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Sixers made a tough call by bowing out of the James Harden sweepstakes yet it was the right move

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Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

So the Sixers wound up not making a blockbuster trade yesterday for perennial MVP candidate James Harden. As such, many Philly fans are understandably disappointed. Over the last few years, we’ve had the chance to see and accept that the fit between Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons is not seamless. As such the Sixers yesterday (and many fans) were hoping to swap Simmons, along with some sweeteners for Harden. After all, given Embiid’s combination of size, talent, age, contract, and injury history, a ten-year plan isn’t the way to go. You certainly do not want to waste chances with a player so impactful. So did Team President Daryl Morey bungle this one? Did he overvalue draft picks? Did he overvalue Matisse Thybulle or Tyrese Maxey? Did he underplay his hand? Did Morey balk at a time that allowed an unbeatable superteam to be formed in his own division and now even if he added Bradley Beal for free he might well still lose? Would the Sixers have been better off with Elton Brand, who might have offered up the entire farm for The Beard? Have they let Embiid down by missing out on the type of opportunity that rarely arises for your favorite team?

Let’s break this down and see if we can understand why the Sixers drew a hard line yesterday and whether or not it was ultimately the right decision.

What did the Rockets want?

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Given the enormous platter of draft picks Houston ultimately received from Brooklyn, given the fact that they preferred Victor Oladipo (on an expiring contract) over a cost-controlled Caris LeVert and given that a headliner of two-time 24-year-old All-Star Ben Simmons didn’t appear to really sway them all that much, it seems fair to infer Houston has a Sam Hinkiesque long-view thing going on here.

As such, I think this report by Jason Dumas of KRON4News makes some sense:

We can pair that with this one from Marc Stein of The New York Times:

So let’s assume that Daryl Morey went into the week with a bottom-line in mind. Perhaps he was thinking something like this:

“I’d offer Ben Simmons, and Matisse Thybulle, and maybe a pick or two, but hopefully I won’t have to offer more than that if the next best offer Houston is looking at is headlined by Caris LeVert and some distant future picks that their current GM won’t ever even get to use before he’s canned since none of us tend to last very long. I’d be giving up a star in Ben, they’re not in Caris, c’mon people work with me!”

I don’t think this came down to simply overvaluing Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle. I speculate that Morey would have reluctantly thrown both promising young players into a deal if that allowed him to save draft capital instead. But eventually, he did draw a principled line in the sand and allowed Brooklyn to win the bidding war. Why? What was the thinking?

What if they offered the farm, where would they stand?

Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Where do you think the Sixers would have stood if they offered Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, let’s say three or four future firsts and Simmons in a deal for Harden? What would the landscape of the East and full NBA have looked like? Here’s what I’m thinking, let me know in the comments what you think:

Tier 1

Lakers (they’re not unbeatable but they’d still be finals favorites)

Tier 2

Bucks, Clippers, Heat, Sixers, Celtics, Nets

The Nets without Harden may not deserve to be in this bracket, and maybe I’m sleeping on Denver or Phoenix, but I’m putting them here for two reasons. A) If Kevin Durant is fully healthy they might be able to beat anyone and B) if they somehow lost out on Harden they could easily wind up offering a similar platter to a team like Washington for Bradley Beal, which would vault them into Tier 1 with L.A. Oye. You go all in for Harden only to have to face KD, Kyrie and Beal in a playoff series? Yuck.

So you survey the competitive landscape. And you ask yourself, “if we go all in here, and we no longer have assets to trade with, no realistic or tangible ways to improve anymore, are we at least Eastern Conference favorites? And my answer is a resounding (voice rises two octaves) maybe? Sure, you hurdle some teams, you dramatically improve your title probabilities, but leaguewide you’re still smack dab in a cluster of viable competitors in the middle of a season that could get canceled at any moment with two ticking contract clocks.

Doing what the Nets did? That’s easy. You have Kyrie Irving, you have Kevin Durant, you may lose KD in free agency, of course you shove every last chip you have into the middle to build a superteam. An economist would tell you it makes perfect rational sense for Brooklyn to bid far more than Philly because they’d be one piece away from a super team with Harden and Philly would not. To compete with them, you’d necessarily have to overpay in a perhaps suboptimal way.

Acquiring Harden to pair with Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Shake Milton makes sense if you still have 3 or four draft picks and Tyrese Maxey. Maybe Maxey becomes really really good, maybe you make a second splash trade for a third piece, who knows but there are choices. If you outbid Brooklyn, that leaves you devoid of ways to upgrade. There’s almost no GMing left to do at that point. You scour the G League and waiver wire, you woo someone at the buyout market, you pray the season continues, you pray for your team to stay healthy and win a chip in the next two seasons when almost anything from an outbreak to an ankle sprain could derail you.

Chemistry

Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

While on paper a duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden seems like a tremendous combination, it’s realistic that there could be some hiccups along the way. Maybe it takes a bit of time to jell. Daryl Morey once admitted to Bill Simmons on a podcast that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were a “more awkward fit than people realized.” So let’s bake in some time for Harden (clearly a little over his playing weight in his physical rebellion) to get into shape, and mesh with Embiid. Even if things began to click in 3 months, again there’s always the chance the season gets postponed or canceled due to the raging pandemic.

Now let’s say for arguments the Sixers did not win the title this current year (because even if you somehow felt they were finals favorites over any one team, they certainly wouldn’t be favored over every other team combined). Not even these Nets are, per Vegas. You’re really on the clock now.

Harden is only on the books now for one season by 2021-2022. If he isn’t in love with this marriage (we’ve seen marriages between him and Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook not last beyond a year or two) it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to get a wandering eye. And then what? Entertain shopping him next December so you don’t risk losing him for nothing? Offer him a max and dare him to leave like Boston did when they lost Kyrie Irving? Attempt to recoup a modicum of value via sign-and-trade like the nauseating Jimmy Butler- Josh Richardson deal?

The looming fork in the road

So there’s that dangerous fork in the road ahead.

If you’re lucky enough that James Harden wants to stay in Philadelphia beyond his current contract, then you’re staring at scenarios like this:

But if he doesn’t? Now Embiid, with one guaranteed year left could begin to think about his future, and whether or not a team without Ben Simmons and without James Harden and without any draft picks truly represents his best chance to earn a title before he retires. If I were in those size 17 Embiid One’s (by 2023 a throw back model) I think I might reluctantly seek change.

In the end

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

My guess: Daryl Morey imagined topping Brooklyn’s offer and felt convinced they’d be much better but not at all convinced they’d win a championship. Had he been able to swap Simmons and Thybulle alone, he’d still have bullets in the chamber to add help. But going all in to simply enter a cluster of teams in a higher tier, probably still behind the Lakers, amidst a raging pandemic when we don’t even know if this season gets finished? That’s where he drew his line in the sand.

He knows James Harden better than any other GM in the game. He may have felt it was entirely possible that Harden could have spent a full season and a half in Philly without ever even feeling the energy of Wells Fargo packed to the brim with fans. It’s possible he’d have quarantined up in Cherry Hill or Moorestown and simply feel a little unhappy. Maybe James wouldn’t even feel sure why. Maybe he wouldn’t love playing with a post player. Maybe after two tough outs, he’d head to South Beach or Brooklyn. Maybe he’d sign a max extension and then lose a step or two. Ultimately, I agree it was not worth going all-in to simply catch up to other teams with so much chaos swirling in the world today and in the NBA specifically with a potential two-year window. I respect that Morey had a line in his mind he wasn’t willing to cross. There are other ways to enhance this roster, other players who may become available and now he’ll have more optionality moving forward. It’s a terrible day for Sixer fans. This isn’t a good thing. A superstar who wanted to be here is off the board and far worse, formed a superteam on a division rival. It stinks. LeBron James should have forced Rob Pelinka to send two picks to Houston just to help Philly out. He would have liked his chances against Harden and Embiid, now he’ll have a tough time against Durant, Harden, and Irving.