The James Harden-to-Philly rumors will not subside any time soon, it seems. This, from The New York Times’ Marc Stein was the most potent update on the subject in days:
The Rockets insist (for now) they will not trade Harden. The Sixers insist (for now) they will not trade Ben Simmons— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) December 11, 2020
But sources say the familiarity between the front offices can ultimately defuse any lingering tension from Daryl Morey's departure from Houston to Philadelphia
The Sixers, publicly, continue to toe the party line. Doc Rivers recently dismissed the rumors, and for now, the team is continuing to state via various leaks in the press that Rivers and Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey are content with the roster they’ve assembled and are eager to see it in action once the season starts.
To me, if that’s true, and Ben Simmons is absolutely unavailable in any trade, but especially this one for James Harden — why the continued rumors and speculation that, eventually, this swap will be consummated. Clearly, above, Stein believes the sides will eventually meet in the middle. Last week on ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Houston insider Tim MacMahon chose Philadelphia as Harden’s ultimate landing spot if he had to bet money on an outcome.
Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe the Sixers are willing to pass up the opportunity of acquiring the perennial MVP candidate if the cost is Simmons to do so.
In my opinion, this is too much continuous, well-sourced, highly reputable smoke for there not to be a fire coming. If I had to guess, I’d say that both sides are doing a bit of posturing. The Rockets’ brass, I’m sure, doesn’t exactly love the idea of reuniting Harden with the executive who just ditched them for Philadelphia. The Sixers are not keen on trading not only Ben Simmons but a bevy of picks and young players with him in any deal. So for now, they reluctantly continue negotiations so that Simmons — and Simmons alone — is ultimately the prize to be won.
I think this deal eventually gets done. As hurt as his feelings may be, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta simply cannot justify any other Harden trade if Ben Simmons eventually becomes available. Simmons is a 24-year-old star who is about to begin the first season of his five-year maximum-level contract extension. The Sixers and Daryl Morey eventually swallow hard and realize that the opportunity to pair Joel Embiid with an offensive dynamo like Harden is too rich an opportunity to pass up.
If this comes true, a great many storylines will emerge.
Will Harden continue his maskless clubbing?
Will he and Embiid get along?
Will Harden be able to amend his game and share the ball with another star on offense?
So many narratives. An under-discussed one, to me, is: Who on the Sixers will now defend the East's high-wattage wings?
For all his offensive singularity and peculiarity, Ben Simmons vaulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation last season, showing a motor and switchy-ness that is as rare as it is valuable in today’s game. The East is chock full of high-level scorers, and Simmons was tasked every night with trying to tame each of them. From Jayson Tatum to Jimmy Butler to Pascal Siakam to Kemba Walker to Khris Middleton to Giannis Antetokounmpo — Simmons spent time guarding them all, as ably as anyone in the league. This season will also beset the Sixers with the task of taming Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Even the worse, fringe-playoff teams have big-time scorers who can light up a listless defense: Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook in Washington, Trae Young in Atlanta, even Zach LaVine in Chicago.
Without Simmons, who on the Sixers will be entrusted with taking on those assignments?
With due respect to newcomer Danny Green — a really good team defender who will help the Sixers regardless — this job will in all likelihood fall to second-year wing Matisse Thybulle.
The Sixers’ first-round pick from last season, Thybulle quickly became a fan favorite with highlight-reel steals and blocks that showed his college career’s defensive dynamism could absolutely translate to the league. A ballhawk from all over the court, Thybulle was a turnover-generating machine. He wasn’t perfect, however. Just as the consistency of his jump shot would come and go, so would his defensive awareness. At times last season, Thybulle would concern himself too much with gambling for a big play, rather than sticking on his man. Former Sixers coach Brett Brown described Thybulle’s ability as both a gift and a curse; the same mentality and ingenuity that makes him valuable can also make him vulnerable to spells of inconsistency.
If the big trade happens and Thybulle is entrusted with the matchups bequeathed by Simmons, he’ll need to learn quickly how to pick and choose his spots and rein in his fervent pace when the situation calls for it. Where his current skills equip the Sixers with a useful luxury in their ability to deploy the guard off the bench, subtracting Simmons and adding Harden would likely make Thybulle worlds more valuable as the main wing defender on a team with championship aspirations. He has all the talent to be up to the task if called upon. We won’t know for sure, though, until we see it.
Throughout this abridged training camp, it seems that Matisse Thybulle has floated under the radar, for the most part, instead ceding the majority of the headlines to Simmons, Embiid, or the new guys. But make no mistake, if the Sixers trade Simmons for Harden, Thybulle would become an incredibly crucial part of this team’s success or failure.