James Harden or bust? That’s the feeling around the NBA as the 76ers search for ways to end the Ben Simmons saga.
The Sixers are looking to trade Simmons, who has yet to play this season after requesting to be moved last August.
“At the end of the day, it’s Harden all the way,” said a league source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They want Harden whether they get him now, whether they get him on a forced sign-and-trade this summer.”
The Athletic published similar reporting Monday morning, asserting that the Sixers prefer to wait to pursue Harden or another superstar in the offseason.
But the Inquirer’s source thinks this has been the plan for some time.
It’s no secret that Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has an affinity for Harden from their time together with the Houston Rockets.
Morey attempted to reunite with Harden last season, offering Simmons and Matisse Thybulle in a trade. However, the Rockets eventually traded him to the Brooklyn Nets, where the 2018 MVP was part of a Big Three with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
But according to sources, Harden and his camp have maintained a close relationship with Morey. In addition, Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin is also tight with Harden and his friends. The groups still interact, sources say.
Harden’s close friend and rapper Lil Baby was even on hand when Rubin, Meek Mill and the Sixers hosted 25 youths from the Philadelphia area before their Dec. 15 game against the Miami Heat. Together, the group provided a Wells Fargo Center experience through the REFORM Alliance for young people who have been adversely affected by criminal justice.
Back in November, the Inquirer reported that several members of the Sixers front office were keen on the idea of keeping Simmons this season and pursuing Harden for a sign-and-trade. Sources have said the Nets are aware of the Sixers’ plan and Harden’s relationships with Morey and Rubin.
Harden did not sign an extension before the deadline on Oct. 18. At the time, he said the Nets had “nothing to worry about.” With that said, Harden still could leave as a free agent this summer.
However, he can also opt in to his $47.4 million contract for next season and sign a four-year, $223 million extension at the start of free agency.
The Sixers would have to keep Simmons past this season in order to complete a sign-and-trade with Harden. Simmons will make $35.4 million next season. While the Sixers have denied it, a growing number of sources have said the team wants to include Tobias Harris in any Simmons deal. Harris, who’s making $35.9 million this season, is scheduled to bring in $37.6 million next season, and trading him would free up cap space.
One source said a recent potential deal with the Atlanta Hawks broke down when Harris’ name was added to the talks.
The Hawks considered sending John Collins, Cam Reddish, and a first-round pick to the Sixers in exchange for Simmons, according to sources. However, the talks stopped after Harris’ name was brought into the deal.
“There’s no way that kind of deal is going to happen,” a source said. “There’s maybe one [team] on a stretch that can take back Tobias. But I just think it’s a long shot. Teams would be restricted for doing a deal for a B-level player, plus giving up a pick to get Ben.”
There’s no guarantee that Harden will be available next summer if the Sixers hold out. And even if he is, there’s no guarantee he’ll be available to the Sixers in a sign-and-trade. The Nets would have to agree to trade him to an Atlantic Division foe some 90 minutes down the road.
“If I’m the Nets, am I giving up James Harden until I know what Ben is going to be?” a league source asked. “And am I giving him up to go 100 miles away? I’m going to have to see [Harden] several different times a season. I’m not doing that.”
Now, the Sixers could attempt to sign him in free agency. But being significantly over the cap right now, they would have to shed a considerable amount of salary to create cap space.
Plus, why would Harden decide he wants to leave the Nets, who are 29-17 and a half-game behind first-place Miami in the Eastern Conference standings?
Even though it is a championship contender, Brooklyn does have some obstacles. The unvaccinated Irving is able to play only in games outside New York after missing the first 35 games of the season. Meanwhile, Durant is sidelined at least a month after suffering a knee sprain against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 15.
In addition, Harden has had a tough time developing a rhythm while playing with both Durant and Irving. They have played just 16 games together since Harden was acquired last season in the trade. During those games, he’s mostly been the third fiddle behind Durant and Irving.
Joel Embiid is the alpha dog for the Sixers, commanding the lion’s share of shots and serving as the focal point of the franchise, a dynamic that could make some ball-dominant players pursue an opportunity elsewhere.
But sources said Harden would welcome playing with Embiid. The guard had a lot of individual success playing for Morey as a Rocket. Sources say Harden believes he could have similar success playing alongside Embiid.
League source believe the Sixers would have to trade Harris, who plays both forward positions, for the Harden-Embiid pairing to work.
“They need to clear more space for Joel,” a source said. “They’re all-in on Joel being given enough space. That’s why they like Harden, because they have an outside and an inside force and everyone else spots up around them. That’s what they’re looking for, spread [the floor] guys.”
But people close the Sixers deny the team is holding out for Harden. They maintain their focus is on getting an A-list player, whether it’s Harden, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Washington’s Bradley Beal or other players in their class.
On Thursday, Morey said it was less than likely for Simmons to be dealt before the Feb. 10 deadline during an appearance on 97.5 The Fanatic.
That comes as no surprise to a league source, who says teams are being scared off by Morey’s methodology.
“Whenever teams inquire, it shows up in the media at some capacity within the next 24 hours,” the source said. “Everyone is wanting Daryl to come to them with hard proposals. No one wants to be the one to bring something in because they are afraid as soon as they do it, they’re going to be exposed.”
A source said whenever teams enter discussions with Morey, he pushes for two or three draft picks.
“No one is giving up three picks and an A-level player, who may be a B next to Joel, just to get Ben back,” the source said. “They’re not doing it. That’s why they keep hitting a wall on this thing.”
Another source said teams are hesitant to speak with Morey because they believe he moves the goal posts when discussing terms. If you think you’re close to having a deal in place, Morey will return to the table and raise the stakes.
The sources don’t think Morey is serious about making a deal for Simmons at this time. The Sixers’ position that they’re not going to trade Simmons just to make a trade has been consistent. They’re only willing to make a deal for an A-list player in return.
“The reigning thought process throughout the league is Harden will be a Sixer next season,” a source said.