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Are Sixers truly ‘Harden or bust’ as reports have suggested?

The Sixers are once again being linked to James Harden, but is he the focus of any return in a Ben Simmons trade?

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

By this point you’ve already heard numerous James Harden-to-the-Sixers trade rumors. But the most recent update includes some of the boldest language we’ve heard yet. By now you know the story. Daryl Morey once traded for James Harden, brining the eventual 2018 MVP to the Houston Rockets from Oklahoma City. He tried to land The Beard in Philadelphia a year ago, but the deal ultimately fell through. And now Morey-Harden connection stories seem to pop up every few hours.

Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer added some fuel to the rumor-mill fire on Monday afternoon.

Per Pompey:

“At the end of the day, it’s Harden all the way,” said a league source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They want Harden whether they get him now. Whether they get him on a forced sign-and-trade this summer. The Athletic published similar reporting this morning, asserting that the Sixers prefer to wait to pursue Harden or another superstar this offseason.

But the Inquirer’s source thinks this has been the plan for some time.”

Even if this source is rock solid, I have a very hard time believing that indeed the Sixers are putting all of their eggs in any one basket. Even if Harden told the Sixers ‘hey guys, good news, I’ve purchased Ben Simmons’ home and I’m definitely coming this summer’ it would make sense to prepare for alternative scenarios. The playoffs can go so many different ways, and Harden would have to turn so much money down to leave Brooklyn (assuming Nets owner Joe Tsai and company are willing to go full $274M stack to keep The Beard).

Pompey’s report continues: “but according to sources, Harden and his camp have maintained a close relationship with Morey. In addition, Sixers co-owner Michael Rubin is also tight with Harden and his friends.”

This is not the first time we’ve heard co-owner Michael Rubin’s name come up as a possible connection to Harden. A recent episode of Brian Windhorst & the Hoop Collective featuring Marc J. Spears included a portion where ESPN’s Windhorst noted Rubin as a key contact here as well. Perhaps there are some back-channel routes in play here to suss out a player’s temperature for how content they are in a current situation.

More per The Inquirer, lending background to the idea of including Tobias Harris in a larger Simmons deal:

“Last week, the Atlanta Hawks considered sending John Collins, Cam Reddish, and a first-round pick to the Sixers in exchange for Simmons, according to sources. However, the talks stopped after Harris’ name was brought into the deal.

“There’s no way that kind of deal is going to happen,” a source said. “There’s maybe one [team] on a stretch that can take back Tobias. But I just think it’s a long shot.”

There are some outside, complicated paths towards max cap space this summer for Philadelphia. If there were some way to maneuver both Simmons’ and Harris’ massive salaries elsewhere, perhaps the Sixers could return some immediate on-court help, as well as some draft picks.

Is there a scenario in play where the Sixers could acquire say Tyrese Haliburton and draft capital from the Sacrmento Kings, while also finagling the financial flexibility to make a run at The Beard? Or does a sign-and-trade using Simmons’ contract somehow increase the team’s chances of acquiring the three-time scoring champion? Could Harden name two or three contenders he wants to play for and it all comes down to an unprecedented sign-and-trade bidding war, in which case the Sixers are glad they held onto Simmons through deadline?

For what it’s worth, it does sound like Harden is open to playing with Joel Embiid, a tidbit that should have Sixers fans salivating, even if it fails to materialize.

More to that point from a whopper of an update from Pompey:

“But sources said Harden would welcome playing with Embiid if he became a Sixer. The guard had a lot of individual success playing for Morey as a Rocket. Sources say Harden believes he could have similar success playing alongside Embiid. League source believe the Sixers would have to trade Harris, a combo who plays both forward positions, for the Harden and Embiid pairing to work.”

If Harden, an All-NBA caliber perimeter player, sees the upside of playing with a force like Embiid, perhaps his counterparts might also. Here a bit of social-proofing might not hurt the Sixers’ cause. James wants in, why wouldn’t you? You hear that Mr. Lillard and Mr. Beal?

So is it possible the Sixers would really push so many chips in for what feels like a long-shot bet, one they can’t even officially place until after the season?

“But people close the Sixers deny the team is holding out for Harden. They maintain their focus is on getting an A-list player whether it’s Harden, Portland’s Dame Lillard, Washington’s Bradley Beal or other players in their class.”

And that is pretty credible. To this point, a source tells our Paul Hudrick that the idea of “Harden or bust” is off base, and that the team is not looking for a specific player, but rather a package that can improve the team’s title odds.

The Pompey piece concludes with this, the final line being the juiciest quote of the day:

“The sources don’t think Morey is serious about making a deal for Simmons at this time. The Sixers’ position that they’re not going to trade Simmons just to make a trade has been consistent. They’re only willing to make a deal for an A-list player in return.“The reigning thought process throughout the league is Harden will be a Sixer next season,” a source said.”

Final Analysis

It’s really difficult to know who wants this information out there and what their end-game might be. Is someone hoping to amplify or diminish the return on a Simmons trade ahead of the deadline? Is this something we can simply take at face value? Is there truly a feeling around the league that Harden will soon be a Sixer? Could Harden himself even feel that way, before giving a Nets Big Three which has played so few games together, a true chance?

Morey himself quipped on a recent radio appearance “there’s really only one reliable reporter I know about.” I’m pretty sure when Morey said that he meant either Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN or Ballsack Sports. I’m still trying to suss out which. My gut says that if James Harden were to leave Brooklyn he’d absolutely be open to joining the Sixers. But I’m not sure even Harden knows for sure yet what he might do. That means the notion the Sixers are all in on one dude here simply doesn’t ring true.

My guess today is that Harden will not be a Sixer, he’ll stay with Brooklyn long-term. But the sheer volume of Harden-to-the-Sixers stuff we’ve heard lately is nevertheless intriguing.

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