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James Harden-Ben Simmons trade grades: 76ers increase title hopes now, Nets’ outlook gets much brighter

The Brooklyn Nets are trading James Harden and Paul Millsap to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Harden, as part of the deal, will opt into his $47.3 million player option next season, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. The deal was officially announced on Thursday night with Nets GM Sean Marks offering the following comments on the trade. 

“We are thrilled to welcome Ben, Seth, Andre and their families to Brooklyn,” Nets General Manager Sean Marks said. “Ben is an All-NBA and All-Defensive player with elite playmaking abilities, while Seth has proven to consistently be one of the league’s best 3-point shooters and Andre has been one of the league’s top rebounders for the last decade. Together, the three will enhance our core by providing versatility and depth on both ends of the floor while better balancing our roster.

“The decision to trade James was a difficult one, however after recent discussions with him and his representatives we felt that this move would be best for all involved, as it better positions us to achieve our goals this season and in the years ahead. We appreciate everything that James has done for our organization both on and off the court and wish him, Paul and DeAndre’ the best moving forward.”

Philadelphia’s interest in Harden extends back to last season, when his former general manager, Daryl Morey, attempted to acquire him from their former employer, the Houston Rockets. He failed then, but finally managed to land his man the second time around. 

Harden reportedly preferred the Nets to the 76ers when he requested a trade in 2021, but his experience in Brooklyn was rocky from the start. This season, Brooklyn has struggled with Irving joining the team only as a part-time player and Durant and Joe Harris also missing time due to injury. With Harden — who missed Brooklyn’s last three games, was set to sit again Thursday night with hamstring tightness and reportedly wanted a trade to Philadelphia specifically — eligible for free agency in the offseason and reportedly frustrated with Irving’s part-time status, the Nets moved quickly to secure as much value as they possibly could given the unfortunate circumstances.

Injuries limited the trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to just nine regular-season games together last season. The Nets made it past the Boston Celtics in the first round, but Harden suffered a hamstring injury early in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks.  

Philadelphia has spent the entire season navigating a similarly tricky minefield. Simmons has not played for the team all season and made it clear after nearly being traded for Harden a year ago and getting criticized following Philadelphia’s postseason loss by both Joel Embiid and Doc Rivers that he wanted to be moved. The 76ers held firm despite multiple underwhelming offers. Morey made it clear that he wanted a top 30-40 player in exchange for Simmons. Now he’s found one, and the Nets have found a much younger replacement for the one they just gave up.

In Simmons, the Nets have acquired the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up for a team with needs on the defensive end. While his inability to make jump shots will no doubt cut into the upside of an offense once considered among the greatest in history, the presence of Irving and Durant should make his life far easier on that end of the floor. Adding Curry is a major boon as well. The Nets could put one of the greatest quartets of shooters in NBA history around Simmons in Durant, Irving, Curry and Joe Harris when they are fully healthy. Simmons’ playmaking will not only help maximize those shooters, but will also be a welcome addition in general to a Nets team that had reportedly begun to question Harden’s isolation-heavy playing style.

Philadelphia is far more comfortable adding such a high-usage guard because, unlike Brooklyn, it lacks on-ball scoring. Philadelphia lost in the second round to the Atlanta Hawks last season in large part because of an inability to score late in games. Simmons notably passed up a wide-open dunk at the end of Game 7 of that series, which ultimately played a part in costing Philadelphia the game. 

Morey helped Harden develop that playing style when the two were building a contender in Houston. In theory, he should fit more cleanly with Embiid than Simmons did considering his stellar shooting, but the two will need to adjust to one another on the fly. Embiid is, in some ways, the big-man version of Harden. He is primarily a post-up player, not someone who rolls to the rim as frequently as most of the big men who play with Harden. That is going to take adjusting on both of their parts, and Philadelphia’s defense is going to take a hit with Harden in the lineup.

That is a sacrifice the 76ers are willing to make. They’ve finally landed the All-Star guard they’ve long craved in exchange for Simmons. It was a long and arduous road, but the 76ers emerge from the other side as legitimate championship contenders. 

The Nets are still in that inner circle as well, but they’ve diversified their skill sets and asset portfolios meaningfully. The Nets are no longer tied to three overwhelming individual scorers. They still have two, though one’s playing status is still a question mark. In exchange for the third, they’ve landed a top defender and playmaker, one of the NBA’s best shooters, a starting-caliber center in Drummond and two first-round picks they can use to further enhance this suddenly deep roster. Only time will tell who wins this trade, but for the time being, both seemingly got what they were looking for. Here’s how they graded in the deal. 

Brooklyn receives:

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Nets trade grade: B+

There is one fairly substantial negative to this deal for the Nets. Brooklyn’s championship odds, this season, have fallen considerably. As long as Kyrie Irving is a part-time player, having James Harden around as shot-creator insurance was absolutely critical to winning the title here and now. Simmons can pick up some of that slack, but he tends to create shots for others more than for himself. The burden of generating late-game offense is now almost entirely on Kevin Durant. That doesn’t mean the Nets are out of the title picture. We saw what Durant could do on his own in the Bucks series last season. But given the struggles that are likely to come with integrating Simmons, surviving without Joe Harris and rotating Irving in and out of the lineup, the Nets have probably relinquished their status as 2022 championship favorites. 

But, dear lord, their 2022-23 team stands to be among the best on-paper rosters in NBA history. Assume for the moment that everybody is healthy and available. The key to maximizing Simmons is to put as much shooting around him as humanly possible. Well … the Nets now have five players on their roster who have made at least 38 percent of their 3-pointers on high volume for their career. If they were to build a lineup based solely on 3-point percentage around Simmons, Kevin Durant wouldn’t even be on the floor. His 38.3 percent mark from behind the arc trails Irving (39.1), Patty Mills (39.2), Curry (43.7) and Harris (43.9). The Nets built their original star trio of Harden, Irving and Durant around the idea that having the greatest offense in NBA history would give them enough of a cushion to survive with a below-average defense. Well, with Simmons serving as an extra playmaker and transition engine alongside all of that shooting, they might still be able to muster one of the greatest offenses in NBA history. They’re just pairing it with a significantly better defense. There are a number of “ifs” here relating to health and availability, but the Nets should enter next season as fairly strong championship favorites.

And that’s not even where the benefits end. The Nets traded seven years worth of control over their first-round picks to Houston to land Harden in the first place. That left them with very little to deal elsewhere. They managed to pick up two Philadelphia first-rounders here, though, and with their own 2028 pick eligible to be dealt as well, the Nets now have a total of three tradable first-round picks to dangle for further upgrades. If Brooklyn wants to find a traditional center option or more perimeter defense, it has the assets to do that.

But perhaps most importantly, it avoided giving Harden the five-year extension he is eligible for. Based on his already enormous $44 million salary, he could have earned up to $270 million over the next five seasons on such a deal. Harden is already 32 and declining. He has never been particularly vigilant about conditioning, struggled defensively in his prime and has dealt with hamstring issues all year. There is a chance the contract Harden’s about to get from Philadelphia is going to be one of the worst in NBA history. Brooklyn was going to be the team to give him that contract. Instead, it traded for the right to pay a 25-year-old Simmons something like $110 million over the next three seasons. Which sounds more appealing?

If Brooklyn’s goal was just to win the 2022 championship, it should have kept Harden. The Nets lowered their odds of doing so with this trade, but in the process given themselves years of runway for future contention. There are still questions to be answered with this roster, but the Nets have among the brightest short- and long-term outlooks in basketball moving forward so long as Durant can stay healthy and Irving is willing and able to be a full-time player.

Philadelphia receives:

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76ers trade grade: B

Philadelphia’s rationale for making this trade is the opposite of Brooklyn’s. This is a long-term move for the Nets. It is a right now trade for the 76ers. Philadelphia is currently only 2.5 games out of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference without having gotten anything from the Simmons salary slot. Inserting Harden, the best shot creator Joel Embiid has ever played with by far, should only vault the Sixers higher. Never again will Philadelphia wither away late in playoff games because of Simmons’ inability to shoot, but perhaps just as importantly, they won’t struggle down the stretch due to Harden’s exhaustion like his previous teams either. Keeping Tyrese Maxey ensures that Harden won’t have to play point guard on every possession. The quartet of Harden, Maxey, Tobias Harris and Embiid should be so good offensively that Philadelphia can get away with keeping Matisse Thybulle, an offensive zero, on the floor for defense.

But that doesn’t exactly guarantee a championship for Philadelphia. The Embiid-Harden fit is going to be clunky at first. Harden almost has to be used in a switch-scheme defensively to cover up his deficiencies on the perimeter. Embiid is maybe the best drop-coverage defender in the NBA. Harden’s ideal pick-and-roll partner is a lob threat. Embiid isn’t really a roller. He prefers to pop out behind the arc or get the ball around the nail and go to work from there. There’s no reason to believe that either Harden or Embiid would actively hinder one another. They’re both excellent shooters, so if nothing else, they can get out of each other’s way. But they might not enhance one another in the way that, say, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have. At a bare minimum, Doc Rivers should stagger their minutes as aggressively as possible. This is something he’s tried not to do in the past with Simmons and Embiid, but Harden is such a unique shot creator that he can lift an offense on his own for short stretches in ways that Simmons couldn’t. 

These are all short-term concerns, but ultimately, the 76ers would probably feel relatively confident going into the playoffs against almost any opponent. They have a very good chance of winning the championship right now, and if they do, this trade is a smashing success. If they don’t? Yea, things have a chance to get ugly.

The 76ers are now fully locked out of trading first-round picks by the Stepien Rule once you factor in the pick they previously owed Oklahoma City. They are probably going to be limited to the taxpayer mid-level exception for meaningful offseason additions. Maxey and Thybulle are still a few years away from their market-value extensions, but those deals will likely knock Harris off the roster from a purely financial perspective. Short of trading Maxey or Thybulle, this is their team now. And then there’s the Harden extension itself.

For now, he has only opted into next season at $47.3 million. If Philadelphia wins the championship or comes close, he’s going to get close to that $270 million figure over the next five seasons. The 76ers might have to give it to him anyway. They have no way of replacing him. That deal is going to be ugly. It might be in a year or it might take three years, but there is little evidence to suggest that Harden will age as well as someone like James or former teammate Chris Paul. He is going to wind up being overpaid significantly by the end of that contract. 

If it wins you a championship right away? That’s a price you eagerly pay. Banners fly forever. But if it doesn’t, the 76ers are basically banking on Maxey becoming a sidekick-caliber player for Embiid (or netting one in a future trade) if they plan to contend beyond the next couple of years. It’s a high-risk maneuver, but the reward could be well worth it.