Your mind needs to be in a constant state of defense against all this crap that is trying to mislead you. - Daryl Morey
With 22 days to go before the Feb. 10 NBA Trade deadline, we’ve entered a pivotal phase of the Ben Simmons saga. Is it better to take the best deal on the table today in order to maximize one of perhaps just several seasons of Joel Embiid’s prime? Or is it better to wait for Daryl Morey’s dream scenario and hold out for someone like Damian Lillard or James Harden?
Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden is heading for unrestricted free agency. There’s more than a little scuttlebutt that Harden might be the next disgruntled star to seek change.
There is no shortage of fun storylines here. The Sixers once hired Sam Hinkie as their team president, largely for his role in the trade that landed Harden with the Houston Rockets. Morey is in Philly now, largely due to the reputation he built by trading for Harden, amongst other things, like helping to revolutionize the way the sport is measured and played. Morey has been trying to land Harden since he got to Philly, he’d love nothing more than celebrate a title with The Process and The Beard. Basically, if you were to write “MoneyBall 2” this story would be your screen play, like verbatim. 
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
By now folks like Sam Amick of The Athletic, Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Marc Stein via substack, Ian Begley of SNY, Brian Windhorst and Marc J. Spears via ESPN podcast, and others have pointed to continued interest from Morey to land his former player. Some of these reports have hinted there’s an openness to change from Harden’s end as well.
“Yet it must be noted that there is enough noise circulating league wide about Harden’s reported openness to relocation this summer — after he turned down a lucrative extension from the Nets in October — to give Morey the encouragement he needs to wait.”
On a recent Gastroenteritis Blues podcast, Amick also added the following context:
“There’s some people who feel like this is why the Sixers gave Daryl all this money. It was supposed to be to come to get the Harden deal done. It just hasn’t happened yet.”
So part of you might be thinking: hmmm, maybe Morey really does have some sense Harden is open to joining the Sixers. If anyone knows The Beard it’s Daryl, right? If he doesn’t trade Simmons this year, he sure as heck better land Harden by summer, or what was it all for? Start tampering your butt off, man!
At least Joel Embiid is doing his part, captioning his MJ, Kobe mash up on Instagram with Harden’s now infamous catch phrase “scary hours!!!”
‘Show me the money’ - Rod Tidwell
The three-time scoring champ was offered a max extension earlier this season and he opted not to pick it up. Had he done so, it would have been tantamount to opting in to the $46.8M player option he has for the 2023 season and tacking on an additional three seasons. In essence, he left what would have totaled $208M over four years on the table.
Right around the time I thought he might take that extension, the nine-time All-Star told ESPN’s Malika Andrews he was intrigued by the idea of experiencing what would be his first ever unrestricted free agency. He also talked about wanting to focus on winning a title. Wouldn’t you like to be wooed too?
Could Harden just want to see what it’s like to get his own version of ‘the Hamptons five?’ Maybe the Haddonfield Five? The Manayunk meet up? The Marmora rendezvous? The Egg Harbor dozen? The Cecil B. Seven?
But can we buy that? We can dismiss the “focus on a title” talk because it’s easier to argue that signing a long-term deal allows one to prioritize hoops. Not signing one opens you up to a season’s worth of trade and free agency rumors. So there must be more.
As Brian Lewis of The New York Post put it “if Harden waits until after the season, he could re-sign and shatter the all-time NBA record with an eye-watering $270 million windfall.”
That would offer top dollar security through his age-37 season. He had millions of reasons to turn down that cool double-stack.
If the Sixers were to somehow make rain and potentially include Tobias Harris in a larger Ben Simmons deal (to free up max cap space or simply gain flexibility for a possible sign-and-trade) they still couldn’t come anywhere close to the total figure the Nets can offer the 2018 league MVP.
With the cap projected to be $119M for the 2023 season, an acquiring team without Bird Rights, paying 35 percent of the cap, with accompanying five percent raises, for a vet with over ten seasons in the game, can drop about $45M average annual salary across a four-year deal. That’s a lot. Paying $48M in a season for a 36-year-old who started visibly declining by 31 should make you quite nervous. But still, that total leaves you nearly $100M short of the total Brooklyn could offer! 
It’s a tough sell to ask him to leave Kevin Durant, leave the NBA’s biggest market, and leave that much money on the table. But maybe Morey has found an innovative way to pay Harden in NFTs and legally circumvent Bird Rights.
“I just tried to play the game the right way. As you get older, Father Time is undefeated.” - Jason Kidd
This season many have noticed Harden lacks the burst we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Never a flashy athlete, his game is based more upon sudden movements, change of direction, and craft. But a bevy of factors have combined to slow him down a bit this season:
- the return from an offseason spent rehabbing a hamstring
- new rules aimed at reducing non-basketball plays
- limited spacing -no Kyrie Irving in the lineup has meant Harden spent a large portion of his season flanked by non-shooters like DeAndre’ Bembry, Bruce Brown, or James Johnson
- the fact he is second in the entire league in minutes per game (36.9)
- he’s 32 now
Most of Harden’s advanced statistics, measures of efficiency or impact, have seen a dip this season. Still, he’s routinely the second-best player on the court in a given Nets game, averaging a near triple-double.
‘Just being in a great environment and being around teammates that enjoy the game’- Kevin Durant, after signing an extension this summer
Sean Marks on extending Kyrie Irving and James Harden: "We're having those conversations right now."— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) August 11, 2021
"I feel very confident by training camp, we'll be looking at those 3 signed, sealed, and delivered."
So will the Nets offer the full max?
It’s difficult to know what Nets owner Joe Tsai and GM Sean Marks will do.
Here’s what Tsai said to Brian Lewis back on Sept. 30:
“Yeah, whether or not it’s the season now or later, the way I look at it is he’s already said I want to play and finish my career in Brooklyn: He’s actually said that. And our job is to make sure that he continues to feel that way,” Tsai told The Post. “Obviously, if we win a championship and also have the chance to win multiple championships down the road, that’s going to be even more convincing, more compelling.”
Alex Schiffer, who covers the Nets for The Athletic, was on a Nets Daily podcast around training camp, added this:
“I took it as a when not if situation, I don’t think the concern right now is that those guys go elsewhere....if I had to bet money today that Kyrie Irving and James Harden are Nets next year like I’d have no problem betting a lot of money....for all we know they could have silent commitments through all this and they just wanna wait to sign they prefer to go into the summer....”
So much has changed since then. But my hunch today is this: the Nets decided the day they acquired Harden that they were prepared to go deep into luxury taxes for this Big 3. Tsai has indicated a willingness there. And everything that has happened with Kyrie Irving since, has done little to decrease Harden’s value to them (it may have even increased it).
How do you draw straws to be the one to tell Kevin Durant “Harden is leaving because we got too cute trying to avoid paying him a full max, so hopefully Kyrie gets vaxed this summer, we good?”
He’s only 32, he’s still an All-Star in his sleep, he’s never had a major injury (I can’t even think of a single surgery) he’s never needed to be explosive to dominate, for a team with an MVP (like Durant or Embiid) he’s a steal on a max deal even at 70 percent of his last five seasons. Don’t get cute, just get his minutes down to 33, get him a rest day every couple weeks, and enjoy the results.
Irving’s situation is a wild card here of course. And it has seemed like discussing the issue has bugged Harden at times this season:
Reporter: "Do you talk to Kyrie at all about 'hey, we need you?'— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 8, 2022
James Harden: "He knows that. He knows that."
Reporter: "Do you talk to him at all about vaccination?"
"I'm not sure that's a good question."— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) January 2, 2022
-James Harden wasn't sure why the Nets lacked killer instinct with a big lead down the stretch.
Could it could have been b/c of who WASN'T out there tonight?
"I mean...I don't know."
When we hear rumors Harden is open for change, I wonder about this Irving as part-time player thing and how it affects Harden’s free agency. Durant and Irving have rings already. The 2018 MVP is still desperately chasing one.
But there may well be some resolution there come summer. Something could change, allowing Irving to be a full-time player, or the team could look to sign-and-trade him. So today’s frustrations may have resolution come July.
That has me thinking, might the Sixers view Simmons as a trade chip for either Harden or Irving? Morey could call Marks and say basically: “look, if Harden wants to leave, we’ll trade you Simmons so you don’t lose James for nothing; if Harden wants to stay, and you don’t want to max a part-time player in Irving, we’ll take Kyrie. Let’s at least bookmark this possibility, it might work out for both of us.”
It’s possible Morey already has some back-channel word Harden wants to be a Sixer. It’s also possible this entire rumor is simply mutually beneficial buzz.
Philly gets to say ‘look, we’re not trading Simmons now, we want Harden in July. If you want Ben you better offer everything you’ve got. And on Harden’s end he could be thinking ‘what harm does it do if everyone thinks I might leave? Then the Nets give me every penny of a record breaking max.’
If Simmons is still in Philadelphia after the deadline, bookmark ideas like this. Come back to this post on Feb. 11. Cause every ounce of context we’ve looked at will become far more important if Simmons is still in a Sixers uniform but not in the lineup.
If you told me Simmons was not traded before the deadline, I wouldn’t automatically conclude they have something in the works with Harden. I’d think they have some maybes from several of the best players in the NBA, and some strong sense that offers available today (like one from the Timberwolves) might be there come July as a fall back.
But man, seeing The Process and The Beard on one parade float is exciting enough to dream about, isn’t it?
Cover art credit to Erin Dunne @a_dunne_deal
 The Ben Simmons bit would be your cliffhanger for a part two if it were a hit. Maybe Nicolas Cage could even play Bryan Colangelo, who used Hinkie’s draft pick to select Simmons, who knows, just spitballing now.
 We turned to former Liberty Baller Adam Aaronson, now with The Rights to Ricky Sanchez and Sports Radio WIP for some help on the salary cap stuff. Adam was kind enough to lend support and double check some of our math. Give him a follow on Twitter to find all his great work.