.
However, he’s averaging 22.5 points and shooting a career-low 33.2% on three-pointers, but he is averaging 10.2 assists this season. It is his lowest scoring average since averaging 16.8 points per game as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2011-12 season. The 32-year-old, who is a 10-time All-Star, had a four-point performance in a Feb. 2 road loss to the Sacramento Kings and has been sidelined the last three games with hamstring tightness. Some have questioned the severity of the hamstring injury, noting that Harden wanted out of Brooklyn.
A league source thinks a change of scenery will enable Harden to go back to him being the player who averaged 29.6 points and shot 36.2% on three-pointers during his nine seasons in Houston.
“James Harden is one of the truly elite players in the league,” Harris said. “His career has been defined by incredible personal achievement, including honors as NBA MVP and three-time NBA scoring champion. We’re thrilled to pair him with Joel Embiid and this dynamic roster in our pursuit of an NBA title.
“I am proud to welcome James and Paul Millsap -- a proven veteran and former All-Star -- to the 76ers, and can’t wait for what the future holds for the city and our fans.”
Meanwhile, Millsap, 36, is averaging 3.4 points and 3.7 rebounds in 24 appearances. The Nets had been shopping him around.
But one can argue the Nets won the trade.
In Curry, they got a sharpshooter to replace Joe Harris, who’s been sidelined since November because of ankle surgery. Meanwhile, Drummond, who was Embiid’s backup, will provide a solid post presence in New York.
Brooklyn gained a multifaceted player in Simmons, who would be able to handle the ball and allow Kyrie Irving to thrive as a shooting guard. Simmons can also guard all five positions and blend in well with Irving and Durant.
A three-time All-Star, Simmons also became fully vaccinated during the season. That’s important because an unvaccinated status would make him non-compliant with local rules in New York and hinder his ability to work in the city. As a result, he would only be permitted to play in road games outside of the city like the unvaccinated Irving.
Simmons, however, would need some time to find a rhythm because he has held out the entire season after demanding to be traded. But with Durant, Irving, and Curry providing a lot of the scoring, his lack of perimeter shots won’t come under scrutiny.
While the Sixers got Harden in return, this trade could be another indictment of The Process. It produced eight lottery-pick acquisitions from the 2013 through 2018 drafts.
The Sixers traded away Nerlens Noel (sixth, 2013) Michael Carter-Williams (11th, 2013), Dario Šarić (12th, 2014), Jahlil Okafor (third, 2015), Markelle Fultz (first, 2017), and Mikal Bridges (10th, 2018) for very little or nothing in return.
Bridges was a Sixer for 38 minutes before being shipped to the Suns in exchange for Zhaire Smith and a 2021 first-round pick. Smith was a bad fit for the Sixers, who never gave him a real opportunity to showcase his skills.
He was injured, became ill, and played in only 13 games before being traded to the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 23, 2020.
Now Simmons, who has regressed as a shooter, is on his way out after being selected first overall in 2016.
He missed what would have been his first season after fracturing his right foot. The next season, Simmons garnered rookie of the year honors while being snubbed for the 2018 All-Star Game.
However, he went on to earn the first of three consecutive All-Star honors in 2019. In his third playing season, Simmons led the league in steals per game (2.1). The 25-year-old, however, had a knack for struggling in the postseason. And this past postseason was the worst of his three.
Simmons shot just 25-for-73 (34.2%) from the foul line, marking the worst postseason free-throw shooting in NBA history. He also took only three shots in 56 fourth-quarter minutes during the seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Atlanta Hawks. None of the fourth-quarter shot attempts came in the final four games.
Simmons finished with five points, 13 assists, and eight rebounds in the 103-96 Game 7 loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He attempted just four shots, making two. Simmons played timid, like someone fearful of having to go to the foul line.
That became apparent with 3 minutes, 29 seconds remaining and the Sixers trailing, 88-86. He drove to the basket past Danilo Gallinari, but he passed up an open dunk underneath the basket, dishing the ball to Thybulle, who was fouled by John Collins. Thybulle made 1 of 2 free throws.