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Report: Harden has ‘increased interest in testing the open market’

Perhaps the Sixers are hanging on to Ben Simmons knowing James Harden could be available this summer.

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

At this point in NBA trade season, the rumors are flying faster than a Furkan Korkmaz catch-and-shoot triple. The biggest story possible is the one that keeps arising. The mere idea that the Sixers would hold Ben Simmons through the trade deadline alone would be pretty earth-shattering, even if few of us in these parts would be shocked. But the idea that the Sixers could really acquire James Harden has felt as unobtainable as a Tobias Harris All-Star caliber resurgence.

But the latest from Jake Fischer at Bleacher Report makes many of the Simmons-Harden rumors suddenly feel like more than just dreams and leverage plays.

Per Fischer:

“Harden remains invested in competing for the title in Brooklyn this season, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. But Harden has recently informed several confidants—including former teammates and coaches—of his interest in exploring other opportunities outside of Brooklyn this summer, league sources told B/R.”

Last week I took a look at how realistic a Simmons for Harden sign-and-trade actually was. Between the amount of money Harden would have to leave on the table to land with a new team, (about $270 over five years staying and “just” $200M if he were to change cities) and a variety of other factors, it has felt like a major long shot thus far.

And a large part of my thinking was there just hasn’t been any credible indications Harden is unhappy in Brooklyn. But that key piece of intel came with Fischer’s update. There are reportedly some very specific reasons Harden may want out.

The Sixers can convince teams they are content to take this thing to the summer unless a Sacramento or Atlanta, for example, significantly increases their offer for Simmons today. Harden can play along too, ensuring the Nets’ brass feels worried about losing him so that they offer every penny of a five-year record-breaking max; as oppose to trying to do what the Sixers did with Harris back in 2019, topping the market while also saving some cash (Harris made $180M out of a possible $197M two years ago).

But could all of this smoke, which has now come from both the Sixers and perhaps Harden’s own camp, just be a cash grab? Would all of this be over the difference between a $250M or a $270M five-year max? Probably not. I assume Nets’ owner Joe Tsai would’t dare risk losing Harden over that type of sum meted out over five years. What’s $20M when you’re already in for $250M and worth billions?

Fischer continues:

“James isn’t going to hold back,” said a person familiar with Harden. “He’s gonna tell you where he stands.”

Harden has been vocal to Nets figures and close contacts alike about his frustrations regarding Kyrie Irving’s part-time playing status. A recent injury to Kevin Durant has exacerbated the issue, leaving Harden to shoulder the majority of the offensive burden during Brooklyn home games.

Sure, Harden has appeared frustrated at times this season when talking about things like new rules aimed at non-basketball moves and Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status or part-time player status.

But the first issue would follow James to any team (he’s still third in the league in free throw attempts per game behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid to be fair) and the second may well have some resolution by the time he makes his big decision. Irving could get vaccinated, the city could have some change to local mandate rules, the team could sign-and-trade Kyrie, or they could continue on with a part-time superstar for the long haul. If Harden were truly frustrated with Irving’s part-time status, only the latter scenario there figures to encourage him to find a new home.

But Fischer’s update gives us some other angles to consider:

“Nets coach Steve Nash’s fluid rotations have also disappointed Harden, sources told B/R. Nash has favored hot-hand closing lineups, rather than a fixed crunch-time unit.

His new city could also be an issue. According to multiple sources, Harden has not enjoyed living in Brooklyn, compared to his days as a central Houston magnate. Outside of the change in climate, the chasm between state taxes in New York versus Texas is quite obvious as well.”

Harden may have some frustrations with Steve Nash. But that is probably more of a team personnel issue. Coach Nash hasn’t wanted to toggle through lineups like he’s a mad scientist, but a combination of learning Irving was completely unavailable just before the season tipped off, trying to work in nine new players who weren’t there last season, a record ten players in health and safety protocols at once, later a part-time Irving, and injuries to Joe Harris, Nic Claxton, and now Kevin Durant, have left few chances for the rival coach to find a closing unit.

As for the city part, I can tell you firsthand that living in Philadelphia is a lot cheaper than living in New York City. And something tells me Harden would be more of a “central magnate” walking down Walnut Street than he would on Fulton.

Since a Harden-for-Simmons swap is more of a summer possibility, (something Fischer’s piece notes) it makes sense now that Brooklyn might step up their aggressiveness in peripheral trade talks to help their Big Three. They may look to shop a player like Nic Claxton (set for restricted free agency) and utilize one of their trade exceptions to lighten the load on the three-time scoring champion out of ASU.

Fischer continued:

“Philadelphia is not necessarily holding onto Simmons to acquire Harden this summer, sources said. But it seems both the Sixers front office and Harden himself are viewing that potential marriage as a backstop for their respective futures. Philadelphia officials and executives across the league continue to monitor Bradley Beal’s status in Washington. “

This rings true to me here. Our Paul Hudrick recently learned the idea the Sixers may be “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. So the tidbit that this is a backstop possibility for both the Sixers and Harden (if not the Nets, who’d have to willingly cooperate to help a rival just down the turnpike) seems very realistic.

The part about the Sixers continuing to monitor the status of Bradley Beal felt like a throw in to this piece but it’s also pretty big news. Beal is headed for unrestricted free agency himself. But it makes sense that Morey and co. would view Beal as a priority target both ahead of this deadline (applying pressure that the Wizards should act now so they don’t risk losing him for smaller sign-and-trade offers come summer) and after.

Per Fischer:

“If Harden ever does formally communicate his interest in playing elsewhere this summer, the Nets would likely be hard-pressed to find a greater return for Harden than Simmons, assuming Simmons can rediscover his All-Star form. Simmons, after all, was the Rockets’ runner-up offer for Harden a year ago. And the Sixers have signaled a willingness to attach additional assets to acquire a player such as Harden or Lillard.”

If the Sixers had strong indications a couple superstars would be open to playing alongside Joel Embiid next season, then it makes sense they’d be holding out for some monumental asks from a team like Sacramento ahead of the Feb. 10 deadline. The mere possibility that they could execute a trade and then cost themselves the chance to pursue bigger fish next summer is very very scary. The Nets for example would have little incentive to share their feelings on a player like Tyrese Haliburton. So if the Sixers made any type of trade now, they’d have to be prepared for the possibility that exact move could reduce their odds of topping a sign-and-trade market down the road for a true veteran superstar. Of course, maybe that could enhance their chances too — it’s all a gamble.

The biggest takeaways today: we now have some very specific reasons Harden may want out. That makes some of the prior reports about this scenario feel more credible than they once did. We have more indications stars generally and specifically like the idea of playing with Joel Embiid, now a more crafty and willing passer than he was in the past. And we have this idea of the “backstop” plan. Imagine that, seeing a nine-time All-Star and former MVP as a fallback option worth bookmarking.