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Thursday, February 10, 2022

Nets Trade Disgruntled James Harden for Disgruntled 76er Ben Simmons

Violating the terms of a signed contract is a powerful bargaining tool, at least if you are a highly paid NBA star. Ben Simmons, under contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, decided prior to this season that he did not want to play for the team any more, so he has missed every game this season. James Harden, under contract with the Brooklyn Nets, decided that he did not want to play for the team any more, so he played indifferently, claimed to be injured, and made it clear that he will never play hard for the team again. Simmons and Harden leveraged their refusal to honor their signed contracts into obtaining what they wanted, and they have now been traded for each other: Simmons is going to Brooklyn along with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first round draft picks in exchange for Harden and Paul Millsap. 

Right after the trade was announced, ESPN's Richard Jefferson correctly noted that everyone wants to win but there is a big difference between wanting to win and doing what is necessary to win: "At what point in time has James Harden ever done what it takes to win?" The answer to Jefferson's question is obvious: James Harden is soft and he is a fraud. He quits when the going gets even mildly difficult. Harden pouted his way out of Houston, played (relatively) hard for a little while in Brooklyn, and now he has pouted his way out of Brooklyn to work for 76ers "stat guru"/president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, the only person in the world who believes that Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan

Regardless of all of the breathless reporting about Simmons' mental state and Harden's hamstring, I am going to go out on what I believe to be a very sturdy limb: as soon as Harden and Simmons pass the mandatory physical exams required as part of any NBA trade, both will play for their new teams without any sign of physical or mental issues. I am not minimizing the importance of mental health in general or Simmons' mental health in particular, nor am I categorically stating that Harden is not injured enough to be missing games; I am just stating my opinion that, regardless of what others may be reporting, I expect that both players will be available to play very soon.

Assuming that both Harden and Simmons are healthy and available, how should this trade be evaluated? Here is a brief skill set evaluation of both players:

James Harden Scouting Report

Harden rebounds very well for a guard. He defends the post well for a guard. He is an excellent free throw shooter. He can make the two passes that every competent ballhandler in the NBA is expected to make in today's game: the drive and kick pass to the three point shooter in the corner, and the lob pass to a rolling big man off of a basic screen/roll action. 

Harden is a traffic cone when he defends on the perimeter, and he generally trots back on defense as opposed to sprinting back on defense. His ability to draw fouls is highly dependent on how the game is officiated; he is the king of "flop and flail" but this season he has been affected more than any other star player by the NBA's belated decision to officiate games correctly and stop giving unfair advantages to perimeter scorers. Harden has a lengthy resume of playoff choking, and in general when he faces any sort of meaningful challenge he pouts and quits.

Ben Simmons Scouting Report

Simmons is an elite defender, rebounder, and passer. He owns a 15.9 ppg career scoring average with a .560 career field goal percentage. His size, length, and athleticism enable him to play multiple positions and have a significant impact at both ends of the court.

Simmons is a notoriously poor and reluctant outside shooter/free throw shooter. He often plays with a low motor and low energy level.

James Harden versus Ben Simmons

James Harden is a better scorer than Ben Simmons. Simmons is better than Harden in every other important skill set area: defense, rebounding, passing, ballhandling (per minute, during their careers Simmons has averaged more assists, more steals, and fewer turnovers than Harden; those numbers are not the only ways to evaluate ballhandling, but they are indicative that Simmons plays the "possession game" at both ends of the court better than Harden does). The 32 year old Harden has never kept himself in peak condition, and it is evident that this is catching up with him now. The 25 year old Simmons missed his first season due to a foot injury, but since that time he has been durable--at least until he refused to play this season. 

Simmons is bigger, more athletic, and younger than Harden. He is better than Harden at everything except scoring. Assuming that Simmons is the same player when he returns to action that he was for his first four seasons, he is a better player now than Harden, and without question he is a better fit for the Nets, who need size, defense, and playmaking.   

The other players and assets involved in the trade must also be mentioned. 

Brooklyn is the clear winner of the "below the marquee" portion of this trade. Seth Curry is an elite three point shooter who is averaging a career-high 15.0 ppg this season. He will be a valuable rotation player for the Nets. Andre Drummond is a four-time rebounding champion who is averaging 8.8 rpg this season in just 18.4 mpg. He can provide a physical presence for a Nets team that lacks size and physicality. The two first round picks obviously will not help the Nets this season, but those are assets that can be used to acquire young talent either directly via the draft, or in future trades.

In contrast, Paul Millsap has averaged 3.4 ppg on .376 field goal shooting in 24 games this season. He is a four-time All-Star but he turned 37 today and it is difficult to picture him having much of an impact for Philadelphia.

This deal favors Brooklyn, but the key for the Nets' championship hopes is the healthy return of Kevin Durant. If Durant comes back soon and resumes playing at an MVP level then the Nets will be very dangerous, regardless of their playoff seeding. Without MVP level Durant, the Nets will not win a championship, or even a playoff series.

It is not hard to figure out what Morey is thinking. He believes that NBA championships are won by superstar players, and that it is worth it to get rid of even several quality players and first round draft picks to obtain a superstar player. The problem is not Morey's operating theory in this situation so much as how he is applying that theory in the real world. The bottom line is that James Harden is not a superstar who can lead a team to a championship--never was, never will be. Further, Harden does not mesh well with other star players because he (1) has a poor work ethic that permeates the team, (2) he monopolizes the ball, and (3) you cannot rely on him when the going gets tough. 

One might argue that the 76ers won because they "gave up nothing" (i.e., a player who refuses to play for their team) to obtain an All-Star player. The main flaw with that assessment is that the 76ers did not "give up nothing": they gave up a 25 year old All-Star, an outstanding shooter who can start or provide instant offense as a reserve, an elite rebounder, and two first round draft picks in a league that considers first round draft picks to be very valuable assets. Simmons' decision to no longer play for Philadelphia tells us something about him, but it also tells us something about the ham-handed way that Morey's franchise dealt with their young star. If Simmons becomes a flop in Brooklyn, then perhaps we can conclude that the 76ers were smart to get rid of a non-performing asset--but if Simmons has a productive 10 year career with the Nets then this deal is a disaster for the 76ers unless the Embiid-Harden duo wins at least one championship. The 76ers have a small championship window, but they will be on the hook to pay Harden over $200 million (assuming that he signs a max level extension), which could turn out to be the worst contract in NBA history.

Embiid is a very gifted player but he is rarely in top condition and his playoff resume is littered with injuries and inconsistent play: he has appeared in seven playoff series but he shot .500 or better from the field in only two of those series, which speaks volumes about his shot selection and/or conditioning, because he is capable of being an efficient scorer. He has the necessary talent to be the best player on a championship team, but I would be surprised if he wins a title as the best player. 

Harden has already proven that he cannot be the best player on a championship team. When he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder early in his career, he chafed at being the third option. One would assume that he understands the pecking order in Philadelphia, but time will tell. As Harden's skills decline and as the league moves away from rewarding "flop and flail," it is not clear if Harden can be the second best player on a championship team. The fit with Embiid and Harden looks clunky: they are two players who love playing isolation ball and who do not provide much value offensively when they are not playing isolation ball.

It will be amusing watching Harden's inevitable playoff collapse ensure that the 76ers are not rewarded for trying to "tank to the top."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:11 PM



At Friday, February 11, 2022 4:39:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Thank you David. The last two lines of your post is a HUGE red flag that literally no one is talking about. I don't understand it. I don't see how this helps Philly. I could kind of see how Damian Lillard would help (though he needs the ball in his hands too). Harden is at his best when he has a rim-running big who is a lob threat. Embiid is at worst the second best big man in the league today, but rim-running is not something he does well.

Harden needs to play a certain way to be a "superstar". When he can't play that way, he has proven a few things:

1. He doesn't bring much else of value to the table
2. He is actually a detriment to both the offense and the defense
3. He pouts and quits on his team and seeks greener pastures

The first two things are what everyone is KILLING Russell Westbrook for.

Yet, somehow Harden has gotten a pass even though their situations are identical save for point #3. Both were brought in as the "third" superstar. Both have very specific skillsets that won them MVPs. Both need to be the center of the team's offense to be effective. Both struggle if they are not playing exactly to their strengths. Both are on max contracts. Both have shown marginal decline to their games this year. Both have struggled in the postseason. Both have had their superstar teammates in and out of the lineup all season. Both of their teams had Championship aspirations (and were the presumptive favorites). Both teams were vastly underperforming with them being the two constants throughout this season.

Yet, only one of them sat out with a manufactured injury. That same one was leaking information to the media about wanting out midseason. He is also the only one who demanded to be traded...now twice, over the past two seasons. That same one has struggled to play nice with other superstars for nearly a decade. He also has thrown those superstar teammates under the bus (Howard, Paul, Westbrook, now Irving (wholly deserved and justified here but still)) This same individual has not improved any aspect of his game and instead is known as an infamous partier who has not maintained great fitness the last several years.

And what blows my mind, that individual is being lauded and praised and remains highly touted and sought after. Most pundits are calling this a huge win for Philly and justification for Morey.

I just...don't understand the world sometimes.

At Friday, February 11, 2022 5:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome!

Lillard would be a better fit than Harden, but I would not expect an Embiid-Lillard duo to win a title, either.

I agree with you that Westbrook is being "killed" this season regarding points 1 and 2, but I disagree with your implied agreement with those assessments. You are perhaps correct that there has been a "marginal" decline in Westbrook's skills, but even that is difficult to assess considering how the Lakers are misusing him. The per minute numbers and the eye test show that Westbrook is basically the same player now that he has been throughout his career. In the past week or so, he has played poorly at times, but his team is a dysfunctional mess that blames him for everything, and his home fans are booing him sometimes. He would have to be a cyborg or a Vulcan to not be affected by everything that is swirling around him. It also appears that he may have been playing through a back injury.

With Harden, matters are much clearer. He has declined, he has had trouble adjusting to games being officiated correctly, he is out of shape, he either has a chronic hamstring problem or he is faking an injury to express his dissatisfaction (we will find out the truth as soon as we see how quickly he hits the court once he joins the 76ers).

Like you, I don't understand the world. Harden is a 2022 All-Star, and his arrival in Philly supposedly is the final piece to their championship puzzle. It will be interesting to listen to Morey and Harden making excuses after Philly falls way short in the postseason.


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