The more that has come out in the days since the Ben Simmons-James Harden blockbuster, the more it sounds like Philly and Brooklyn helped each other clean up two of the biggest messes in the league.
If you believe the reports, it sounds like Harden wanted to go to Brooklyn last season, but then changed his mind over time. Player empowerment was a maddening theme for Sixers fans recently who didn’t think a player should be allowed to sign a max contract then strong-arm a team into trading him for pennies on the dollar. But in the end it was what another star wanted that helped them resolve what’s been one of the most incredible trade stalemates we can remember.
The Nets Big Three is now one of the all time “what ifs.” The Sixers and this Process, Daryl Morey, Joel Embiid, Sam Hinkie, James Harden story is the absolute perfect Moneyball 2 screenplay waiting to be written. This is instantly the most incredible rivalry in sports now. As Terrell Owens says, “Getcha popcorn ready.”
So let’s round up some of the more riveting squabbles, beefs, and already infamous moments in one of the biggest blockbuster trades to go down in recent years.
We’ll start with Zach Lowe of ESPN who wrote this:
“After one more failed playoff run with Westbrook, Harden was done in Houston. He sulked and threw lazy passes until the Rockets traded him where he wanted to go — to Brooklyn. When things got difficult there, Harden got wanderlust again — chasing a new star in a new city.”
SL: In each of Harden’s prior star partnerships, you can pretty easily find logical reasons other than James that they didn’t work out. Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard, Chris Paul got hurt and has a penchant for grating on teammates at previous stops, Kyrie Irving refused a life-saving vaccine and thus couldn’t play in any of Brooklyn’s home games. But Harden was certainly a participant in all of these fallouts, so eyes are on him making it work in Philly. I don’t mind it, personally. Some added pressure is just fine, for it should ensure that Harden goes about this reunion with Daryl Morey and pairing with Joel Embiid with the care and seriousness that it deserves.
DE: Daryl Morey seems like the kind of person who’d look almost as closely at things that didn’t happen (but easily could have) as he does things that did. Maybe he’s lucky Harden didn’t want Howard around, as it helped them revolutionize the game together in Houston post, post-up bigs. If Chris Paul did not pull a hamstring in 2018 then there’s a great chance Harden’s clashes with CP3, Russ, and Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant never happen. In this alternate world there’s no prayer the Sixers acquire the dude who led the greatest upset in NBA history, defeating the best team ever assembled, for the package they gave up last week. Harden may still be tricky to get along with. But forging ways to get superstars to coexist is usually a prerequisite for winning titles.
Joe Vardon, The Athletic, wrote this:
“1. The Nets were in Cleveland Jan. 17. In their locker room before the game, Kyrie Irving lit ablaze some sage — a Native American ritual Irving has embraced to cleanse negative energy. Irving doesn’t do this before every game, but he apparently still feels haunted by parts of his past on the Cavs. So he lit his torch.
2. Harden, according to sources who were in the room when it happened, was seated in front of his locker, watching Irving, and looked at Kyrie like he had three heads.
3. “Definitely a weird vibe between them,” one source said. “You could tell Harden was annoyed, and Kyrie wasn’t feeling James.”
And Kendrick Perkins said some things about some possible preferential treatment Irving (hardly even around much) got in Brooklyn that Harden may not have enjoyed:
“… James Harden didn’t want to play with Kyrie Irving. Because Kyrie Irving don’t get held accountable by Steve Nash when they in film rooms but James Harden does … because Steve Nash was telling him that certain shots and certain looks wasn’t good looks but wasn’t telling the same thing to Kyrie Irving … he just didn’t wanna be there. He didn’t want to be in that culture.”
SL: I don’t have a comment about the sage, but I will say that Harden disliking Kyrie and Kyrie’s aversion to the vaccine and insistence on being a part time player because of it certainly scores him some points in my book. I’m not sure if we’re here today (with Harden as a Sixer) if Kyrie was just a garden-variety conspiracy theorist rather than a full-on anti-vaxxer to the point that he was willing to ostracize a player as great as Harden for his beliefs.
DE: I agree with the spirit of Steve’s point that Irving’s... uniqueness is a massive factor here. I have little doubt that Irving’s lack of availability this season is the biggest reason Harden is a Sixer. And yet, whether that represents 85 percent or 19 percent of the “reason pie” is still a mystery to me. For example, many of the reports have hinted that Harden rapidly grew frustrated following Irving’s reinstatement as a part-time player. And there were more than a few strong reasons to think New York might change their vax-mandate rules at some point in the future in the days leading up to the reported trade request by Harden and ensuing negotiations.
If Harden was disgusted Irving wasn’t around at all, he might have been far less disgusted when Irving was suddenly around half of the time, right? And maybe even optimistic with news he might become a full-time player in time. And yet, more Kyrie availability did not lead to more Bearded joy in Brooklyn, it led to the opposite. That has me wondering how much of this was also about a dude not wanting to plant his flag for the next 4-5 seasons with someone (or someone’s) he simply didn’t like being around and playing with.
Yaron Weitzman, reporting for Fox Sports:
“Around the same time, the Nets started losing games. Harden had seemed off all season — both during games and with his comments after them — and was growing frustrated with the situation in Brooklyn. He wanted everything catered to him the way it was in Houston, especially the offense. Kevin Durant and head coach Steve Nash disagreed. Both wanted the Nets’ offense to feature ball and player movement, and Harden, upon being rebuffed, ducked into his shell at times, according to sources, and even criticized teammates and coaches to NBA insiders sitting courtside at games.
“With James, if you’re not 100 percent on his side, you’re his enemy,” a former Rockets staffer said.”
DE: Hopefully the Sixers get a honeymoon period with everyone on their roster and win a title before they get into the next phase of marriage.
SL: What’s definitely true is that nobody makes it clearer on the court that they are outta there than James Harden. The signs were there for weeks.
“Harden would force his way to Brooklyn two months after that, when sources say Fertitta let him choose between the Sixers and the Nets and Harden unwittingly unleashed NBA chaos by opting for the latter.”
DE: We’ve seen some conflicting theories that Harden wanted to be in Philadelphia all along, going back to his time in Houston. I’m going with Amick, who says Harden wanted Brooklyn, then later changed his mind.
Brian Windhorst crushed the trade deadline. He said “we are in the deal zone between Harden and Simmons.” “The Deal Zone” has already taken on a life of its own on Twitter.
This next phrase is pretty good also.
Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported:
“IN THE FINAL minutes of negotiations, Daryl Morey was shouting to Sean Marks: “Stay on the f---ing phone!”
Shelburne and Woj, continued:
“We’re going to finish this!” Morey said. He was on the cusp of getting disgruntled star Ben Simmons out of his life and James Harden back into it, the protections on these draft picks were within reach, and Morey wanted it over. For months, everyone had told Morey to settle, cave to the marketplace’s mediocre offers and unburden the Sixers of the Simmons saga. To hell with that. Morey wanted Harden, and now it was here.
“We’re dropping F-bombs now, Daryl?” Marks said, joking.
Here was Morey, the combustible, disheveled, dealmaking junkie with an admitted habit of cursing under stress.”
DE: We need a Hard Knocks style documentary on this trade. I would watch it every day until my loved ones gave up on me.
‘Dave, it’s beautiful out do you want to go out for a -’
‘shhh, shh, watch here comes the part where Elton gets fed up and hangs up on Rich Paul and Daryl daps him up.’
SL: Absolutely love the image of a disheveled, profane, Daryl Morey in a room all alone with papers strewn all around screaming in the phone, knowing he’s moments away from not only being free from ever talking to Ben Simmons again but also being reunited with his forever prince James Harden. No wonder he was cursing. There are no time for pleasantries in the Deal Zone.
Shelburne and Woj continued:
“Harden had a reputation as passive-aggressive rather than confrontational, and that was about to create real problems for Brooklyn....
It wasn’t lost on teammates that Harden continued his late-night social activities, especially on the Nets’ last Western Conference trip this month. His play, often dispassionate and sloppy, culminated with a four-point performance in a loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings.
Marc Stein via Substack also used this passive-aggressive term to describe The Beard:
“Beyond the rampant skepticism about the severity of his latest hamstring injury, on top of the ever-present questions about his substandard conditioning and how much it contributed to his unending hamstring troubles as a Net, Harden has been a brooding presence for months. League sources say there were times before Durant’s injury that the two stars, for reasons unclear, were hardly communicating — followed by the chaos of the past few Durant-less weeks when Harden stopped connecting with anyone to passive-aggressively convey he no longer wanted to be there.
SL: That Sacramento game was absolutely a TRADE ME effort on Harden’s part, although his hamstring does now seem to have been legitimately hurting, to some degree. All of his malcontent stuff in Brooklyn certainly doesn’t bother me much as a Sixers fan since it led him to us, but we ought to log it away for future reference should the Sixers ever fall on especially hard times. Rest assured, that won’t happen in Philadelphia, of course.
DE: It’s tricky for a Sixers fan to read about these warts and red flags and resolve them with the excitement many should feel with this trade. It’s in some ways why we said up top these teams helped each other clean up their respective messes. The Sixers have to hope that Morey continues to be the Beard Whisperer and isn’t caught off guard with any future frustrations. Both Joel Embiid and James Harden have some incentive to have a better relationship with each other than they have with prior All-Stars in their rear view. If this thing in Philly blows up, nobody is getting away clean legacy wise. Not Morey, not Harden, and to a lesser degree, perhaps not even Joel.
More from Weitzman:
“[Morey] went out of his way to connect with Jo early on,” a source close to Embiid said. The two FaceTimed the day of Morey’s introductory news conference. They played tennis together. Embiid, for his part, was eager to accept the role Morey was offering, even asking Morey to lunch.
“[Embiid] has a real interest in the salary cap and team-building strategies,” the source close to Embiid said. “And he really enjoyed talking to Daryl about all of that stuff.”
Watching all of this, Ben Simmons could read the tea leaves....
“To us, it seemed like the whole reason for bringing in Morey was because they felt like that could get them Harden,” a source close to Simmons said.
“There was definitely jealousy going both ways,” another former staffer said.
“Less than a week after the Game 7 loss to the Hawks, Morey met with Simmons’ agent, Rich Paul, in Chicago at the NBA’s annual pre-draft combine. Paul told the Sixers that Simmons would not suit up for them again. The meeting was cordial. The two sides agreed to work together to find a solution.”
SL: The concerted effort by Morey to come in and show to Embiid that he is in fact the universe around whom all things Sixers revolves around may seem obvious but was incredibly important. For too long before that the front office mind-numbingly seemed to favor Simmons (a recent GM even caped for him in shadow Twitter accounts while disparaging Embiid) and Morey joining at the hip with Embiid so clearly early on was a deft and intelligent move. Clearly, it might’ve made Ben unhappy and led us to where we ended up where we did with him, but I won’t complain about that, personally. Daryl now must put in the same effort toward making sure that the same symmetry exists within he, Embiid and James Harden, for that triumvirate will decide whether or not the Sixers win the title within the next three years or so.
DE: I’d be curious to hear Morey’s thoughts on whether or not he thinks he personally made a mistake by not doing a little bit more to make Simmons feel appreciated. Could a lunch or netball date have at least avoided some of Simmons’ frustration in the end? Could they have kept one of those two picks they ponied up if Simmons had played this season?
In this pod, Matt Brooks with NetsDaily drops some inside scoops and intel, he essentially says the vaccine-related rift between Harden and Irving is the biggest reason this all happened, but that there is blame to go around; even some for Kevin Durant (having essentially picked sides). Do give Brooks a listen.
Did my best to share *everything* that I know about this situation before explaining who's to blame for the Big 3's downfall (hint: everyone).— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) February 11, 2022
Then, the four of us tackled winners, losers, predicted playoff runs for both teams, schematic options for the Nets, and much more. https://t.co/IUa7M3BFHL
DE: The idea that Kevin Durant deserves at least a portion of the blame pie, as Brooks notes, is fascinating. Did he pick a side with Kyrie? Might KD regret that?
SL: I just cannot wait for this Sixers vs. Nets rivalry.
There was so much great reporting and we couldn’t even get to a fraction of it all. But we knew we had to sneak in some reactions. Harden is in Philadelphia today, he got up some shots. He was impressed with Tyrese Maxey. He’s going to rest his tight hamstring through the All-Star break. Philly will gear up for another game without him vs. the rival Celtics Tuesday.