James Harden confirmed that Philly was his preferred landing spot when he wanted out of Houston last year. But when asked why that move did not transpire back then, 76ers president Daryl Morey interjected and suggested a not-sure-what-to-say Harden declare, “It’s Daryl’s fault.”
Regardless of what exactly blocked an earlier move, it has officially been rectified. Morey and Harden are a tandem again, sitting side-by-side at Tuesday afternoon’s introductory press conference at the team’s practice facility in Camden following the blockbuster deadline trade that brought Harden and Paul Millsap to the Sixers and sent Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets.
Morey, hired to run the Sixers before last season, believes this deal balances the roster’s present and future, giving them another bona fide star to pair with MVP contender Joel Embiid without letting go of their two most promising young players, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle. Morey is also bullish that the move immediately swings the Sixers’ championship window open even further, with Embiid, Harden, and Tobias Harris all in the primes of their careers on a team that enters Wednesday with a 34-23 record and 2 1/2 games out of first place in the tightly packed Eastern Conference standings.
“Doc [Rivers] and the coaching staff and the players have put us in a spot where, as we make this trade, we are well-positioned to go on a run — and a run that hopefully excites the city of Philadelphia,” Morey said. " … We wanted to give up nothing. But you have to give up something to make a trade and get a Hall of Famer and a player that can put us into a different tier of competing. We’re very comfortable.”
How Morey’s 2012 acquisition of Harden while with the Rockets vaulted Harden from Sixth Man of the Year to perennial All-Star, three-time scoring champion and 2018 Most Valuable Player is well-documented. So it made sense that, when Harden was ready to leave the Rockets last season, Morey pursued acquiring him. Morey even alluded Tuesday that “the fit was there” for a potential three-team trade between the Sixers, Nets and Rockets last year — which presumably still would have involved Harden and Simmons — that “would have been ideal for all three teams if it was originally structured that way.”
Instead, the Rockets dealt Harden to the Nets, and Simmons remained a Sixer for the remainder of a 2020-21 season that ended with a disastrous playoff finish that carried into an offseason trade demand that lingered until last week.
Morey said Tuesday,“If we could have gotten a deal done [immediately after Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, asked for a trade], we would have done it then.” Yet Morey remained steadfast that he would hold out for appropriate value in return. Before the Harden possibility began rumbling in recent weeks, Morey said during radio interviews that he was content to wait until the offseason — or even the four seasons remaining on Simmons’ max contract.
“The way this league works, you have to get players the caliber of a James Harden to pair with a Joel Embiid and a Tobias,” Morey said Tuesday. “You can win without it. But you look historically in the league, you’re looking at pretty long odds if you don’t have two great players of that level of play out there.”
Morey also confirmed that keeping point guard Maxey and perimeter defensive stopper Thybulle were “big priorities” even when a suitable trade partner emerged.
He believes Maxey “absolutely has a chance to be an All-Star” following his breakout season that enters Tuesday with him averaging 17.0 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 47% from the floor and 39.9% from three-point range. Morey added that Thybulle “easily could be Defensive Player of the Year” in the future after landing on the NBA’s All-Defensive second team last season.
“Both of them, I think sky’s the limit,” Morey said. “And that’s a big reason why we made sure that they weren’t in this trade.”
The nature of Morey’s job means he will always be looking for ways to improve the current and future versions of the Sixers’ roster. An immediate priority is exploring the buyout market for a backup center after Drummond was a late addition to the trade, though Morey shared that Millsap, a former All-Star who made his Sixers debut Tuesday against Boston, was a player the Sixers were interested in signing last offseason. And though the Sixers are now limited in their ability to trade future draft picks after sending two first-rounders to Brooklyn, Morey said “our focus was to keep as many of the great players as we could.”
That resulted in Morey and Harden sitting next to each other as partners again — and with the belief that the Sixers’ championship window has swung open.
“All the hard work happens from here,” Morey said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
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