Analyzing the Harden-Simmons Trade and Fit of the New-Look Nets
The biggest "what if" in NBA history.
That's how the Brooklyn Nets' big three of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant will be remembered. Where would this team that posted the highest offensive rating in NBA history at full strength have ranked historically?
The basketball world will never know.
The Nets traded Harden and Paul Millsap to the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two 1st-round picks.
The trade marks the close of a six-month soap opera transpiring behind the scenes in Brooklyn. Irving's refusal to comply with a New York City vaccine mandate, Harden's blatant lack of commitment, and an internal civil war fueling the script.
Harden had reportedly grown frustrated in Brooklyn and finally requested a trade Thursday morning. The deal becomes one that we may never see again: A trade of a superstar between contenders within the same conference that made sense for both teams.
On the 76ers end, Joel Embiid is playing the best basketball of his career and is the healthiest he's ever been. Embiid's injury history and high usage provide no guarantee Philadelphia will ever see this version of the star big again. With Simmons absent, trading for Harden gives the 76ers a true title shot this season and next.
On the Nets end, the internal dysfunction surrounding Harden was unsalvageable. A Feb. 2nd loss to the Kings in which Harden turned in one of the most embarrassing performances of his career was the point of no return. The deal fills major holes in Brooklyn's roster while allowing them to maintain flexibility in the future. All in exchange for a player who had no desire to play another game for the franchise.
Philadelphia wins the deal in the short term by acquiring the best player in Harden. Brooklyn wins in the long term by gaining control of a 25-year-old star in Simmons who is under contract for three more years, along with draft assets for future deals.
Some would argue the Nets won the deal overall by avoiding signing Harden to a five-year, $270 million supermax extension. The deal will pay him $60 million in his 35, 36 and 37-year-old seasons. As a player who has frequently shown up to training camp out of shape and shown no indication he will work to extend the longevity of his career, that contract could wind up being the worst in NBA history.
When analyzing the fit of Simmons, Curry and Drummond in Brooklyn, it's apparent the Nets are a more complete team now than they were before the deadline. I've had three gripes with this team all season, all of which are addressed by this trade.
The Nets have been desperate for shooting this season, which is incredible for a team that had Irving, Harden, Durant, Joe Harris and Patty Mills. However, Brooklyn has never seen these players on the floor together and has relied on Bruce Brown, DeAndre Bembry, James Johnson, Jevon Carter and Blake Griffin in shooting roles.
Curry adds one of the top three-point shooters in the league to the mix. The guard shined in his Nets debut, scoring 23 points on 10/18 shooting in a win over the Kings. The spacing Curry provides was apparent with defenders glued to him 30-feet from the basket.
Curry's impact as a playmaker in Philadelphia has been overlooked by many discussing this deal. He was an integral part of the Sixers' offense after creating solid two-man chemistry with Embiid. The eight-year vet provides a ball-handling option for home games in Irving's absence and a high-level secondary playmaker when the team is at full strength.
The Nets have always been at their best when playing at a high pace. Irving and Durant thrive making plays in transition in an up-tempo offense. Harden, on the other hand, played at a snail's pace this season. He frequently walked the ball up the floor, wasting half the shot clock before getting into the offense. According to NBA speed and distance tracking, Harden played at the slowest average speed of any player in the league this year.
The pace should increase with Simmons, who can act as a grab-and-go point guard in transition. Per Synergy Sports, Simmons averaged 2.7 assists per game in transition last year, the second-most of any player in the league. This transition attack will accentuate the playmaking of Irving and Durant while alleviating a portion of the offensive burden.
“I think it’s gonna be scary," Simmons said in his introductory press conference. "Having those guys run alongside me, multiple different weapons in the floor, I think at the pace we want to play at, it’s going to be unreal.”
Simmons' fit as a screener and off-ball playmaker in Brooklyn's offense should be seamless. Teams have frequently blitzed screens against the Nets this year, doubling Irving and Harden to force the ball out of their hands. The lack of a short-roll playmaker has been evident with Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin and James Johnson struggling to fill that role.
Irving can now dump the ball into Simmons coming downhill with shooters in Durant, Curry, and/or Mills camped on the perimeter. Should teams guard the pick and roll straight up, Simmons presents a great lob threat at 6'11" with superb leaping ability.
The Nets' defense has dropped off after a promising start to the season. They are 19th in defensive rating after ranking in the top 10 earlier this year.
Simmons, a 2x NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, should fit beautifully in Brooklyn's switch-everything scheme. He could be deployed at the five to slow down some of the best pick and roll pairings in the league. His height and athleticism also add a rim protector in more versatile lineups.
The world watched Giannis Antetokounmpo dominate Brooklyn in the 2nd round of the playoffs last season. The Nets rotated several players on the Greek Freak in a desperate effort to slow him down. Simmons provides a better option than anything they had last season in guarding the reigning finals MVP.
Drummond also adds an interior anchor for Brooklyn against bigger bodies. The 28-year-old was stellar in his Nets debut, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine boards while holding Domantas Sabonis to nine points on 4/11 shooting.
At 6'10", 280 lbs, Drummond gives Brooklyn an option against bigger bodies like Embiid that they haven't had for years. Offensively, he's a significant upgrade as a screener to Nic Claxton, which was evident as he continually opened up Curry and Cam Thomas for open looks in Monday's win.
On paper, Brooklyn is a more complete team now than they were at this time last week. However, trading Harden after just 16 full-strength games and one injury-riddled playoff run is undoubtedly a loss.
It also cannot be forgotten that no one has seen Simmons play since a meltdown in the second round of last year's playoffs. While it is logical that he should be in a better headspace leaving Philadelphia and playing third-fiddle to Durant and Irving in Brooklyn, no one knows for sure.
The Nets and Simmons have given no date for his return. It will most likely coincide with Durant's return from an MCL sprain after the All-Star break. In his press conference Tuesday, Simmons said he feels "pretty good" physically and he's "getting there" mentally.
Overall, the last three weeks marked a turn of events in Brooklyn that no one outside of the organization saw coming. An unprecedented trade completely altered the trajectory of two contenders.
Could Harden souring on Brooklyn and forcing his way out be a blessing in disguise?
There are too many variables to make that call right now, but it won’t be long before we find out.