The NBA trade deadline is a little over two weeks away and so far as anybody can report, no team is close to prying Ben Simmons away from the Philadelphia 76ers. Simmons, you’ll recall, has not played for the Sixers this season; the 25-year-old three-time all-star is either holding out to force the trade he requested back in August, or unable to play because of psychological troubles, or both. Nothing much has changed in this story in a while; at this point it’s far more interesting for the baroque tortures various NBA scoopsters periodically inflict upon the English language in its name than for anything they have to report.
To wit: “With Ben Simmons-James Harden trade a hope worth waiting for, sources say Sixers prefer a summer deal.” That’s the headline—the headline!—on today’s report in The Athletic, co-bylined by Shams Charania and Sam Amick, a pairing that is to the art of deranged reportorial language-mangling what Ashford & Simpson were to pop songwriting. I got a nosebleed reading that headline.
In any event, the substance of the report is this: Other teams that have tried to work out trades for Simmons now believe that, absent some trade offer in the next two weeks more attractive than getting James Harden in return for Simmons, Philadelphia’s front office intends to wait until after this season to see about acquiring Harden from the Brooklyn Nets in a sign-and-trade deal for Simmons. This fits in pretty neatly with all the reporting around Simmons and the 76ers since the early part of last season, when Philadelphia reportedly offered Simmons to Harden’s then-employer, the Rockets, during Harden’s protracted and eventually successful effort to force his way out of Houston: Philly’s Daryl Morey won’t trade Simmons for anything less than a return that values him as highly as just about any other player in the NBA.
The analysis around this stuff tends to grant that Morey is demanding, in Amick and Charania’s phrasing, a “championship-altering” return—that he wants a trade that fulfills the promise of title contention Simmons himself once was supposed to mint—but that’s not quite right. The trade deadline is Feb. 10, the championship won’t be decided before mid-June, and a lot can happen in four months, including any number and variety and geographic location of exploded ligaments. The Sixers could trade Simmons for friggin’ Kevin Huerter and draft crap, get killed in the next day’s blogs, and win a championship. They could trade him for Harden and bomb out of the first round because somebody’s elbow goes kablooey. Morey is a canny guy; what he wants is a trade that won’t need to be validated by months and months of rough basketball games and happenstance. He wants to be declared the victor no later than the day after the trade, so that he can wash his hands of whatever happens after that.
That’s probably smart, at least as an abstract arrangement of Daryl Morey’s professional priorities. After all, the Sixers could make an unimpressive trade now and also get screwed by bad luck, and then Morey, who didn’t create this mess but only inherited it, wouldn’t even have flattering coverage of his Obvious Trade Victory to show for having participated in it. It’s still a pretty big gamble, though. This plan’s success hinges on the Nets considering Simmons-for-Harden a good deal next summer—even after, as seems likely if the Sixers don’t make a move before the deadline, Simmons ends up sitting out this whole season, leaving his ugly breakdown in last summer’s playoffs as everybody’s most vivid representation of what type of basketball player they’ll be getting. And that probably hinges on the notoriously flaky Harden (who has a $47 million player option on his contract for next season and can also be an unrestricted free agent if he chooses) declaring Philadelphia(!) his preferred sign-and-trade destination, leaving the Nets to choose between losing him for Simmons—a vastly inferior player even before pooping his brain out in the 2021 playoffs and missing an entire season—or losing him for nothing at all.
Who knows. Maybe Morey and Harden already have this all worked out, in private. In the meantime, the actual Philadelphia 76ers basketball team sits at 27 wins and 19 losses, one of six teams within 2.5 games of each other at the top of the Eastern Conference. Joel Embiid, by many measures, is having the best season of his career and, health notwithstanding, will be in consideration for the MVP award. But enough of that shit. Here are some more sentences from Shams and Amick!
Although Morey is believed to be prioritizing making sure the 76ers don’t eliminate the acquisition of a star player later by doing a deal now, he also said Embiid’s recent play elevates the desire to make a trade.
And even as the league has awaited the inevitable trade of the 25-year-old, the 76ers desiring one of Morey’s longtime former stars, or someone of the same ilk in the offseason, could complicate matters.