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NBA: Why a potential James Harden-Ben Simmons trade could make sense

Would a trade that sees Houston Rockets star James Harden swap with Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers work? We take a look...

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Why a potential Harden-Simmons trade makes some sense

James Harden really wants out of Houston and he is apparently even willing to play with Dwight Howard again to make it happen. 

It's now more of a question of when than if the Rockets will take the next step in a massive teardown and trade their disgruntled superstar. It's even more obvious that Harden's desire is to take his extraordinary scoring talents and mercurial personality to Brooklyn to form a super team that, in theory, would rival any legitimate title contender in both star power and skill level.

That wish seems to be one-sided. New Rockets general manager Rafael Stone is rightfully insisting on getting a young franchise cornerstone back if he's to deal the three-time scoring champion, something the Nets can't realistically deliver without a complicated scenario involving a third team. 

A package centered around Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and a slew of first-round picks that will likely fall in the 20s doesn't meet that demand. A Kyrie Irving-for-Harden swap probably wouldn't accomplish much other than exchanging one unhappy star for another, one who would be somewhat redundant anyway with John Wall now donning Rockets' red.  And Nets GM Sean Marks would quickly hang up the phone if Kevin Durant's name ever came up in conversations.

Brooklyn doesn't appear too keen on making this blockbuster happen as well, and understandably so. There are potential headaches to having another ball-dominant player like Harden share a court with Irving and Durant, not to mention the overwhelming pressure and expectations Harden's arrival would add to a rookie head coach in Steve Nash.

Philly option

Harden's other presumed preferred destination, Philadelphia, looks to be a more plausible possibility. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the roster, the 76ers meet Houston's criteria for a dynamic young player to rebuild around, though one would have to certainly go to truly make it work. (Sorry, Sixers fans, having Tobias Harris and his bloated contract as the centerpiece won't cut it).

Simmons, often portrayed as the poster child for the shortcomings of 'The Process', the 76ers' grand reconstruction plan that's generated more hope and excitement in the City of Brotherly Love than tangible postseason success, would seem to be the more likely candidate to change teams in a Harden scenario. 

And, although new Sixers GM Daryl Morey has steadfastly gone on record saying he has no plans to trade the 2018 Rookie of the Year, that is the same Daryl Morey who brokered a franchise-altering deal to pry away Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

Let's further examine the potential benefits – and risks – that a hypothetical Harden-for-Simmons deal would bring for both teams.

Why the Rockets would do it

As mentioned above, a trade involving Simmons would trump any offer the Nets could conceivably make short of a pipe-dream scenario that would have Durant going the other way. Houston would also be getting back a 24-year-old who's made two All-Star teams in three seasons and is under contract for five more years.

Simmons gets his share of grief for what he doesn't do – shoot threes – but he does a lot of things well, and some historically well. No player in the last 35 years 6-foot-10 or taller has averaged more assists per 48 minutes than his 11.1, with Nikola Jokic (9.1), Toni Kukoc (6.7), Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.4) and Chris Webber (5.5) his nearest rivals in that metric. Only two. Nerlens Noel (2.84) and Hakeem Olajuwon (2.49) have averaged more steals per 48 minutes that Simmons' 2.30.

In many respects, Simmons is indeed a true 'unicorn', displaying the vision and passing chops of a point guard in a power forward's body as well as the elite defensive skills capable of guarding virtually anyone on the court. And as a player who thrives in transition and on cuts to the basket, one could assume he'd be a strong fit alongside a speedy playmaker like Wall, with the added bonus of being able to run an offense in place of Houston's injury-prone newcomer.

Why the 76ers would do it

So why would the 76ers part with a player who, save for a lack of an outside shot, is a near-perfect prototype for today's position-less NBA?

For one, they'd be getting back a player suited for new coach Doc Rivers' system perhaps better than any other in the game today. Rivers' teams annually ranked among the NBA leaders in the use of isolation plays during his seven-year run with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Harden has led the NBA in isos in each of the last five seasons – some by wide margins. His average of 14.1 isolations per game in 2019-20 nearly doubled the next-closest competitor, his now-former Rockets teammate Russell Westbrook

Harden's knack for getting to the free throw line would benefit the Sixers and likely wouldn’t suffer under Rivers. His 15.5 free throws attempted per 48 minutes last season was the fourth-highest mark in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain (1961-62, 16.9), Shaquille O'Neal (2000-01, 16.0), and Antetokounmpo (2019-20, 15.8). Philadelphia ranked 22nd in the NBA in free-throw rate (.255) in 2019-20, a category where Rivers' Clippers finished second (.295).

Harden also possesses another weapon in his arsenal that Simmons noticeably lacks – the threat and capability of a three-point shot. Poor perimeter shooting contributed greatly to Philadelphia's quick exit in this past season's playoffs, in which the Sixers shot a woeful 26.4 percent from beyond the arc in being swept by the Boston Celtics in the opening round.

Simmons missed that series with a knee injury, but a lack of spacing was often a problem with him on the floor last year – particularly when paired with Embiid. The Sixers were a pedestrian +28 in point differential with the two playing together, and Embiid was individually a +137 when grouped with others besides Simmons.

Using the plus/minus statistic, Philadelphia was actually a better team without Simmons. In the 57 games he played in last season, the 76ers were +75 with him on the court and +101 with him on the bench. 

To be fair, the 2017-18 Sixers team that won 52 games excelled with Simmons and Embiid playing together, outscoring their opponents by 447 points over the course of the campaign. That team was flush with strong perimeter scorers, with four players (JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli) all shooting 36.9 percent or better from three-point range while averaging at least five treys a game.

Philadelphia didn't have that luxury this past season, a reason why two of Morey's major moves during the break were acquiring veteran floor-spacers Seth Curry and Danny Green in trades. That's at the very least some sign of a commitment to making the Simmons-Embiid dynamic work again.

Plans can change quickly in the NBA, however, and more so when it involves a team with unquestioned championship aspirations. A fast start would at least temporarily quell the growing rumours, but a slow one would do little to make them subside.