What in the world is happening with the Brooklyn Nets? We don’t have time for extended scene-setting, which has been done elsewhere anyway; the situation is urgent. You know the basics, which are also the crushing complexities: Kevin Durant is hurt, Kyrie Irving is an under-performing part-time player, and James Harden is in a malaise-rich decline as the team has lost eight straight and fallen into the fraught purgatorial realm of the Eastern Conference’s play-in bracket. With the NBA’s trade deadline coming later this week, smoke abounds about what big moves they may or may not make to shake things up before they fall even further, and before Harden’s free agency becomes a perhaps even thornier existential dilemma for them this summer.
Not long ago, things looked and felt very differently. As recently as January 12th, Irving played his third game of the season against the Chicago Bulls, a team that had beaten the Nets twice in their ascent to the top of the conference. It was a statement game for Brooklyn, who destroyed their new foe on the road, 138-112. Irving had an underwhelming game by his standards–nine points, three assists–but the amount of attention he demands from defenses clearly opened space for Harden, Durant, and the team’s spot-up shooters, and in that space they thrived. Given that the beat-down was administered without even having ace perimeter spacer Joe Harris out there, things were starting to look very bright for the Nets.
Not anymore. Durant’s reliable scoring ballast and general winsmanship is gone for a while longer, and it appears to have been too important to lose. Harden cannot replace him, or even come close. Irving, when on the floor, is looking for a rhythm that he won’t find with such sporadic playing time. And given Harden’s impending decision about where he continues his career, this is not a wait-it-out predicament. Not only is the bomb ticking loudly, but the countdown has gotten to terrifyingly tiny numbers.
Enter the Philadelphia 76ers. Through the 2021-22 season, they have managed their own fragile and combustible core element, with sidelined All-Star Ben Simmons demanding a trade and refusing to take the floor. His absence has, ultimately, been more generative and less distracting for his team than Irving’s here-today-gone-tomorrow status; the Sixers are playing like a team that will never have Simmons back rather than one uncertain about his availability, giving the ball to Tyrese Maxey as if it will be his for years to come.
The results from that, and from a healthier-than-ever Joel Embiid picking up some of Simmons’ playmaking and transition momentum responsibilities, have been so promising that it’s fair for their fans to wonder whether they actually want to bring Harden in. He will become one of the highest-paid players in the league this summer, as he enters his mid-thirties with dubious upside and longevity. That being said: the man is one of the best to play the game for the past decade, and combined with Embiid he makes Philadelphia a more serious title contender. What else could you really ask for, especially in return for someone who isn’t even playing?
The idea should be a home run for both sides, in theory. Harden is a better fit and a better player than Simmons—with Embiid, he could be half of the greatest inside-out offensive duo in the sport. If he has even two thirds of his old MVP juice left in him, and if the two players develop any meaningful chemistry, they could for a time become one of the greatest offensive pairings ever. From Brooklyn’s end of things, Simmons is not another redundant volume scorer, but rather a perfectly complementary defensive workhorse and utility man next to Durant and Irving. Whatever his shortcomings as a prospective A1 star may be, one thing Simmons has proven himself to be, especially during Embiid’s many absences, is an effective manager and maximizer of role players. Brooklyn could use one of those, especially as Durant’s availability is possibly spotty as he ages. Both teams appear to be in a position to pull the trigger on the deal, but there is no ignoring that, from both ends, this potential deal also reeks of glaring downside, failed designs, desperation, and the concern that new pastures are not necessarily any greener.
After being more of everything guard than true point guard with the Houston Rockets for several years, Harden came to Brooklyn expressing a desire to be more of a true distributor, easing into a lower usage rate with a role in a strong championship ensemble. Because of injuries and, more importantly, Irving’s intransigence about getting a vaccine, this dream of what his third act may be never came to fruition. If he were to go to the Sixers, it wouldn’t be likely to happen there either: they would probably rely on him to be the night-to-night perimeter superstar he has only shown himself to be every other night, at best, this season. Maybe Maxey can continue his development so much that Harden is able to be more the pinch-hitter, but, good as the second-year guard has been, that doesn’t seem like the tier-one formula for a title run that Philly has presumably been waiting for as they hold onto Simmons.
And Simmons, despite the ideal basketball blueprint for him in Brooklyn, has proved to be the most enigmatic player of a generation that inspires plenty of quagmires and question marks. Physically healthy but unavailable to play, he is as absent from media opportunities as he is from games. As reports about him accumulate and swirl, he has taken zero opportunities to clarify his story, and assure anyone about the state of his spirit. It is more than fair to worry that what plagues him is bigger than basketball, and wonder whether the game he has sacrificed millions of dollars to not play this season is a huge part of his future.
Any way you look at it, this possible swap involves an unusual mix of both potential and risk. It could undo either franchise, but also lead either to a championship. Harden is more than enough of somebody to help a functional version of this Nets team win a title, but that scenario appears to be all but dashed, and as one of just two cornerstones for a theoretically extended title window in Philly, the other of whom has missed half his contests since being drafted eight years ago, he seems like a substantially less reliable option. And Simmons, for the Nets, may see enough of a reduction of what has haunted him off the Sixers roster to be his best self, but it’s just—if not more—likely that his issues are intrinsic, and that his tale could be that of the classic runaway who learns too late that it wasn’t geography or even interpersonal surroundings at root of his shortcomings. Neither the Nets and the Sixers, though, may be in a comfortable enough position to play out all these contingencies in the war room for much longer. The teams may have to just cut a wire together, instead, and wait a few months to see whether it kills them or lifts them.