mail@pastecode.io avatar
2 years ago
5.7 kB

By the time this summer arrives, the truth about James Harden and his mysterious plans will be laid bare.

He’ll either bolt from Brooklyn in free agency like so many predict, leaving the Nets to wonder why they didn’t avoid that uncomfortable, costly ending to their failed partnership by playing ball in February when the Philadelphia 76ers were calling. Or — and this scenario is seeming less likely by the day — perhaps he’ll be basking in the glow of his first championship while inking a new deal with the team that refused to believe all that “outside noise” about him, as Nets coach Steve Nash called it, some months before.

If nothing changes before Thursday’s trade deadline, and if the Nets continue to keep the Sixers at bay in Harden-Ben Simmons trade talks that sources say have gone nowhere between the two teams, then those would be two extremes among the possible outcomes. But if Nets general manager Sean Marks is wrong here, and if it turns out that his view on Harden’s alleged unhappiness was off-base and they missed out on a chance to salvage the situation by landing a three-time All-Star whose contract runs through 2025 in Simmons, then this would be a miscalculation of epic proportions. And the question at the center of it all, it seems, is this: Which team has the right intel?

Truth be told, I can’t tell you. I have received no clarity from Harden himself (though we said hello briefly in San Francisco last week) or anyone close to him.

This is what I do know. I know the Nets continue to publicly claim that the level of Harden’s discontent is overblown, and I know that the Sixers — whose front office is run by the guy with more Harden history than any executive in former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — truly believe that Harden is heading elsewhere this summer.

It could be Philly, or the Clippers, or some other place where he doesn’t have to wonder if Kyrie Irving is playing that night or if his well-chronicled style of play will be pegged as a problem whenever times are tough. As our Shams Charania reported recently, there have been “growing concerns” about Harden’s style of play recently — and that was before he started missing games with a sore hamstring. But the Sixers, sources say, strongly believe he won’t re-sign with the Nets and remain hopeful that Brooklyn sees the light before the deadline buzzer sounds.

One team is right. One team is wrong. We’ll know which one did the better sleuthing soon enough.

On the Nets’ side, the notion of Harden not wanting to be there anymore would be a brutal pill to swallow. As a salt-in-the-wound reminder, let’s review their sunk cost from the Harden trade with Houston last January: They sent Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince to Cleveland, then sent Caris Levert, Rodions Kurucs, three first-round picks (2022, ’24 and ’26) and four first-round pick swaps (2021, ’23, ’25, ’27) to Houston. Landing Simmons wouldn’t erase the pain that came with paying that enormous price for Harden, but it would certainly help.

But in terms of the threat posed by the Sixers this summer, the prospect of them signing Harden outright is even more real than most likely realize. And the plan, sources say, would look like this …

Step 1: The Sixers trade Simmons and the three seasons remaining on his deal ($108.8 million combined) to a team with cap room in exchange for assets in return. Detroit, Orlando, and San Antonio already have the space, and teams like Memphis or the Rockets (who could waive and stretch John Wall) could get there fairly easily.

Step 2: Find a new home for Tobias Harris’ contract via trade, which would be challenging but likely not impossible. He’s owed a combined $79.4 million over the next two seasons. The Sixers could theoretically waive and stretch Harris as well (per our cap expert, Danny Leroux, that move would open up approximately $22.3 million in space).

Step 3: Sign Harden for either the max (starting salary of $42 million) or something close to it. And for anyone who’s hung up on the fact that the Sixers might struggle to get to Harden’s max number, consider this much: At this later stage of Harden’s career, he has made it abundantly clear that his focus is on the goal of winning a title. The belief in Philadelphia, sources say, is that he wouldn’t let $10 or $20 million (over the life of a deal) be a deal-breaker if he wanted to play for the Sixers.

So, why am I laying all of this out now? Because of the pressure that comes with the deadline of course. On both sides.

While the Sixers have made it clear for quite some time now that they’re willing to wait until this summer to pursue Harden, it would certainly be preferable to pair him with big man Joel Embiid when the Sixers’ center is in the midst of a historic, MVP-caliber run heading into the playoffs. What’s more, sources say that two of the Sixers’ other short-list targets — Portland’s Damian Lillard and Washington’s Bradley Beal — remain out of reach. Both the Trail Blazers and Wizards have recently indicated that they’re not willing to discuss their stars with the Sixers.

For the Nets, there has to be some serious concern about the situation spiraling in the next couple of months. We saw in those later stages of his Rockets life what he looks like when all is not well, and it’s … um … not pretty.

Might that compel Marks to rethink the prospect of pairing Kevin Durant and Irving with Simmons and boasting a roster that would widely be considered title-contender worthy (again)? He has 48 hours left to decide.

(Photo of Harden and Simmons: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)