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Ben Simmons for James Harden: Further Thoughts, Analysis, and Responses

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

My recent piece arguing for a Simmons-for-Harden trade led to a robust and fascinating discussion in comments (and among my friends and loved ones). I thought I’d put finger to keyboard to think through those comments and questions.

Q: Oh Lord, really? Another article about James Harden, who does not play for the Sixers and likely never will?

A: Yes, that’s what it was, and yes, that’s what this one is too! James Harden was by far the best player in basketball last regular season, and there is a very real chance the Sixers could obtain him. On what planet is that not the biggest story in Sixerland?! If you don’t want to read about this subject, just don’t read this piece. If you want to read about it but not comment on it, don’t write a comment! If you do want to write a comment, great, maybe I’ll get another piece out of your comment!!

Joking aside, please let me explain again how LB works. If I write a piece, Kevin looks to see if it’s good, and if it is, he edits it and posts it. That’s it! In no way, shape or form is it the case that if I didn’t write this piece you’d get a different piece from me, or from Dave Early or Sean Kennedy or any of the other terrific writers here. believe me, if I thought me writing this would cost us a piece on Tyrese Maxey by Tom West, I wouldn’t write it, I want to read Tom’s latest thoughts on Maxey just as much as you all do! But that isn’t the setup, Tom and Dave and Sean and everyone else write what they want, when they want, and they don’t let anything I write slow them down! So, if you want to post a comment complaining that there’s too much Harden content, feel free, I can take the heat, but honestly it’s silly, like complaining that the server at the restaurant (remember the good old days when we went to restaurants) brought you water even though you weren’t thirsty. Just don’t drink the water if you don’t want to!

Q: BL, your articles are so long, can you please tell me your argument fast enough that I can read it while I stand on one foot, Rabbi Hillel style?

First, about the long articles: I honestly don’t get it! If you go talk Sixers with your buddies at a bar, how long would that conversation cover a possible Simmons-for-Harden trade before you felt bored and desirous of changing the subject? Surely 15 minutes, right? I mean, maybe 3 hours, but certainly 15 minutes wouldn’t be an excessively long time for such a topic, would it? Well, my last piece was 3,800 words, at 250 words a minute, which is probably around an average reading speed, that’s 15 minutes. It just doesn’t seem like an excessive investment to me! Hell, I spent 6 hours writing it, and I was never bored!

Second, sure! Here’s my point! the Sixers have only a very slim chance at a title with the current team, and an excellent chance at a title with a Simmons for Harden trade. All the rest is commentary.

Q: Very Slim chance at a title? But isn’t this roster a successful rebuild of the Ben-Joel-Cov-Dario-JJ team that played so well late in the 2017-18 season?

A: Yes. Well, except for the part where that team had Robert Covington, the top adjusted plus-minus player in the entire NBA that year, and this team doesn’t, but that’s a pretty big “except”! And also, that team was gentleman’s-swept in the second round. I’m still not over it! This team would have the same fatal flaw as that one, a lack of a “closer” type who can get his own shot when defenses clamp down. In the regular season this is a problem for closing games, hence the “closer” moniker. In the playoffs, defenses are tight all game long, so closers are not just for closing. A better version of the 2018 playoff team would be something, but far from ideal. What we want is a better version of the 2019 playoff team that was a case of gastroenteritis away from defeating the Toronto superteam. Harden is a big upgrade on Butler, a 5 points per 48 upgrade if you believe RAPTOR. Going from Simmons to Danny Green is a huge long-run cost but based on the best on-off metrics we have costs us nothing in terms of their play right now. Joel is Joel, Toby is Toby, and Seth plays the JJ role at a similar level of ability. Let’s say RAPTOR is wrong and Ben 2019 is 1-2 points better than Danny 2021, that seems plausible to me. Further let’s say that Playoff James is only 2-3 points better than Playoff Jimmy; Jimmy’s weakness as a 3-point shooter surely justifies a meaningful gap given the centrality of the triple these days. That leaves us a point or so better than the Sixer team that almost beat the champs, a more-than-full recovery from the failed 2019 offseason. And if RAPTOR is right, then we have a superteam of our own with Joel, Harden, and Green forming a killer Big Three, well supported by Toby, Seth, Matisse, maybe PJ Tucker if we can get him in the deal, plus if training camp is any guide, perhaps Shake or even Maxey as key contributors.

Q: Wait, go back, what was that stuff about Harden being the best?! What about LeBron, Giannis, AD...?

Harden’s RAPTOR rating from 538 was a full 3 points higher than #2 LeBron. That is to say, Harden was enough better than LBJ last season that Harden and a scrub were as good as LeBron and Ben Simmons! Of course this is not to say that Harden is better at basketball than LeBron. LeBron knows not to give his all until the chips are down. But we can only measure what we can measure, and last year it seems pretty clear that Harden played better during the regular season than anyone.

Q: According to RAPTOR, sure, but RAPTOR is garbage because it says [insert player you think is not that good] is better than [insert overrated player].

All the works of man are flawed, and RAPTOR is no exception. If RAPTOR says Player A is better than B and you think that’s crazy, then most likely one of the following is true:

  • You’re looking at per-minute figures and the guy you like contributed more because he plays a lot more, but RAPTOR is correctly recognizing that the other guy was very effective per minute during his limited playing time; or
  • You are correctly recognizing that your guy is better if dropped onto a random team, but the other guy is a better fit in his situation so had an awesome year of legitimately superior contribution; or
  • You are overrating your guy because he was a high draft pick or scores a lot, or used to be good but isn’t anymore; or
  • RAPTOR is wrong and you are right; as with all stats there is randomness in who gets strong adjusted +/-; there was a year when by dumb luck, for half the season whenever Kawhi was on the floor, opponents not guarded by Kawhi hit a staggering percentage of threes, making Kawhi look defensively ordinary by adjusted +/-; it mostly, but not fully, corrected by the end of the year.

Most adjusted +/- anomalies are fixed if we simply average a couple of years to wash out noise. It does feel as though there’s an oddity where centers on teams with superstar wings, as with recent Warrior and Laker teams, are consistently overrated but I can’t say for sure.

Is it plausible that the spectacular adjusted +/- ratings of players like LeBron, Harden, CP3, and Curry are due to luck or a flaw in the system? I think not. These are unbelievable players doing extraordinary things to help their teams win. If you think RAPTOR overrates the beard, go ahead and make the case. Maybe JH doesn’t score enough for your taste? Oh, wait, he was completely dominant as a scorer, recently joining a tiny list of players who got 35 a game for a season. He doesn’t get enough assists? 7.5 per game looks pretty great to me, not many elite scorers have done better. He often pushes up toward double-digit rebounds as well. Oh and he’s among the top guards in the league in steals, at 1.8, and blocks, at 0.9. What exactly is it that he’s not supposed to be good at? Efficiency? I saw someone say he gets 30 points on 30 shots. Hardly. More like 35 points on a mere 22 shots. Of course he also goes to the line a lot, but that means the other team is often rapidly in the penalty, something the adjusted +/- stats don’t give him credit for. He was just absolutely devastating last year, and really in all the recent years, an incredible player.

Is it possible RPM and Raptor and all have been underrating Ben Simmons for years? It’s possible, but ask yourself if that’s what you thought when other teams’ fan faves fell short on these measures. DeMar DeRozan has long been a whipping boy of adjusted plus-minus whom the fans loved, but don’t we all now accept the on-off was right and the eye test wrong? Years ago I wrote that Robert Covington was a top-30 player, and people acted as though I was nuts, because how could I rank him ahead of DeRozan. But guess what, last year Cov was once again top 30 in adjusted +/- (this time according to RAPTOR since it has replaced RPM as my preferred analytical tool),, and DeRozan didn’t make the top 80, and everyone knows Cov is terrific. Doesn’t everyone now recognize that Kyle Lowry has been as good as Kyrie over the last five years, and probably better, not far worse as people told me over and over during that period until recently? Don’t we all now recognize that Avery Bradley was never a special player? I feel like we do, maybe not all but surely most of us. I think we need to similarly accept that Ben Simmons has not been a top 15 player, not even top 30 yet, though he’s close to that and may get there this season.

Q: But Harden has never won a title, hasn’t made a Finals in years!

A: Let me ask you this: if it had been Harden who had AD (#3 in the NBA in RAPTOR) on his team rather than LeBron, what team do you think would have won the title last year? You think LeBron has some magic heart-of-a-champion dust that would have taken him over the top? Please! Winning titles is about being great, and also about having the right teammates, and about being in the right conference, and about injury luck, and other things besides. All those years stuck in the conference with the Warrior superteam, and then CP3 gets hurt just as they’re finally going to get over the hump. It’s rough. But even the great Michael Jordan didn’t win a title until age 28, maybe 31 will be the lucky year for Harden.

Q: But hasn’t Harden been terrible in the playoffs?

A: Of course not. he’s been phenomenal; consistently around 30 a game in recent years. You can look up the stats on Basketball Reference and see for yourself. Of course the numbers are less good than what he delivers in the regular season, virtually everyone’s are, since they’re facing stiffer competition. If someone is better in the playoffs consistently — Rondo? — I’d say it means they are not trying hard in the regular season, which is hardly a compliment!

Q: But Harden has come up small in some key elimination games.

A: Just because I think Simmons-for-Harden is worth it does not mean there are not some compelling counterarguments. This is one of the decent ones. Of course Ben Simmons has some ugly playoff history of his own. But Ben is still young, Harden delivered a couple of stinkers during his prime, and that deserves to be considered. It’s my nature to think stuff like that is mostly luck (including minor-injury luck), and that is indeed what I think, just like I think it was luck that Robert Covington had that awful series against Boston a few years back; indeed he and Ben were both so bad that Brett started TJ at point guard! But your mileage may vary, and if you think those games are powerful evidence that Harden is a choker, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue until we see more evidence — I grant that it’s a risk we didn’t have to worry as much about when pursuing Kawhi. If I think it’s 10% likely Harden has a mental issue about the biggest games, and you think it’s 40% or 65% likely, that’s an important disagreement, affecting our opinion of his value, and one that’s hard to resolve with data.

Q: I just saw a photo of Harden and, to quote a friend of mine, he looked like he ate Santa Claus. How is this fatso going to help us?

A: I can’t see the pic and my guess is there’s a combination of entertaining hyperbole, being shot at an unflattering angle, maybe even Photoshopping, etc. at play. It’s also claimed that JH always comes to camp heavy and plays his way into shape. And of course it could be that letting himself go a bit is part of his strategy for forcing a trade. Suffice to say I am not overly worried about this, but if you tell me you are, I won’t say you’re crazy given that I don’t actually know what he looks like now!

Q: How about the fact that James Harden sucks at defense?

A: This is one of those bizarre situations where there is a widespread belief that appears to be the precise opposite of the truth. Honestly, I don’t get it. Harden’s defensive RAPTOR is +2, one of the very best figures for any non-big in the Association. As I mentioned he is a steals superstar and also a blocks superstar and also a phenomenal defensive rebounder for a guard. Can anyone name another guard in NBA history who got tons of steals and tons of blocks and tons of boards and who people think was bad at defense? I can’t! And as I say, the advanced stats make it clear he’s not just not bad, he’s excellent! Oh, and the Rockets have been strong defensively as a team in recent years! What am I missing?

It has to be the eye test, right? Being blind, I can’t see the dude play, and a friend of mine, a talented PG in his youth, says, Harden doesn’t appear to try very hard on D, doesn’t always run back, let’s guys blow by him. I have several responses:

a) We should not confuse effort with effectiveness; people used to think Avery Bradley was superb at defense because he is very active out there, but that doesn’t mean he’s helping much. Maybe Harden is positioned well so doesn’t have to run around as much. Or maybe he’s just such a ridiculously superior athlete, even compared to his astonishing NBA brethren, that he does it while making it look easy. Is that so implausible? Haven’t we all known guys in our lives who dominated a sport while not even appearing to push themselves? People used to say this about the running back Eric Dickerson, that he made everything look so easy people didn’t appreciate how good he was; only when you looked at the stats was it apparent.

b) Harden carried the scoring load for Houston, is it really fair to expect him to give max effort on D? Or say it this way: would you want him to give max effort on D? Charles Barkley used to say, “look, you can tell me to work like crazy on D, but then don’t also expect me to have huge reserves of energy to dominate at crunch time.” And here we have this Sixer team that has lacked a “closer” for years, and now you’re telling me that a top-5 closer in the league, perhaps the single best, should be burning more energy at the defensive end? Are you certain?!

c) If JH is able to be a +2 defender while not trying hard, that means he can be even better in the playoffs when he puts in the work. A buddy calls this the “Garnett-Rondo spread.” That is, in the regular season Garnett was x units better than Rondo because he gave 100% every minute while Rondo did not. But in the playoffs the gap between them might have been far smaller, as Rondo took it to a higher level while Garnett was already at max.

Anyway, if someone in comments wants to make the strongest possible case that harden is a less-than-excellent defensive player, without simply ignoring all the data, I am eager to read that analysis.

Q: Harden is boring and unpleasant to watch, all those free throws, kicking the leg out on 3s to get the call, all that iso....

A: Technically, that’s not a question! But I’ll allow it. Again, I can’t dismiss this one. Basketball is entertainment, it’s for fun, and if you won’t have fun watching Harden, I don’t blame you for not wanting Philly to trade for him. I myself cannot see the games, but even on radio all those free throws are dull. On the other hand IIRC the #2 in the league in FTA/36 is our own Joel Embiid, and I don’t recall a lot of complaining about it! Indeed not going to the line enough is the second-most-prevalent complaint against Ben Simmons! My guess is that if we get Harden, we’ll learn to love his game, just as Celtics fans love watching Marcus Smart get away with pushing people around. But de gustibus and all that.... I personally will enjoy seeing James and Joel put teams in the penalty three minutes into the quarter.

Q: Why would we trade a superstar like Ben?

A: What can I tell you? I love Ben, but, objectively, he’s just not that good at this point. I know he’s made some All-Star and All-NBA teams, and that pleases me as a fan. He is a “star” in the sense that people pay attention to him, he gets headlines, he dates Kardashians. He was the #1 pick, he hangs with LeBron. But in terms of helping his teams win basketball games in the regular season, he is very good but far short of great. And in terms of helping his teams win in the playoffs, when transition has less value and defenses are intense and disciplined, he’s somewhat less good than in the regular season. RAPTOR says it takes 4 players as good as Ben to have the impact of a James Harden. My guess is that’s somewhere between “modest overstatement” and “about right.” I’ll accept 3x but if you try to tell me it’s only 2x, bring some evidence. Because it’s been years now and Ben’s teams are consistently a couple points better per 48 when he’s on the floor, not 4 or 5. If his teams were 4 or 5 better per 48, then wouldn’t a team with him and Joel and other good players beat their opponents by more than the 3-5 points/game we have outscored them by in recent years? At some point if he’s adding All-Star value, it needs to show up in the final score.

Oh, quick aside on that 4x — note that what that means is, Harden and 4 +0 players make up about as good a team as four Bens and a +0 player. But the former team costs far, far less! +2 players can cost close to the max, look at Gordon Hayward’s new deal. So getting all that value in one $40M package is an extraordinary bargain. Indeed arguably it’s the only way to build a title contender. If you want a +15 (per 36) starting lineup, you can try to do it with five +3 guys, but first, you can’t get 5 of them, there are only a couple dozen +3/36 players in the whole league. And second, unless you pull miracles of drafting and coaching, you won’t be able to afford them, since +3 guys generally make over $30M/year. Much cheaper to get a $40M +8 guy like the Beard, add a $30M Joel, then even if the other guys arre only slightly above 0 you’re at +15 while staying within the salary rules. Really, this point cannot be stated strongly enough: the individual-player salary max means that the single most important thing in winning a title is getting the most ridiculously good players, because they bring so much value per dollar. At +10 for $40M Harden costs one third as much as a $30M “normal” All-Star. The only player type that is similar in value is a player who gets to the superstar level on a rookie deal, e.g. Luka or Tatum last season. Maybe Maxey will be that good, but short of that, our best hope for a title is to add a top-5 player like Harden.

Q: Isn’t Ben’s less-than-stellar contribution just because Brett Brown was terrible? Fire Brett Brown! Or maybe it was Colangelo, or Elton, or... someone!

A: Perhaps! But I’m just saying, Ben has missed a lot of games over the years, creating an opportunity for us, and for the on-off stats, to get a handle on whether the team is in fact far better when he plays than when he doesn’t. And what seems to be the case is, he helps, but he helps the way Danny Green helps, not the way Jimmy Butler helps. He’s a very good player, but not an excellent player.

But I don’t deny I’m looking forward to seeing Ben under a new coach, seeing if with more spacing and a different kind of pep talk he can take it to another level. If he becomes a true top-10 player, a Butler-level player, I will feel silly for these articles, and that could happen.

Q: Right: maybe Ben isn’t that great now, but won’t he develop into a superstar in his prime, especially with the help of Doc and Sam?

A: He might! Look, he’s 24, with several years under his belt, his Dad was a pro player, he probably had a basketball in his crib,he’s not a raw talent. At the same time, players peak around 27, so it’s possible he can be a lot better than he’s been. Every time he makes a free throw I think “this is it! he’s figured it out!” And maybe he has, or he will.

But if you think Ben is going to be a +6 player, a player at the level of Butler or Giannis, then my question is, do you think he’s going to switch to shooting right-handed? Or that he’s going to become a decent shooter with his off hand? Or do you think he’s going to play center? Or do you think he’ll be that good as a non-shooting non-center? I believe that list of possibilities is both exclusive and exhaustive!

My view is, I don’t think Doc can get him to switch hands. I don’t think he can be a competent NBA shooter without switching (though perhaps he can get up over 70% from the line). I don’t think he will play center here, at least not much, because Joel is here. And I don’t think he can be +6 or better as a non-shooting non-center. I’m hoping for +4,. But I admit that we have four ways to do better, to achieve that top-10 +6 level, and maybe if we add up the probabilities it gets to something over 50%. I just suspect not.

Q: Don’t we still have a huge problem closing games even after this trade?

A: Hah! Sorry, I put that one in myself! I’ve spent the past three years arguing that while a closer-type is important, it’s not the end-all and be-all others made it out to be. But after reading, I am not exaggerating, many thousands of posts decrying our lack of a closer, now we have a real chance to get a player who can make a case as the player with the best closer skills in all of NBA history, and folks don’t want to do the deal! OK, fine, you do you, but when Ben runs into a Celtic wall in this year’s playoffs and won’t shoot over it, remember, you made the choice!

Q: Won’t Joel hate playing with a ballhog like Harden?

A: Honestly, I don’t know! If I were Joel, I’d be extremely excited to get James Harden on my team. First, because it meant I had a real chance for a title, and titles are my only way to be thought of as the best player in basketball, to be a legend someday. That’s just how the NBA works. Second because with Harden around, I will get so many easy buckets. How are they going to double-team him and me both? No how, that’s how! Harden gets tons of assists, and a lot of them will be to me. Sorry, I’m getting carried away with the fantasy where I get to be Joel Embiid!

In reality, I am not Joel and I don’t know what he wants. It seems to me he can play 12 minutes a night without Harden if he likes, along with 20 together, and get to enjoy the best of both worlds. And Harden just does not take that many points away from his teammates, even playing the way he has the past couple years when he’s scored 35/game. Think of it this way: he scores around 17 points more than Ben, and his team scores about 8 extra points due to his skill compared to an offensive player of Ben’s ability. That means his teammates score 9 fewer points. Joel plays say 32 of the 204 non-Harden minutes, about 15%. Since Joel is a fine scorer he loses more than 15% of those 9 points, say 1.5x or 22.5%. That suggests Joel will get 2 fewer points, one fewer bucket per game. Maybe that’s a huge deal to Joel, maybe not. Let’s hope not! Especially since Joel will be getting extra rebounds, have a higher shooting percentage and more assists, and enjoy all the other benefits of playing on a team that scores 8 extra points per night. Including, you know, winning!

Q: Isn’t Harden a jerk who will ruin our chemistry?

This is the best argument against the deal, in my humble opinion. Again, I admit I don’t know what’s going to happen. People said not to trade for Kawhi because he was being a huge pain. So Toronto got him and they won the title. People said not to sign LeBron because he’s a prima donna who would insist on GMing the team. So he went to LA, ran the kids out of town so he could play with his pals AD and Rondo and KCP, and now they are champions once more. Now, Kawhi doesn’t win every year, and neither, one supposes, will LeBron. is it time for James Harden to obnoxious his way to a championship team? Maybe! Could that be in Philly? I don’t see why not! But I can’t deny that we took the risk with Jimmy Butler, called by some cruel people “Jimmy the Jerk,” and while we had a hell of a ride, we didn’t end up with a parade.

So I certainly can’t deny it’s a risk, just as Kawhi was a risk, just as LeBron would have been a risk. Reports out of Houston contain the usual array of frustrations. He skips practice, flies to other cities to party, demands the team try to compete every year. As is usual with these things, he’s not always wrong — his push to fire coach Kevin McHale in favor of Mike D’Antoni was probably a wise move for the team, and the trade for Chris Paul was terrific. But of course the Westbrook deal was a disaster, and it absolutely is dangerous to pay a high price for a player who has proved he’s willing to demand a trade if he doesn’t get what he wants.

On the other hand, how can we possibly obtain a player at this level if he isn’t demanding a trade?! That’s how we got Butler, that’s how Toronto got Kawhi, that’s how Boston got Kyrie. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But the alternative is to try to win without adding a top-10 player. And that has its own risks.

In particular, if the current team isn’t good enough to get out of the second round, how long will it be before Ben, who has Hollywood dreams, or Joel, who knows his prime clock is ticking, decides to demand a trade? Both of them have demonstrated some prickliness to their personalities, and it’s not as though they’re the best of friends, if reports are to be believed. Can you imagine how the national media, the LA media, will behave if Simmons starts acting out? They’ll say that a non-shooter like him, on a team that doesn’t please him, is worth next to nothing in the trade market! I mean, if royal-pain MVPs like Harden are worth Tobias plus late firsts, how little would PITA Ben Simmons be worth? They’re going to demand we trade him to the Lakers for Kyle Kuzma and a protected second!

And let’s add this: no one knows the challenges and costs of James Harden’s personality better than Daryl Morey, and by all accounts Daryl is trying hard to obtain him. That counts for a lot in my book.

Q: Why not just trade Tobias Harris, plus young players and picks, for Harden so we can keep Simmons?

A: That would be great; I have no doubt that Daryl Morey is trying to do just that! But anyone who thinks Tobias is so overpaid that he constitutes a negative asset should ask themselves whether they, in Houston’s shoes, would give up James Freaking Harden for a negative asset. No? I didn’t think so! So probably Houston, which after all is run by a Daryl Morey disciple rather than by a know-nothing moron, won’t do so either. If they are willing to do a deal of that type, a deal for an overpaid solid starter plus picks and young, unproven players, then you have to ask yourself whether the Sixer package will be the best available. It seems to me that a lot of teams can offer more than we could if we refuse to trade Ben. Miami is short of picks, but they have players they can trade for picks which can then be flipped. Between someone like Dragic for cap-matching and veteran-solidity plus Herro, Bam, Nunn, Robinson, they could put quite a package together. As can Denver. I don’t like the New Jersey packages as much , but just because I don’t doesn’t mean Houston won’t!

Basically, I think Houston is smart enough to realize that it’s a lot better to get a young stud like Ben Simmons than a package of mediocrity. And so they are turning down the cruddy offers from others, and from the Sixers as well. If a time comes when they realize there’s no chance of a Simmons deal, they’ll push for the best of the alternatives, and the odds are that won’t be ours. But we can hope!

Q: Then shouldn’t we just wait and see if the price for Harden drops?

A: To an extent, sure, you don’t win a negotiation by desperately pushing for a deal. But waiting is risky on several dimensions. First, if Ben doesn’t show any growth, that may scare Houston off. Second, the Harden-Wall-Boogie-Wood-Tucker group could play super-well, causing Harden to decide he’s OK staying in Houston after all. Third, one of the other teams could come up with a compelling package that Houston decides to grab. Now that Giannis has signed in MIL, Miami’s calculus may have changed; instead of saving cap space for the Freak, they may be ready to make a big offer. Or what about the Bucks themselves, a package centered around Middleton could be tempting, as he is a fine player. Because they traded all their picks for Jrue, the packages they can offer are limited, but they have young talent to add to Middleton such as DiVincenzo. Waiting is far from riskless. As I said in the original post, perhaps Daryl can tell the Rockets to call him last, but this is not always easy in practice, counterparties expect good-faith negotiations.

Q: Rumor has it Houston is asking for Ben plus 3 firsts; that’s far, far too much! So obviously no deal is going to happen, consequently isn’t this entire discussion a waste of time?

A: Quite the reverse! I think the Sixers should happily trade Simmons for Harden straight up. Including three firsts that in expectation would be very late in the round is too much, but if that’s the bid-ask spread, well, it’s just not that incredibly wide. Put it this way: the halfway point between what I imagine Daryl would be glad to do and what rumor says Houston would be glad to do is Simmons plus 1.5 first-rounders. Say the Knicks second counts as half a first, no doubt we could all live with that as a throw in to close the deal if we liked the basic idea. So basically we’d need to add one first, or one good young player like Matisse or Shake or Maxey, to get to the midpoint. Maybe that’s a bridge too far, but it’s the kind of bridge that could be crossed in 5 minutes if the will was there. And that’s assuming both sides are serious at their official stances! Maybe the real state is that Daryl has offered Toby, 2 firsts and Matisse and Houston has asked for Ben, one first and Shake. Could they compromise on Ben, a first and Furkan? Maybe! Upshot is, if the public spread gets to 2 or three picks, then privately they may be down to the short strokes. or maybe not, but I certainly don’t find the 3-pick gap to be a reason to think this definitely isn’t going to happen.

Q: But if we give up Ben, are we really contenders with just harden and Embiid? Don’t we need a third star?

A: Yes, that team contends in a big way! Well, I mean, who knows? It’s not like I expected the Clippers to fall to Denver! But, yes, Harden really is that good. If Joel is back to 2019 form, I see no reason why not. Danny Green, if he can be as good as he was the past two years, or almost, is plenty good enough to be our third-best player. Tobias and Seth are playoff-quality starters at the other two spots. We could use some veteran depth, which is why getting PJ Tucker back in the deal would make sense. But I’d say Joel-Tobi-Danny-Seth-Beard is by a fair margin the best Eastern team, and competitive with the best of the West as well.

But also: there’s no reason to think Daryl Morey would be done after a Ben-for-Harden trade! Let’s suppose we trade Ben and a first and cap filler like Ferguson and Scott for Harden and Tucker. We now have the assets to go after another star! Which one? I have no idea, we need someone else to become disgruntled! Likely not someone at the megastar Harden level, but maybe someone pretty damn good, depending on availability and whether Shake/Matisse/Maxey play well enough to have meaningful trade value. Personally I’d like to see Kyle Lowry come home! How about Harris and Shake, maybe with a pick, for Lowry, now we start a backcourt of Beard and Lowry, with Green-Tucker at forward and Joel in the middle, bringing Seth Curry off the bench first. That’s a hell of a lineup!

Or we could do a smaller deal, say packaging Scott and a good young player and/or pick for Bjelica, something like that. Lots of possibilities for improvement!

Q: OK, but even if we win a title, is it worth giving up a decade of greatness with ben and Joel? Harden’s contract is only two years, vs. 5 for Ben

A: First, as noted above, there’s no guarantee of any greatness — so far we haven’t even made the ECF with Ben and Joel, and we only came close once.

Second, even if the team is more competitive, it may not stay that way. Joel is already 26 and players as large as he is don’t always last. 5 years may be a more realistic remaining prime for him than ten. But as also noted above, it’s quite possible that unless we make the Finals soon, the team will not stay together. This is the modern NBA, it’s win or Blow. It. Up. I just don’t see Joel and Ben being patient beyond two more years of being less than an excellent team, and I think even a single year from now there is real risk of a forced trade.

Third, Ben’s deal is for 5 more years, which is a lot, but 5 is not 10. If we don’t win a title in those five seasons, what are the odds that 29-year-old Ben will want to sign to stay with 31-year-old Joel for another tour of duty? Not high if you ask me!

Q: OK, so forget 10 years, but we probably have a 5-year window with the current roster, vs. only 2 years on Harden’s contract. How is that a good trade for us, to give up 5 for 2?

A: Well, if we can get a Harden extension as part of this trade, that would solve this, right? I do appreciate the position of folks who say they’d favor Simmons for harden but only if we can extend Harden in the package.

But suppose it’s only 2 for sure, plus a 50-50 chance at four years more, something like that. Versus Ben with 5 plus 50-50 for four more. So 4 in expectation vs. seven. Four years of MVP-quality play is worth so much more than 7 years of Simmons-level very good play that there really is no comparison. As I say, last year Harden was worth more than four times Simmons based on the metrics I have faith in. The gap was probably bigger the year before. Of course if you believe Simmons is on the verge of making the leap to +6, then you should oppose trading him for virtually anything. I’m just not sold on that. From my perspective, you trade for the Beard, hope to win at least one title in the next two years. If you do you can probably keep him and have a real shot for the subsequent half-decade. If you miss both times, maybe you can keep him anyway, but probably not. In that case, try to salvage value from his exit and go back to war with Joel, the young players developed along the way, who now have deep-playoff-run experience, and whatever you get out of Harden or his cap space. Look at Toronto, they are still an exciting team post-Kawhi. In the end, as the ads of my youth used to say, you roll the dice, move your mice!

Q: Isn’t Harden so old that he’ll be bad or at least overpaid in a couple years, even if we resign him?

Anything is possible, but I don’t think that’s likely. Think about not-physically-huge players who have been annually in the MVP conversation in the past couple decades (so that they had access to modern training and medicine, not the old smoking-on-the-sidelines players of the past. Guys like LeBron, Duncan, CP3, Curry. LeBron is a stud at 35, CP3 also excellent, Duncan was still one at that age, Curry turns 33 in a few weeks, does anyone think he won’t be exceptional in two years? Yes, yes, some of those guys have rings and Harden doesn’t; I am not aware that championship rings confer anti-aging powers. It’s just that if you’re as ridiculously good as these guys are, you’re still great at 35 or beyond unless you have a devastating injury, or weigh 300 pounds so your body can’t take the pounding that long. Harden is 31 now; if he signs a four-year extension after this deal it will be for his age 33-34-35-36 seasons. I can’t promise he’ll be an MVP winner in those years but if he is healthy he will, I expect, be terrific.

Q: So putting it all together...?

A: I think people correctly recognize the risk in a Harden deal. Maybe he’s a chemistry problem either on-court or off. Maybe Simmons becomes the next LeBron and we hate ourselves forever. Maybe Harden plays well for two years but we don’t get over the hump and then he leaves because he likes the Phoenix weather. These are real risks. But I think people are seriously, seriously underestimating the risk of standing pat. Being a 4 seed who loses a tough first-round series to Toronto after they make a smart deadline addition as they so often do. And then Clutch Sports starts spreading rumored lists of preferred Ben destinations. Or Joel gets mopey, it wouldn’t be the first time! And then where are we? I say, if the opportunity presents itself to be a real contender for the next 2-5 years, without giving up our best player or a passel of young picks and players, that’s a shot we should take.

Q: Does BL have a podcast?

A: Hey, someone asked about this in comments, so I get to respond — those are the rules I made up for this column!

I do indeed have a podcast! Unfortunately it’s not about basketball, at least not mostly. It’s called Dangerous Vision, and on it I interview people who are blind or who have interesting things to say about blindness and vision loss. You can find it here.

Perhaps the episode of greatest interest to readers would be this one, in which I interview Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousebeck. But you may also enjoy my interview with the world’s best sleight-of-hand magician, Richard Turner, who just happens to be blind, or with a US Olympian in track who just happens to be blind, or with Peter Segal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, who is not blind but who guides blind marathoners. I love podcasting and I miss Sixers Science, the pod I used to do with fearless leader KFL and our old compadre Eric. If any of LB’s fine podcasters are looking for a guest to debate Harden or anything else with them, please reach out, Kevin has my contact info!

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