James Harden trade: 76ers keep Ben Simmons, put off until tomorrow what they could’ve accomplished today

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” The Philadelphia 76ers did not heed Franklin’s advice, passing on the chance to trade for James Harden and the opportunity to open an immediate title window, on the off chance that a similar window will open down the road. 

Instead, Harden wound up in Brooklyn, which gave the Rockets four first-round picks, four future pick swaps, and by way of including Caris LeVert in the four-team deal, also routed Victor Oladipo to Houston. Philadelphia was deep in talks with Houston throughout Wednesday and offered a deal centered on Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and draft compensation, Shams Charania reported for Stadium. 

Word is, the Rockets wanted rookie Tyrese Maxey included in the deal, and Philly wouldn’t go that far. Perhaps there were other hangups on Philly’s end. Perhaps Daryl Morey wasn’t offering the potential of seven straight years of first-round draft equity, which is what the Nets gave Houston. Either way, whether it was Maxey or a future draft pick or swap that gave the Sixers pause, the result is a missed opportunity. 

Marc Spears of The Undefeated tweeted that Simmons was “pretty ecstatic” to learn he’ll be staying in Philly and believes the Sixers can win a title, and that Doc Rivers is also a huge fan of Simmons and “believes the best is yet to come.” That may be. The Celtics passed on potential blockbuster trades multiple times to play the long game with their young stars. Jaylen Brown, for one, has turned into a likely All-Star this season, and yet Boston’s title window is yet to fully open as other teams assemble multi-superstar acts. 

There are a lot of good vibes in Philly right now. They have a new coach. Joel Embiid is dominating. The Sixers have gotten off to an 8-4 start despite recently playing with as few as seven players due to COVID protocols. They also made most of their hay against an extremely easy schedule; record wise, the two best teams they’ve beaten so far as the Magic and the Hornets

Ask yourself: If the Sixers had started off against a tougher slate and were, say, below .500 through the first few weeks, would the urgency to upgrade have been higher? You’d hope not. No team should be basing franchise-changing decisions on a few weeks of evidence. 

Then again, there are actually years of evidence suggesting the Simmons-Embiid pairing is too flawed — or perhaps that Simmons individually is simply too flawed — to support the top end of a true championship roster. Simmons is still young. Again, the Sixers are betting on what he, and they, can still become, because when viewed through the prism of today, the simple truth is that Harden is a superior player — both in a vacuum and certainly next to Embiid. Even with the loss of Maxey and Thybulle, Harden would make the Sixers an immediate title contender in a way Simmons can’t match. 

In the fluidity of today’s NBA, the future is nothing. Who knows where the championship-deciding talent is going to congregate next, or how the power scale is going to shift. If you have a window even half open, it’s not going to rest in the song of some long, summer breeze, as though your dreamy adolescent years when you only have to imagine what you can be rather than actually go out in the world and become it are going to last forever. 

It doesn’t work like that in the NBA, where you either push that window all the way open or pull your fingers the hell out of the way as the inevitable winds of change slam it shut. The Sixers had a shot here. They really did. Maybe they still do. Everything I’ve written is a general rule, to which there are sometimes exceptions. Maybe the Sixers will be the exception. Maybe they will end up putting Simmons in a trade for Bradley Beal, which would be even better than Harden. But again, we’re talking about a big unknown. We’re talking, for now, fantasy. 

A Harden deal was reality. 

All I know is this: Outside of two nice fringe moves by new GM Daryl Morey in trading for Danny Green and Seth Curry, every move this franchise has made over the past few years has been a bust. When Simmons and Embiid were desperate for any semblance of shooting, they traded just about every shooter they ever had. 

They let J.J. Redick walk. They gave Al Horford $109 million rather than pursue Malcolm Brogdon or Bojan Bogdanovic, both of whom would’ve fit perfectly and signed for substantially less elsewhere. They traded the farm for Jimmy Butler, who then walked to Miami. They traded too much for for Tobias Harris, including yet another shooter in Landry Shamet, and then they compounded that mistake by paying Harris — his nice start to the season notwithstanding — more money than he probably deserves to make in two careers. 

It could’ve all led to a Harden-Embiid pairing with shooting all around them. The defense would have suffered, but not at the rate that the half-court offense, which ultimately defines playoff basketball, would have improved. I’m not sure how you try to defend a Doc Rivers pick-and-roll offense led by Harden with the added dimension of arguably the best low-post player in the world who is starting to figure out how to handle double teams — which, coincidentally, teams would suddenly be punished for sending as Harden, Curry, Green and Harris camp out around the 3-point line. 

What’s interesting is the Rockets might’ve messed up as well in passing up the opportunity to acquire Simmons. This, to me, was the rare trade scenario in which both teams could have struck gold. 

Now, that’s neither here nor there. The trade didn’t happen, and the good news is the Sixers’ timeline remains intact. But make no mistake, the Sixers are a worse team right now with Simmons than they could’ve been with Harden. Maxey, if that is really where Morey drew the line, does not change that one bit. The Sixers put off today what  they hope they’ll still be able to accomplish tomorrow. And as they say, tomorrow is never guaranteed. 

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