The James Harden for Ben Simmons trade could be a win-win

Brooklyn Nets, NBA, Philadelphia 76ers

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An even(ish) swap of two rares is an exceedingly rare occurrence, especially at the NBA Trade Deadline. But James Harden for Ben Simmons could be a win-in.

The Nets’ big three dissolved before it ever fully came together, broken apart more by the constantly changing forces of the NBA trade market than any real on-court issues. When they played together, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were among the most lethal trios in recent NBA vintage, shredding opposing defenses with devastating precision while beautifully complementing one another’s skill sets.

Recurring injuries to Harden and Durant, however, along with Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19, limited the three players to just 235 total minutes together — regular season and playoffs included — and whatever internal strife existed within the team grew to the point that the Nets finally decided they’d be better off with Ben Simmons in Harden’s place, thus marking the end of an era that never really began.

These sorts of star-for-star challenge trades aren’t common in the NBA. It’s not often that two teams with disgruntled All-Stars find natural trade partners in one another, but this deal seems to benefit both sides.

Ben Simmons can solve the Brooklyn Nets enormous defensive problems

As dynamic as Brooklyn could be offensively with three elite on-ball creators, that all-in offensive approach came with a significant tradeoff on the defensive end. The Nets scored over 123 points per 100 possessions in that limited time with Harden, Durant and Irving on the floor, but they also gave up more than 114 points per 100, offering opponents multiple weak links to attack without a real perimeter stopper (or rim protector). Simmons solves that issue — assuming he eventually becomes mentally ready to play — giving Brooklyn an all-world on-ball defender across multiple positions that can handle the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter and slide Durant, Irving and the rest of the team into more suitable defensive roles.

Simmons’ inability to space the floor obviously imposes offensive constraints Harden didn’t (although Harden isn’t the world’s most deadly off-ball weapon either), but if there’s any team that should be able to accommodate Simmons’ specific limitations, it’s one with the ability to surround him with four 3-point shooters and two elite individual shot creators.

In Joe Harris, Patty Mills and Seth Curry (who also came to Brooklyn in this trade) the Nets have three shooters who, when healthy, have hit at least 40 percent from deep on over five attempts per game this season (and two of the five best 3-point shooters, by percentage, in NBA history). Add in Durant and Irving’s off-the-dribble mid-range prowess, and you get something close to the ideal scenario for Simmons’ drive-and-kick offensive game to sing.

Simmons is a difficult fit with Nic Claxton, Andre Drummond and the Nets’ other non-shooting bigs, and Steve Nash will occasionally have to choose between compromising the offense by playing two non-shooters or compromising the defense by playing four-out around Simmons. But the bet is that Brooklyn has enough shooting and creation to maintain an elite — if slightly less devastating — offense in spite of those spacing concerns while significantly upgrading on the other end.

The key question is how many of those shooters the Nets will have available at a given time — specifically in the playoffs. Durant is currently slated to be out through at least the All-Star break with a sprained MCL (not a great situation), Irving can’t currently play in home games (also not great), and Harris is out indefinitely and could require another surgery to address an ankle injury (decidedly un-great). We have seen time and again how damaging Simmons’ weaknesses can be in the wrong environment, and it will be a while before the Nets can put that optimal personnel around him.

Brooklyn could badly miss Harden’s more resilient offensive creation in the meantime, and figuring out how to orient the offense around Simmons and (sometimes) Irving while Durant recovers will be tricky. Neither is remotely on Harden’s level as a pick-and-roll creator and removing the offensive floor Harden provided will make Brooklyn more prone to variance in the time Durant is out.

The tradeoff, however, is a more balanced and more varied team. Curry is a dynamic off-ball threat who, along with Patty Mills, can help discombobulate opposing defenses by running off of screens, working dribble-handoff actions with Simmons and Durant, relocating along the perimeter while Durant and Irving cook in isolation and generally providing space for Brooklyn’s stars to operate. Simmons will help juice what has been a middling transition offense, and so long as he’s the same defensive force he was a year ago, the Nets could be better in the aggregate with a significantly stingier unit on the other end.

The Philadelphia 76ers made a win-now gamble on James Harden

The 76ers may have had even more urgency to reach a deal than the Nets did. Philadelphia always seemed a natural destination for Harden, given his relationship with current Sixers GM Daryl Morey and the inevitability that Simmons would be traded, and pulling this deal off without parting with emergent point guard Tyrese Maxey or All-Defensive candidate Matisse Thybulle marks a massive win for Philadelphia. Curry was a key part of the 76ers’ offensive success this season, but sacrificing a solid starting guard is a relatively small price to pay for a perennial All-Star — even one that has shown signs of slowing down.

As with Simmons and Durant, Harden isn’t a perfect fit with Joel Embiid, who prefers surveying the floor from the top of the key or the low post over screening and rolling or quickly pinging the ball around the floor. Harden plays much the same way, only from 30 feet out on the floor rather than from the paint, and has been fairly uncompromising in the way he plays over the course of his career. Doc Rivers will also likely lean toward staggering his two stars so that each has 10-15 minutes per game in which they’re the sole focal point of the offense, but getting the most out of this pairing will require each to reorient their games slightly, a process that will take time as the two get a sense of how to play with one another.

For Harden, that could mean moving more often and more decisively without the ball while Embiid runs the offense, or at least taking more (read: any) catch-and-shoot 3s. For Embiid, it might require converting three or four post touches per game into rolls to the rim. Rolls have accounted for just 13 percent of Embiid’s shot attempts this season, and while he isn’t a particularly explosive lob catcher, he has been an effective finisher on those plays and should become more dangerous playing with a passer of Harden’s caliber. Running Harden off handoffs from Embiid could be a way to activate the former as an off-ball mover and the latter as a downhill finisher more often.

Still, with Curry out of the mix, Thybulle (a 32 percent 3-point shooter) in line for more minutes and neither star a particularly eager transition attacker, the fit between Harden and Embiid may be clunkier than most hypothetical fits between two top-15 players. As with the Nets, there will be an adjustment period in which the two aren’t on the same page, the offense stalls and the two jostle for the same spots on the court. And yet, that may all be overthinking things. Embiid has been, at worst, a top-six player in the NBA this season; Harden is likely somewhere in the top 12 when he’s healthy and interested. Morey’s modus operandi has always been to acquire as much star talent as possible and figure the rest out later. He checked off the first box Thursday afternoon; now begins the process of making it work.

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