Philadelphia 76ers: James Harden slips away; tragedy sneaks closer

James Harden (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
James Harden (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers missed out on James Harden.

Because it is physically impossible for the Philadelphia 76ers to have nice things, James Harden is now a Brooklyn Net. The two-time MVP joins Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form the NBA’s most talented trio — a potpourri of offensive talents no defense can earnestly claim answers for. The Nets, barring injury or COVID problems, will win the Eastern Conference.

There are plenty of good NBA teams, but right now, Brooklyn has arguably the two most gifted scorers in NBA history. The Nets also have Irving, who despite his off-court challenges, is a game-breaking talent who can scorch just about any defender at well. The personalities don’t even need to mesh for Brooklyn to run rampant over every-freakin-body.

That leaves the Sixers, who found themselves unwilling to part with Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and an assortment of picks, lodged between a rock and Joel Embiid’s mortality. The Sixers are in the early stages of Embiid’s best NBA season — a possible MVP campaign. Not going all-out to maximize this window, and to put Embiid in a position to win, is an inexcusable failure. Philadelphia had the opportunity to pair two MVP candidates and passed.

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Every blockbuster trade entails risk. The Nets traded four first-round picks and four pick swaps, potentially losing out on eight years of high-end draft talent if things break bad. That said, they also have the clearest path to an NBA championship and the potential to run the league for the next five years.

As presently constructed, the Sixers stand no chance at winning the NBA title unless multiple teams suffer abnormal cold spells or crippling injuries. The Nets and Bucks are locked atop the East, almost in tiers of their own, while Miami and Boston make for compelling — and arguably superior — playoff teams than Philadelphia.

It is true that Embiid alone guarantees a puncher’s chance. It is true that Embiid, playing like he’s currently playing, could lead Philadelphia to a No. 1 seed and home-court advantage. It is true that Embiid could, feasibly, win MVP. That said, he simply lacks the complementary talent to will Philadelphia to postseason success. Not against the Nets’ buzzsaw, which only formed because Daryl Morey was unwilling to take the plunge on a player he knows better than anyone.

Harden’s off-court antics this summer were unflattering, and it’s clear the culture built around him Houston was not the peachiest. Even so, the Rockets were chief contenders for years because of Harden, not in spite of him. The only real challenge Kevin Durant’s Warriors ever faced in the postseason was Harden’s Rockets. Now the two former teammates are reunited again.

The Sixers are operating with a limited window of opportunity. Joel Embiid is 26 years old with a worrisome injury history and a contract that expires in 2023. That seems a long way away, but in two short years, Embiid could walk. He has reasserted his dedication to Philadelphia time and time again, but at some point, the Sixers have to deliver him not a good team, but a great team.

The current iteration of Philadelphia’s roster is a fun one. Embiid with shooters galore figures to have plenty of success, and the 7-footer’s development as a passer and decision-maker — on top of Doc Rivers’ improvements to the system — will help him dominate even more than he has in previous playoff runs. Unfortunately, there’s a real chance none of that matters. Or, more aptly put, none of it means Philadelphia is more than a middle-tier contender well short of the juggernaut Brooklyn just created.

Elton Brand and Daryl Morey’s predecessors have squandered all of Philadelphia’s prime assets. There is no longer financial flexibility or room for future growth that could justify the tepidity around a Harden trade. The Sixers cannot sign a max free agent, nor is there any real route to meaningful change outside trading Ben Simmons. If are going to trade Ben Simmons, the best time to do so is when the greatest offensive player of his generation — with two years on his contract — becomes available and demands a trade to Philadelphia.

The Sixers reportedly had a “threshold” they would not pass when negotiating the Harden deal. Simmons and pieces were on the table, but the Nets asked for Simmons, Thybulle, and a non-specific amalgamation of picks and were rebuffed. The Sixers also kept Tyrese Maxey off the board, it seems.

In theory, patience and discipline is good practice. The Sixers were steadfast in their beliefs and did not waver when the pressure mounted and the opportunity slipped by. However, the opportunity did slip by, and that opportunity was James Harden. Now the Sixers are left with Simmons, whose weaknesses have only become more glaring amid Embiid’s career-best start, and young talent that may or may not hold sway over the future.

The Sixers’ evident reluctance to trade Maxey — especially if it had a tangible impact on Houston’s final decision — is especially upsetting. Morey is too smart to get hung up over a 6-foot-2 rookie who, prior to scoring 39 points under extraordinary circumstances, was the 10th man in a rotation with playoff aspirations. Maxey is fun, but he’s undersized, erratic defensively, and a limited threat from 3-point range. He is the type of player you part with if it means bringing in James Harden.

Philadelphia now finds itself at a crossroads. Ben Simmons was very clearly on the table, and he will inevitably find his way into more trade rumors in the future. None will involve a player of Harden’s caliber. The Sixers are left with a desperate need to improve and very few avenues to do so. There is an obligation, at this point, to give Embiid a shot. For once, to not fail the franchise center who single-handedly carried them out of a combustive and daring rebuild and into national prominence.

Sure, Harden comes with risk. He is 31 years old, on a shorter contract, and has a more demanding persona than Simmons ever will. But a confluence of cowardice, Doc Rivers’ blind optimism, and the inevitable devaluation of Simmons after his slow start to the season, resulted in Harden’s trip to Brooklyn. Now the Sixers are behind the Nets in line, and may never pass them. We are dangerously close to Embiid’s prime being wasted on half-built rosters and second-round exits.

The Sixers should have given Brooklyn what it wanted. Simmons, Maxey, Thybulle, and several first-round picks is a steep price — but it’s a price you pay for a player like Harden, who can pick apart defenses, ease the load on Embiid, and help the Sixers close games.

Last season — last season! — Harden averaged 34.3 points and 7.5 assists per game while sharing the floor with Russell Westbrook, who demands the ball and sucks up space more than any other star. So far this season, giving subpar effort and fueled only by a desire to leave Houston, Harden is averaging 24.8 points and 10.4 assists. Those numbers — especially in the scoring category — will likely improve in Brooklyn, even with the star power next to him.

This is an unfortunate mistake by the Sixers, who are now stuck in no-man’s land with a good-not-great roster and very few avenues to Eastern Conference contention. In letting the Nets trade for Harden — and yes, the ball was firmly in Philadelphia’s court — the Sixers not only robbed themselves of a generational talent, but allowed Brooklyn to form a potentially unbeatable superteam in the same division.

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