The careers of James Harden and Ben Simmons have been intertwined before. At the start of last season, back when the bearded one-time MVP was doing everything he could to force his way out of the Houston Rockets, Simmons was reportedly the centerpiece of the Philadelphia 76ers’ trade offer for Harden. It made sense: Daryl Morey, the architect of Harden’s very good Rockets teams during their time together in Houston, had just jumped to the 76ers, and badly wanted to pair his old star with his new star (Joel Embiid).
Ultimately, the Sixers finished second in the Harden sweepstakes, as Houston chose a bundle of future draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets rather Philly’s Simmons-centric package. The aftershock of that almost trade is still reverberating more than a year later.
Simmons went on to have a good season with the Sixers, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting, earning his third All-Star nod, and playing a key role on a team that clinched the No. 1 seed in the East heading into the playoffs. That’s where it all fell apart: Simmons famously struggled as the Sixers were upset in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks, with missed free throws and an aversion to attempting even wide open dunks defining his very public decline. Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid more or less threw him under the bus after the series was over.
Simmons hasn’t wanted to play for Philadelphia since. Simmons filed a trade demand, despite being under contract for the next three seasons. The 76ers acknowledged Simmons’ desire to be traded, but they still haven’t found a deal they’re willing to accept.
Two hours away in Brooklyn, Harden had what was ultimately a trying first season with his new team. The Nets were the title favorites on paper heading into the playoffs, but Harden went down in the first minute of the first game in Brooklyn’s second round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Kyrie Irving went down with an injury too later in the series. A Nets Big 3 that was almost never completely healthy during the regular season was again severely compromised at the most important part of the season, and the Bucks eventually advanced in a hard-fought seven-game series.
As the new season approached and Simmons’ trade demand was taking the news cycle hostage, another super bizarre NBA storyline emerged: Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. When New York City passed a mandate just before training camp that players would have receive a shot of the vaccine or be ineligible to play, Irving was banished away from the team — at least until the Nets went back on their word and let him play road games starting in January.
The cost of Irving’s absence has been more stress on Harden and co-star Kevin Durant. Now 32 years old, Harden started slow while he tried to adjust to the league’s new foul drawing rules and attempted to get right from the hamstring injury suffered in last season’s playoffs. Harden has still been awesome this season, he’s just been less awesome than he usually is, putting up his worst numbers since he final year in OKC.
Harden is still playing a ton of minutes — 37 per night, to be exact, the second most in the NBA behind Fred VanVleet.
If Irving was a full-time player, Harden would likely be feeling less strain right now. Unfortunately, Kyrie is still foolishly refusing to get the jab. How does Harden feel about that?
Is James Harden still holding out hope that Kyrie Irving can play at Barclays Center?— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) January 13, 2022
"I'm gonna give him the shot" pic.twitter.com/1tupopQFpT
Did we mention Harden is going to be a free agent after this year? After turning down an extension offer from the Nets just before the season, Harden will be the biggest name on the market this summer. He’s never been an unrestricted free agent in his career before, and there have been rumblings he intends to test the open market, even if there remains a strong possibility he signs back with Brooklyn.
Got all that? Now let’s talk about the latest round of Harden-for-Simmons rumors that have dominated the NBA water cooler talk to start this week.
Simmons trade talk has ignited again with the NBA trade deadline just weeks away. With Joel Embiid having an MVP-level season, are the Sixers really risk throwing that away to play hardball with Simmons? It seems so. The Sixers are reportedly still infatuated with Harden, and they’re holding onto Simmons with the hope of making good on the swap again after this year.
But multiple sources, including people with direct knowledge of the team’s thinking and also from rival teams involved on the Simmons front, tell The Athletic that the 76ers are believed to prefer to wait in order to pursue Harden or another superstar in the offseason and thus want to save Simmons for that potential sign-and-trade rather than take what’s available on the current market.
While Harden remains invested in Brooklyn’s push for a championship this season, his eyes are starting to wander. From Jake Fischer at Bleacher Report:
Harden has recently informed several confidants—including former teammates and coaches—of his interest in exploring other opportunities outside of Brooklyn this summer, league sources told B/R.
His new city could also be an issue. According to multiple sources, Harden has not enjoyed living in Brooklyn, compared to his days as a central Houston magnate. Outside of the change in climate, the chasm between state taxes in New York versus Texas is quite obvious as well.
Again, the Sixers are said to be heavily interested in Harden if he wants out of Brooklyn. Harden has some interest in the Sixers, too. While Philly won’t have any cap space this summer, they will have arguably the best trade chip on the market in Simmons, as long as they don’t deal him at the trade deadline.
Can a Simmons-for-Harden trade actually happen?
Sure it can. It makes a lot of sense for both sides.
If Harden wants to leave Brooklyn, the Nets will likely accommodate him with where he wants to go. Simmons would be a tremendous return, and would slide in nicely between Durant and Irving on the Nets.
The Harden-Embiid pairing would make the Sixers are championship contender in the East. Simmons would bring defensive versatility and intensity to Brooklyn, and his lack of shooting would look less disastrous next to two ace outside threats in KD and Kyrie.
It makes too much sense for it not to happen. It seems like it would satisfy all parties involved, too.
The Nets will want to re-sign Harden, first and foremost. But if Harden wants to leave, getting Simmons in return is a nice consolation.
The bizarre Simmons-Kyrie-Harden storylines are all converging. Maybe Simmons will get traded by the Feb. deadline this season after all. But if he doesn’t, the Simmons-for-Harden smoke isn’t going away.