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Will we never learn? Trade deadline thoughts on Harden, Simmons, and more

Breaking down James Harden’s value to the Sixers vs. the alternatives.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Around four years ago, I wrote a series of posts on LB — probably Fanposts as this was before I had a writing gig here — arguing that the Sixers should try to sign then-free-agent Kyle Lowry rather than pursuing JJ Redick. I was shouted down by the crowd, who said it was crazy to offer big money to a 31-year-old like Lowry who was surely entering steep decline. Lowry has a ring now, and we’ll never observe the counterfactual, but I will go to my grave believing if we’d managed to add him rather than JJ, we’d have a title or two in Philly by this point. Oh, by the way, Lowry is 35 at this writing and still terrific, leading his team to first place in the East.

Around three years ago I was pounding the table for the Sixers to keep Jimmy Butler, a true superstar who had just brought us to within a quadruple-doink of the ECF. But I was told as a player entering his 30s he was surely in decline; indeed folks had been angry when we added him because he hadn’t been playing at his best for Minnesota, where Thibs had been, supposedly, wearing him down to a nub. But since then he’s gave LeBron all he could handle in the Finals and is having another elite season for the Heat together with Lowry.

After Butler left I argued in these pages that we should offer the Thunder Ben Simmons for Chris Paul and three first-round picks, maybe even try for four. I was roundly mocked; how could anyone possibly place any value on the mid-30s CP3, who could barely get out of his wheelchair to take the court. After making the Finals last year at 35, Paul is now geezering his way to the NBA’s best record in Phoenix.

So now it’s fat, old James Harden that my fellow fans don’t want here in Philly. Why oh why would we desire a player who’s a month older than Butler and slightly younger than DeMar DeRozan, who somehow escaped the crypt to drop 45 on us over the weekend? And if we are going to hold our noses and trade our non-playing prodigal son Ben Simmons for The Beard, we certainly, the fans cry, cannot give up prodigal son-in-law Seth Curry.

Here are some deep basketball truths I wish to emphasize as we head toward the trade deadline.

1) There are players who are difference makers, and players who aren’t. Because on any given night anyone can have a breakout game, this point is often disguised. But we have the ability to measure — noisily, but in ways that for the most part wash the noise out in large samples — how many points a given player improves the team by per 48 minutes of play. Measurements of this type are known as “adjusted plus-minus” statistics. Some well-known examples are APM, RAPM, ESPN’s RPM, and 538’s RAPTOR. None of them are perfect individually, and even in combination they can’t tell you everything, especially about issues of fit, chemistry, and coaching. But if a player is consistently around +2 and another is consistently more like -1 and a third delivers figures in the +5 to +8 range, it’s exceptionally unlikely those are statistical illusions rather than real differences in contributions. Adjusted plus-minus methods ignore issues like who scores the points or grabs the rebounds and focus solely on two questions: how did the team do while you were on the court in terms of points scored and allowed? And, who else was on the court, for your team and the opposition, with you; after all we don’t want to credit you with success or failure that was caused by others.

When we look at players using these methods, we see that the very best players, when both healthy and in their prime, are capable of adding something like 10 points per 48. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the game. If two teams made up of average players were set to meet with a huge amount at stake, and the betting line was pick ‘em, and then it was announced that a healthy in-prime Durant or LeBron was replacing Joe Average on the Blue team, Blue would become a big favorite, a five or eight or 11-point favorite, even if the star could only play 36 minutes that night, not 48. We can debate whether such a star is worth eight points per 48, or 10, or 14, but it’s not two or three, right? And it’s not 20 or 30 either. It’s around 10.

2) When playing high-stakes games in such a context, it doesn’t matter very much whether you put a +0 or a +1 or a +2 or a -1 player out there. I mean, it matters! Everything matters. And at the extremes, going from -1 to +2, that actually starts to be meaningful. But if you have a 0 player, which is to say, a bad starter or a very good backup, and you replace him with a +1 player, which is to say a good starter, the 12th or 15th best player in the world at his position, you really haven’t made much impact. You’ve made about 10% of the impact of replacing a good starter with a superstar.

3) The two most important things to know in figuring out how good a healthy player is are:

-how good is that player at their peak?

-how far away from their peak are they?

In other words, if you’re as good as CP3, which is to say, about as good as anyone has ever been at the game of basketball at his peak in his late 20s, then even three or five or seven years after your peak, you’re probably a hell of a player as long as you’re healthy. Same with LeBron and Butler. Lowry was never at the level of those guys, but he was at the next level down, not +10 but maybe +4 or so. So even several years past his prime, he’s still a damn fine player. On the other hand if you’re Redick, who was a +1 in his prime, then once you’re 35 you’re probably just an OK backup, even if you take exceptional care of yourself as JJ did

4) The other kind of player who makes a huge difference in the playoffs are the giant negatives. Generally a player can only hurt you so much at the offensive end, but there’s almost no limit to how much a terrible defensive player will demolish you in the playoffs. This is another oft-hidden part of the game because in the regular season teams have little time in which to practice exposing weak links. But in the playoffs, with a day off to prep for each game and the coaches and players willing to put in extreme effort for any little edge, a bad defender such as the long-lost Marco Belinelli may actually be not a -3 defender as they appear in the regular season, but perhaps a -5 or -8 defender. I recall the Sixers putting a not-yet-ready Markelle Fultz on the court against Miami in the playoffs; Miami just scored every time, with ease, until he was quickly pulled. When the injured Greg Monroe played against Toronto during the Butler year, we were something like -9 in 90 seconds. So, those +1 and -1 players are game-changers if they are replacing a guy who torpedoes his own team in big games. It’s not that those guys aren’t important, having one is huge. It’s just that if we’d had either a -1, backup-quality player or a +1 good starter to back up Embiid, either way we’d have been OK. It just can’t be a semi-retired guy with a sprained ankle! I’ll add that sometimes it can be hard to tell which is which, because, again, the playoffs are different. It’s crucial to guess right whether players like Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz can be useful minute-fillers in the playoffs or if they’re going to get roasted. If the latter, then adding a boring vet who can avoid disaster when the starters are off the court is crucial and you might have to sacrifice young talent or draft capital to add that guy. If the folks we have can hold the fort for a few 4-minute stretches, that’s a different story.

5) Those +1 players who don’t make much difference are seriously good NBA players! A list of players at that approximate level would include near-prime guys like CJ McCollum and up-and-comers who will eventually be a lot better than +1, like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Tyrese Halliburton.

6) If a player is injured but plays anyway instead of sitting out, he can appear to be much less skilled than he is. Relatedly, injuries can take much longer to recover from than fans tend to appreciate. It’s common for fans to write off a superstar in his late 20s or early 30s after they have a not-so-great season-and-a-half after returning from injury. And sometimes the fans are right! But very, very often the player returns, if not quite to their former stellar peak, to an exceptionally high level.

7) This point about how superstars are still great until late ages — hey, did I mention that 34-year-old Mike Conley is having another superb year? And so is left-for-dead Kevin Love? — may be pretty new. I think one reason we fail to appreciate how consistently the really good ones stay terrific for a long time is that we’ve had huge advances in medicine, surgery, nutrition, etc. Maybe disallowed or gray-area stuff like steroids or HGH are playing a role as well, I’m not sure. I’m just saying, people think that careers should last only about as long as careers did in Larry Bird’s day, but it’s a different world now.

8) When a player doesn’t care about doing well, or even deliberately wants to do poorly so as to encourage a trade, they may appear far, far worse than their true level of ability. If a player is both injured _and_ disgruntled, then they _really_ may appear less valuable than they are capable of being. Sixer fans once again decided that Kyle Lowry was over the hill last season and were furious about the team’s attempts to trade for him. And he did in fact play not so great last year! But now he’s healthy and happy and, guess what? He’s still good! Same with Butler in Minny as mentioned above; he wasn’t showing the actual goods, and indeed even with the Sixers he didn’t give 100% until the playoffs, at which point we saw the real Jimmy.

9) All teams would like to add not just a superstar, but a superstar who is healthy, in his prime, and who has a great, coachable, team-first attitude. Obviously these are hard to obtain. But it’s worse than that: how many such players even exist at any given moment? Right now we have our Joel, plus Giannis and the Joker and ... that’s about it, right? Steph and Butler and LeBron are old. AD and Kawhi and PG-13 are injured most of the time. Ja and LaMelo will probably be great someday but right now they’re just good, super-exciting players, not +5 or +8 or +10 guys. Tatum? Maybe Luka; he’s having a down year but he’s so young and so good... anyway, you get the point, there’s virtually no one. And then to the extent a few do exist, obviously no one is looking to trade someone like that. Pop didn’t trade Duncan! If you want a player of that quality, there’s going to be hair on the deal; he’s injured, or he’s aging, or he’s being difficult... probably all three!

OK, those are some big-picture lessons. With those in mind, let’s lay out some plain facts about some of the key individuals in the current rumors. I use RAPTOR as my go-to for plus-minus stats, but if you think my summary of a player’s contribution is way off — not a little off, like I say he’s +0.5 and you think he’s +1.5, but way off — then look and see if you can find any credible evidence that his team plays a lot worse when he’s not on the floor. You can use other adjusted +/- stats like RAPM and RPM, or use lineup data, or see how his teams have done over the years when he’s injured... something that actually relates to winning and losing at hoops, rather than racking up meaningless stats.

A) James Harden has not been special this season. And if you believe this is the best he’s capable of playing, it would be nuts to obtain him and super-nuts to pay him a quarter-billion dollars.

But Harden has shown the ability to be a difference-maker, to the extreme. And not 10 years ago, not 5 years ago... just one year ago! And the year before that, and the year before that, and on and on and on. Last year, as a 31-year-old with recurring hamstring issues, he was a +5.6 in RAPTOR. That was a huge comedown, as he was above +10 each of the previous three seasons. But it still is the kind of figure that, if you play 70+ games, puts you in the thick of the MVP race.

Meanwhile, +10!! For three straight seasons, ending less than two years ago! That is so enormously good it’s hard to fathom. Simmons has been around +2 or +3 over the past couple seasons; the difference between Simmons and an average starter is a small fraction of the equivalent difference for Harden pre-Brooklyn; Ben was around 1.5 points better than average-starter and Beard 8.5, almost six times as much of an upgrade. Even last year’s Harden was as big an upgrade as trading three average starters for Ben-Simmons-level players. It’s a painful fact about life that some people are so ridiculously much better than even the truly excellent, but if one refuses to accept this hard truth one will struggle to build organizations that excel.

So that’s Harden. My guess is that if he’s fully healthy and happy, he’s a +7 player, about 3/4 as good at 32 as he was at 30; I think if you look at other mega-talents like LeBron, CP3, Durant, Butler, etc. you’ll see that’s a normal dropoff, these guys have shown no propensity in the past decade to fall off a cliff in their early 30s. Right now he’s some combination of injured and malingering. It’s a shame, but again, if he were happy and healthy he wouldn’t be available, no way, no how! It’s up to each of us to guess whether, this year and for the next few, he’s 10 percent likely to be up near the level he’s capable of, or 30 percent, or 50 percent or 70 percent or what. I say it’s over 50 percent. Fifty percent to be worth four Ben Simmons-level talents. But if you think it’s 15 percent, you’ll oppose the trade, and you’ll be right to do so conditional on that belief.

On to some other relevant folks.

B) We’ve already covered Ben, who is super-disgruntled with no realistic hope of us re-gruntling him, and who frankly is very-good-not-great even when he is a) willingly playing and b) not refusing dunks and missing almost all his free throws. What about the other players in this drama?

C) Seth Curry is a +0 player. He’s not a great starter, or a good starter, or an average starter. Last year he was around +0. This year he’s -0.5. In the years before he got to Philly he was generally negative, but people said he hadn’t found the right team and niche. Now he has a team and niche that people think is so perfect that they’re desperate not to trade him. But he’s still basically neutral. And we know why! Offensively he’d be great if he could shoot 9 threes a game and hit at such a high percentage, but he doesn’t do that, he only shoots a handful. So offensively he’s good but not great Defensively he’s awful. And as we saw with Kevin Heurter in the playoffs, it’s possible he’s not just bad as a playoff defender, but actually devastating, a Belinelli type you really need to keep off the floor. But even if that isn’t so, he just isn’t anything special. We’d be crazy to turn down a Harden deal over him, and indeed I’d much rather keep Danny Green, who is consistently around +2, even in this season which has felt disappointing.

D) Tyrese Maxey is around +0 so far this season but he was lower earlier and so his recent play is probably around +1. He’s a good starter now, I’d guess, and of course he’s young and improving, so has tremendous value. I would refuse to trade him in a Harden deal unless the deal didn’t include Simmons! I.e. if they want Maxey and Tobi for Harden, count me in, but I assume nothing like that is being considered. By the way, the other Tyrese, Halliburton, is similar in age and quality; he’s at +1.6 in RAPTOR right now and also has played very well lately as he’s been paired less with Fox. I love Halliburton as a prospect and would not cry if we traded Simmons for Hali, Barnes, and picks. But Barnes is nothing special and Hali is good-not-great, adding them would do little to make us a serious contender this year. Look at the talent teams like Milwaukee and Phoenix put out when they are healthy, and you’ll see that, terrific as Joel is, it would be unreasonable to expect him to carry a team with no other player above +2.2 to the promised land.

E) The +2.2 player is Matisse, who has been the Sixers’ second-best adjusted +/- player both last year (when he was even higher in RAPTOR) and this. He’s wonderful and would, in my opinion, fit beautifully on a team with two ace scorers in Embiid and Harden and two other solid scorers in Tobi and Maxey. If you’re worried that Joel and The Beard will take too many shots, you’ll definitely agree with me that we need to keep Matisse around.

F) As mentioned, Green has played around +2 this year, last year, and in previous years, he’s terrific and still underrated despite all the rings. Let’s keep him if we can, but he wouldn’t be a dealbreaker for me given his age and injury issues.

G) I should take a moment to mention that Bradley Beal is just not that special and I’d be hugely disappointed if we trade Simmons for him. It absolutely boggles my mind that people compare him and Harden. Let’s line them up:

Beal vs. Harden

Skills Scoring Distributing Rebounding Defense Plus/minus at peak
Skills Scoring Distributing Rebounding Defense Plus/minus at peak
Beal Excellent OK OK Terrible plus-3
Harden Historic Excellent Excellent * plus-10

*People have always said Harden is a bad defender, but I wonder. Pre-Brooklyn he was often among the league leaders among guards in steals and stocks (steals + blocks). It’s quite rare for a player to dominate in stocks and be a bad defender, and even rarer for a player to dominate in stocks and be considered a bad defender! His defensive +/- numbers are lousy this year but have often been quite good. I’m blind so I can’t do the “eye test” and I don’t want to dismiss eye tests just because I am incapable. But my guess is that when he cares, he’s a very good defender and on average he’s not great but he’s much, much better than Beal, who is always poor.

Basically, in his very best years Beal is around +3 but he has lots of years where he’s in the -1 to +1 range, which is not normal for a superstar. And that’s because he’s not a superstar, he’s a very good player who gets treated like a star because the thing he’s good at is the thing people notice, points. And then sometimes people call him a superstar rather than star because... I don’t know how to finish that sentence.

So here’s the upshot. If the Sixers believe James Harden will not be healthy this year or next, they should stay away. If they think his health risk is real but basically the normal risk of any NBA player who’s dinged up — look how many games Seth and Danny have missed the past two years! — then they should try really, really hard to get him. The rhetoric I hear is all consistent with both teams posturing but basically both knowing the core deal is Ben and Seth for Harden. Maybe the Sixers have to add draft capital, maybe not, that’s why the posturing is needed. My read is that the Sixers are saying Maxey is off the table, take Danny. And the Nets are saying, no way for Danny, it has to be Seth or Matisse. And I think the Sixers would rather give Seth and a first-rounder than give Matisse, so I think that’s around what will happen. Unless of course there’s no deal; after all, you can never win a negotiation unless you’re willing to walk away.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss one other topic. If the Sixers trade Seth and Ben for Harden, do they have enough to win it all? I say yes, but we’d be wise to add another playoff-quality player. I consider Niang (for all that I love him and his game!), along with Shake, Furk, Joe, Bball Paul, and others as guys who may or may not be playoff ready. I mean, Shake has been sufficiently tested that I doubt he’ll murder us out there, but just saying if we’re going for all the marbles I’d prefer to not have to count on those guys. So that gives us 48 minutes of center play from Joel and Drummond (offensively poor this season but dominant defensively so won’t kill us come May). Forty-eight minutes of SF play from Matisse and Danny. And 36 minutes each from Toby, Maxey and Harden, leaving us needing 36 more minutes to fill out the requisite 240. Maybe Danny can play some SG or Matisse some PF but, again, risky. So I’d like to see us add one more player after the hypothetical Harden deal. My own preference is for Patrick Beverley, a longtime +/- superstar whose career was derailed for a while by a horrible knee injury. He’s having a great year for Minnesota and brings his trademark mix of ballhandling, passing, shooting, defense, and toughness. I figure with Beverley expiring a first-rounder plus Shake or Furkan or some salary-cap-appropriate combo like that would be an overpay but worth it to win a title! I’d pull the trigger even though a similar move for George Hill failed last season — second time’s a charm! This would give us a guard rotation of Harden-Maxey-Beverley, a forward rotation of Matisse-Tobi-Danny, and our usual center rotation. If we can get +10 Harden back we’ll win the title, and if we get +6 Harden we’ll have a hell of a shot. I say let’s take it.