It feels like a lifetime ago that the Sixers emerged as finalists to land James Harden. But alas, it was the Brooklyn Nets who proudly proved victorious in the sweepstakes for the privilege to pay the perennial MVP caliber player. It drove a stake into many Sixer fans' hearts, rendering us a disparate petrified mass of Will Byers from Stranger Things, frozen as the Brooklyn Demogorgon emerged and towered over our (relatively) tiny town.
We already knew from some of Harden’s arm flailings and head snappings that he was one of the greatest thespians in the NBA. We’ve all seen the slow-motion replays of him driving the lane, initiating contact, swiftly pointing his chin toward the heavens to simulate being elbowed, then using his magnificent beard like a whip to fire flecks of sweat venom into the eyes of officials, prompting foul calls. But Harden saved his grand opus for this season. The way Christian Bale morphed into Dick Cheney, Denzel Washington into Malcolm X, Daniel Day-Lewis into Abraham Lincoln, Harden, the cunning, shapeshifting ectomorph convinced many of us that he was no longer himself, no longer in shape, no longer interested in dedicating himself to his craft. Like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler before him, he took on the proud tradition of resourcefully escaping the Titanic, leaving lesser mortals to sink.
And so, the Sixers would play for other things. Joel Embid could win the MVP. Doc Rivers could win Coach of the Year. Ben Simmons could win Defensive Player of the Year. Both stars could work themselves into SuperMax eligibility, while the entire Process Hating world could be forced to eat copious amounts of gamy bird meat, rarely found on restaurant menus.
But alas, a savior could be in the cards? A hometown hero could return! In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus returns home. With well-oiled feet, in his best leather sandals, disguised as an elderly, weak beggar, he returns to vanquish all the younger and stronger rivals who take him for granted. (It’s essentially the plot of the 2018 film “Uncle Drew” featuring Kyrie Irving, where he’s in an old suit and a fat suit and dusts some cocky chumps who underestimate him in streetball).
And so this could be our story!
Imagine if you could go back in time and ask Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, and Doc Rivers this question: “would you rather swap Ben Simmons and let’s say four firsts and Tyrese Maxey for James Harden, and then be relegated to the waiver wire and buyout market to help Harden and Embiid, BUT then Brooklyn doesn’t get Harden, OR would you rather Toronto randomly stinks and you can add Kyle Lowry to a team featuring Simmons, Embiid and Tobias Harris?” You would probably have to ask it very slowly because it’s like a paragraph long, but they’re smarter than us, they’d still follow.
And it’s a question worth asking.
I think Daryl, seeing so many angles all of the time, would close his eyes and start muttering things like “but James is not on Brooklyn, that’s big hmm, then again....”
And eventually, all three of them would be faced with the glaringly, blaringly (I’m never sure which to use so I’m going to use both) obvious answer that it’s not so clear cut! Basically, like Lloyd Christmas might tell us:
Kyle Lowry fills so many of the Sixer's holes that it’s silly. Simmons would not have to chase tiny, elite point guards, like Kyrie Irving, and could focus on bigger wings. They would finally have someone who could break down a defense off the dribble and create, or stick a pull up triple when nothing else is working. It could trickle down to the bench, forcing teams to put a better defender on Lowry, leaving a Shake Milton with a better matchup for himself. Plus, Lowry is not a bad thespian himself, he could certainly steal a Best Actor award from Harden if given the right role.
A big four of Lowry, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris could certainly make life difficult for teams like the Nets, Bucks, or Clippers. It might give them the best “big four” in the entire league.
You would need Lowry to continue to play at a high level. You would need Tobias Harris to remain who he has been this year. You would need to load manage Simmons (and his occasionally sore surgically repaired left knee) and you would need to be extremely careful with Embiid’s return-to-play program from his terrifying knee injury.
Then maybe, just maybe it would come down to math.
Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant form an unprecedented arsenal of nuclear scorers. We’ve never seen three of the five best offensive players in the NBA on one team and they may boast just that. Heck, they probably have two of the best five offensive players ever and Kyrie Irving!
But if you wanted to get all glass-half-full with it, their skills are a tiny bit redundant, aren’t they? And so could it be possible, could it be plausible, in an ideal world that Brooklyn’s 1+1+1= 2.75? And could it be possible, could it be plausible, in an ideal universe that the Sixers’ big four 0.7+0.7+1+1.25 = 3.5? (I was not a math major, so feel free to check my work).
Maybe the Sixers core four, with Lowry, could play as well or even better than the sum of their parts and win the East. We know Daryl Morey has talked about the value of not hoarding picks when you have a real chance to win a title. He says to trade them when your odds to win a championship are decent, like above five percent. And we know he and The Ringer’s Bill Simmons once agreed that injury luck in the NBA is one of the most dramatic and important factors in determining which teams wins the title. Just ask Kyle Lowry who didn’t have to face a healthy Joel Embiid in the second round or Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant during the last couple games of the Finals back in 2019. Injury luck helped put a ring on his finger.
So if Kevin Durant, who hasn’t played in a game since Valentine’s Day, is not guaranteed health, and if Kyrie Irving, who has had multiple knee surgeries is not guaranteed health, might there be a window here?
Of course, we know the Sixers are not guaranteed health by the playoffs, but adding a player like Lowry introduces a bit of antifragility to the roster.
He could help strengthen their lineups while key players are out and vie for seeding. He could strengthen their bench units (did you see him drop a career high 19 dimes on the Celts while Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam were all out a few weeks ago?!) and he could most importantly, help them in what the Heat’s broadcast calls “possession basketball,” when the game is on the line and there are no more transition layups to be found. Danny Green hit some monster step back triples to beat the Knicks a couple of nights ago. But I think Lowry would be more likely to hit a big one against the Nets, Bucks or Clippers in a playoff series.
I don’t know if it would be enough. The Nets could simply be a juggernaut and blitz through the playoffs. They could improve further still via trade or buyout market. But it seems possible to me that the Sixers could convince Toronto’s Front office in Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to let Odysseus return to Ithaca rather than piddle in obscurity in Tampa for another 8 weeks of this lost season. And then, we’d have a good old fashion bloodfest to enjoy come these playoffs if everyone were at full strength, basketball gods willing. Could losing out on Harden make them go a bit harder than they would otherwise for Lowry? I think they’ll take a disciplined approach either way. But it does make a lot of sense for both sides to work something out and bring Odysseus home.