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Daryl Morey’s calculus: should the Sixers trade either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid for James Harden?

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So James Harden is open to a trade to the Sixers, where his former GM is now team President. Teams might be reluctant to part with the necessary assets to get him without assurances he’d stay long term, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. We’re not Sixers President Daryl Morey. We probably don’t all have a background in analytics or access to the complex data systems he does. But we can pretend to be him for 20 minutes and think about at least a handful of the factors that might be swirling in his large brain.

Imagine this: there he is, unshaven, unkempt in the busiest and shortest off season of his career. It’s a room in the Camden facility without access to daylight. It’s littered with white boards, newspaper clippings, multiple laptops, and a few old-school computers taller than Joel Embiid. There are Bloomberg terminals charting the markets since that could impact future salary cap situations. CNN is on mute with subtitles so he can track the latest vaccine and Covid updates to better prepare for a wacky season with likely Covid-IR absences such as the NFL is dealing with. There are equations and doodles. There are tons of Sam Hinkie fathead posters on the wall offering a modicum of privacy in the all-glass office. On the floor is a smelly mess of smoked salmon, cashews, stepped on blueberries, avocado and ice cream because he maybe once read that fatty foods facilitate brain functioning. There are books about turtle mating patterns, pages torn out of Ray Kurzweil’s book about humans transcending biology. When fruit flies began to buzz around he didn’t mind at all because he remembered that drosophilia are perfect for studying as he tinkers with genomics to prolong player careers. There are pie charts. Oh so many pie charts. And of course, there is a tooth brush, a stationary bike and a latrine. So let’s guess what he might be thinking on this very complex matter!

James Harden

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Equation one: James Harden = James Harden. He is James Harden. Harden is a three-time scoring champ, a former MVP (who really should have won more of them) and might have a title on his resume too if running mate Chris Paul never pulled a hammie against the greatest team ever assembled, the Warriors. He’s that good. So you necessarily want him. Doc Rivers would probably have an easier time with him around. Morey himself has once talked about the surprisingly awkward fit of Yao Ming a big and Tracy McGrady a triple threat scoring titleist so if that was tough, Joel and Ben will be even tougher.

But what do you have to subtract to make this happen?

Do you trade Joel Embiid?

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It may feel like sacrilege to even suggest trading “The Process” the franchise cornerstone, the face of the team. One of the best two-way players in the entire NBA. But it has likely at least been considered. With three seasons remaining on his contract, and perhaps another 4.5-6 seasons of peak hoops in front of him there is plenty to think about here.

He has a history of back injuries (stress fracture at Kansas) and some pain during 2018-2019, foot injuries (twice broken navicular bone), orbital fractures (twice broken eye bone, ew), and over the last couple of seasons some nagging left knee tendinitis that was really debilitating during the series against Toronto in 2019.

If you keep Joel, you’re almost certainly going to have to implement a Kawhi Leonard style of load management, the type that has mostly eluded this franchise in the past. That means your best or second best player playing about 60 out of 82 regular season games or let’s say 54 out of 73 in a shortened season. At least something to be accounted for.

I think maturity and defeat’s-suffered will help Embiid focus more on his body as he enters his late twenties and matures and he’ll be healthier moving forwards. That actually seems likely to me.

But if you’re worried about Embiid’s long term health, and the fact that he’ll be a free agent in 2023, while Ben Simmons will be on the books through 2025, perhaps there’s appeal here.

Could Ben play a turbo-charged Draymond Green meets Clint Capela roll in the half court, rolling to the hole in myriad pick-and-rolls leaving defenses to contend with a pick your poison of step back 3s, slashing layups, or Simmons rolling lob poster jams? Both players would also be two of the best passers in the NBA.

Daryl probably has a few doodles of triangular shapes representing how these pick-n-rolls might obliterate a defense. And if Harden did leave, at least you have Simmons on the books through 2025 and could build a lineup of shooters around him like Milwaukee does with Giannis.

But then again Morey recently said:

Trading Ben Simmons

Philadelphia 76ers v Washington Wizards Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

So maybe we go the other way and look to trade Ben Simmons. Or maybe Houston insists on Simmons simply because he’s younger and inked for longer.

Now we want to know for how long can we reasonably expect Harden to be better than Simmons? Harden is 31, Simmons is 24. Simmons comes with his own injury risks: a broken foot, a back issue, and recently a knee issue.

So maybe The Beard can remain better for another 3 seasons? Ages 31, 32, and 33? He has the type of game that isn’t based on blinding speed like say Russel Westbrook, where it feels like he’ll age well. But then again, we recently saw a player of similar ilk in Carmelo Anthony fall off a cliff rather quickly. Perhaps so many years of pounding has trounced the life out of Harden’s legs and he’ll age more quickly than we think?

Perhaps his absurd love for maskless nightlife adds some unforeseen peril as he risks his own health or the health of others for a night of glory on Walnut Street.

Maskless nightlife must be part of our algebra. Is there a latin symbol for it like theta or pi?

Now we need a pie chart of emotions: what if Harden isn’t happy in Philly and wants to leave after 2 seasons? He didn’t seem to love playing with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Russel Westbrook. Maybe it’s like what happened with Kyrie Irving in Boston. Afterall, James’ first choice was Brooklyn, not Philly. But you’re not just trading Jae Crowder and injured Isaiah Thomas here you’re trading a franchise cornerstone. Yeesh.

If you traded away Ben, now Joel Embiid is a free agent in 2023 facing a lengthy rebuild and will likely want out, absolute disaster!

Now let’s factor in the chance that as Embiid declines, Ben Simmons ascends and this could extend our window without a trade.

Now we eat a handful of blueberries and divide all that above in the numerator by the chances our projections are all wrong and which wrong might be worse? Remember when Donald Rumsfeld talked about unknown things we don’t even know we don’t know!?

For instance, what if Simmons figures out how to be at least a serviceable shooter, or get to the line more, or both! And suddenly he’s a bona fide MVP candidate in just two years! And put that MVP scenario in the denominator in parenthesis and subtract the chances he never really improves much at all and he is who he’s been for good.

Got all that?!

Now take your projection for Harden and factor in if you’re wrong on each side.

A) Harden continues the trends of great players extending their primes and continues to dominate well into his 30’s. Subtract the chances that B) his love of nightlife and absurd career usage rate catches up with him very very fast.

Now divide that by the slight upgrade in roster flexibility you might have if you don’t have to worry about Harden’s supermax on your books; a factor that is especially concerning if Embiid is still here with his contract looming.

Now make a pros and cons table looking at the chances you get Harden and he wants to stay beyond his current contract and you now need to offer him another very large one to keep him heading into his mid to late 30s. If you have not won a championship yet with him do we even want to keep him now much older?

Next take a bite of salmon and scoop of ice cream and call Elton Brand and go for a long walk since genius researchers like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used to do their best work on walks together.

Next factor in players like Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, or Isaiah Joe. Might you have to include any of these guys in addition to Ben or Joel (or future picks) to get Harden? What if the “sweetener” you include turns out to be really good? What if by keeping them, their value increases and you can bundle a couple for a player not named James Harden, but one like Zach LaVine who comes at a fraction of the asset and salary cost plus you get to keep Ben and Joel!

If your brain hurts like mine does, tip your cap to the Sixers’ burden this week. They have a lot to process here, huh?

I can’t even understand the equation so how can I derive an answer?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Maybe a month ago, I thought I would trade Ben Simmons for James Harden. And some very smart people have agreed to that.

Then I talked to Dan Favale of Bleacher Report for a podcast coming out tomorrow and he talked me out of it.

Then, even though Embiid is my favorite player and I’d prefer to root for him in Philly forever, I at least began to think it would be better to trade him and keep Ben if you were going to do it. But it’s today, on a cold snowy Wednesday, (5 years and 2 days since Jerry Colangelo was hired) and I’ve tried to analyze as much as I could and I lean no: don’t trade either Ben nor Joel.

Here’s what my final analysis looks like, tell me if yours matches:

You start off the year. You look at what you got. You see who’s playing well and how it looks. If the spacing still looks f—d up, or there are some really bad quotes from Ben or Joel you reassess everything and get back on the phone with Houston.

But I think what is more likely is that the opposite happens and they’re pretty darn good this year. And you have more financial flexibility, and you have plenty of fungible, tradable, valuable talents to begin the crazy process that Morey once executed with Sam Hinkie to land Harden in Houston in the first place.

Things like trading an aging Tracy McGrady for Jordan Hill and a pick. Acquiring former 24th pick Kyle Lowry, allowing him to flourish, and then flipping him for a lottery pick (Steven Adams selected) which became a center-piece for the Harden deal with Oklahoma. That’s what Daryl does best. He finds value at every turn and he doesn’t overpay and he keeps his window open for as long as humanly possible and he’ll trade picks or prospects or basic vets not stars for help. And that’s what they should allow him to do to begin the year. At least that’s what my disgusting warroom analysis barfed up.

But who knows what else he’s considered. I probably didn’t even scratch the surface of his and Elton Brand’s analysis this week.