Those of us in the media love instant reaction, and so trades like the one that unfurled early Tuesday morning between the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers tend to elicit immediate reactions, assessments, praise and ridicule.
In that regard, the winners and losers of the long-awaited news that James Harden finally got his ugly divorce from Daryl Morey ran the gamut. Our own Sam Quinn gave the Clippers a C- and the Sixers an A- for a deal that sends Harden to Hollywood, along with PJ Tucker and Filip Petrusev, for two future first-round picks, a first-round pick swap and two-second round picks.
Vegas thought the Clippers got the best of Philly, shifting their title odds from 18-1 to 12-1 while dropping the Sixers from 20-1 to 30-1. Others had the Clippers and Sixers rated very high and very low, the grades varying wildly. My own knee-jerk reaction with a C+ for the Clippers and a lowly C- for the Sixers.
But the proper way to assess this deal, several executives and other league sources argued Tuesday, can only be measured over the coming weeks and months.
“This is one where nobody’s going to know until later,” one executive said. “Usually everybody knows right away. This one is unique. Because both teams are trying to win, the only question that matters is: At the end of the season, who positioned themselves more successfully to go further? That’s who won the trade.”
Each team has made different assessments in what their team needs. Each approach comes with massive chances to fail, with, they believe, increased odds at getting better.
For the Clippers, there’s an all-the-money-in-the-middle-of-the-table reality to their planning that’s solely focused on this season. They see Harden as someone who, whatever his deficiencies come the playoffs, can help them win ample regular-season games when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George load manage or miss time.
Yes, there’s the risk Harden is a very, very expensive one-year rental that leads to very little. But with George and Leonard each holding player options next summer, and Harden a pending free agent, the view in L.A. is that they can go for it now and see where things stand come the summer. That makes the upside worth the risk as they strive to force their way through the championship window they thought they’d created when they brought that duo in four years ago.
They see several routes for this to happen. One goes like this: You can have a disgruntled Harden and be the three-seed at best and get blown out of the playoffs all while Embiid is miserable, or you can probably still be the three-seed at best and probably get blown out of the playoffs but at least hope that a less toxic team and some other factors lead Embiid to feel enough hope and progress that he wants to stick around.
One version of that hope-and-progress approach is that Tyrese Maxey’s early excellence holds for the year and the Sixers are very, very good without Harden. Couple that with the assets the Sixers brought in — and the hope they can eventually flip them for help later this season — plus the cap space Morey has created for a would-be, big-time free agent next summer and maybe Embiid buys into Philly’s future.
The trapdoors are clear. For the Clippers, Harden flames out in the playoffs again and takes the Clippers with him. Or maybe Leoanrd and/or George find themselves again not durable enough for a playoff run and Harden doesn’t even factor into things, making the price they paid for him suddenly egregious.
For the Sixers, the fear is simple: Embiid, one way or another, isn’t satisfied and he follows Harden’s playbook to get the hell out.
It’s complicated. And none of it can be determined right now.
Weighing in on the Harden trade
A few interesting, and diverging, views from across the NBA on the Harden trade from those working across the league.
On the possibility that Morey’s move, and the lack of a star in return, came not because he buckled to Harden but because a higher power weighed in. “No one in the media ever asks or knows what conversations happened. Maybe Joel said, ‘Get James out of here.’ Maybe [Sixers owner] Josh Harris said, ‘Enough, move him.’ Those are the only two voices that matter.”
Conversely, on Morey being more focused on winning the narrative than the trade: “He wanted to get as many first-round picks in there, swaps or otherwise, so it looked good. He knew he had to move him, he just needed to be able to sell it.”
On the pressures on the Clippers given this trade: “How far now do the Clippers have to go to justify this trade? All those picks. James as a rental. Took on PJ Tucker’s contract? Finals appearance? Is the conference finals even enough?”
On the value of simply moving on from Harden: “With or without Harden you’re not as good as Boston and Milwaukee. But now you’ve unloaded a disgruntled Harden for some depth, and some assets maybe you can flip for help, but you’re still way behind Milwaukee and Boston. But at least things should be less ugly and there’s the chance they can upgrade.”
An early word on bold predictions
The start of the NBA season leads to excellent bold predictions, including from our own Brad Botkin, who forecast a possible Victor Wembanyama Defensive Player of the Year award, a Steph Curry scoring title and a surging Atlanta Hawks team.
Here are a few from NBA executives, agents and former players:
- The Thunder in the Finals. You read that right. One well-regarded talent evaluator thinks the West is softer than at first glance and the Thunder, if things line up properly, could make a run all the way to the Finals this summer. “They’re talented. They can make a leap. And outside of Denver, and it’s hard to repeat, everyone is flawed. Oklahoma City are even better than people think.”
- Mavs miss the playoffs. This is a common theme, and startling given their perfect start and Luka Doncic’s continued excellence. But you hear a lot as those in the NBA assess a very crowded Western Conference.
- Jrue Holiday the bigger haul than Damian Lillard. A couple Eastern Conference execs floated the possibility Holiday is the more important player in that deal from a few weeks ago. “Lillard is great. But Jrue is a winner, plays defense, has won a title and gives the Celtics exactly what they need. It could turn out to be a much better fit.”
- Daryl Morey is getting fired either way. Let’s close here, since Morey just moved Harden and we’ve given you ample perspective on the merits and issues with the move. This one came before the trade went down: “Look,” one rival GM said, “does Daryl know he’s getting fired either way? He’s not getting enough back. Or he’s keeping him, and that won’t work. Either way, he’s in deep trouble.”