Analyzing the Ben Simmons-James Harden Trade

Owen O'Brien shares his thoughts on the recent Ben Simmons trade. - photo / Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images

Well, it finally happened. The unstoppable force and the immovable object have passed through each other, ending years of drama and unrest within the NBA. Finally, Kendall Jenner’s ex-boyfriend has been traded for Magic City’s most loyal customer.

Nobody saw this coming, but we really should have. For months, the most likely scenario was shipping Ben Simmons off to some dead-end franchise (Sacramento was the favorite for a while) in return for some solid rotational pieces and role-players. But there was no way that Daryl Morey– the undisputed best General Manager in the league– was going to settle for anything less than another all-star caliber player. That’s exactly what we all wanted, and it’s exactly what we got.

So why is my optimism so cautious? This team just had its best day in almost a decade, so why do I feel this sinking feeling in my gut? This tiny voice in the back of my head saying we’re in for a disaster; where is it coming from? Is it right? 

From what I’ve seen on social media, heard on the morning shows and observed in the few in-person conversations I’ve had about the situation, this is a common feeling. I think the knowledge that’s driving this trepidation is valid, and it would be therapeutic to try and work through our doubts and anxiety together.

These are just a few major claims I’ve seen expressed in a variety of ways. Let’s unpack them, and see if we can turn them into something positive.  

Claim #1: James Harden Isn’t That Good

Alright, so, at first glance, this is true. Harden is thirty-two years old, which is still considered fairly young in pretty much every facet of society except for professional sports. He’s been injured quite a bit over the past two seasons, which can slow down even the greatest athletes. These are just a few of the likely reasons that there has been a noticeable decrease in his on-court production since leaving Houston. 

During his last few years in H-town, he ended multiple seasons with the scoring title. This essentially means that, game-for-game, he was statistically the best player in the league. And he was officially recognized as such in 2018, when he was crowned the MVP. Just a few short seasons after this historic run, Harden is practically a completely different player. Now, in reality, nobody can be this good forever, but the size of the gap between old Harden and new Harden is still notable, and cause for some doubt. 

Harden is also a key example of the phenomenon of “load management” in the NBA, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is common for star players to take games off to lessen the risk of injury or fatigue. 

So, yes, it’s true that Harden is a far cry from the man who dominated the league just a short while ago. But think of it like this: 

This is still Joel Embiid’s team, and for the first time since he was drafted, he will play with a competent guard. Harden is the first person to occupy this position in almost a decade who can pass, dribble and shoot on a consistently elite level. He’ll let Embiid get his forty points per game (ppg), let Tobias Harris get his 20, extract a decent production from the rest of the rotation, and put up about 22 on his own. That’s more than enough to be competitive against pretty much anybody else in the league.

In short, we didn’t need an MVP-level player or a scoring champion, we just needed somebody

Claim #2: We Gave Up Too Much

This just doesn’t make sense. That’s the nicest way I can put it. For one, the hot commodity that we gave away was a guy taking an entire season off because of bad vibes. 

Additionally, we let Brooklyn have Seth Curry, and put a future hall-of-fame inductee in his position. 

Look, I’ll miss Seth as much as the next guy. He was an integral part of our operation for a while and, according to his brother, really did love Philly. But there’s no room for sentiment when you’re trying to win it all. I sincerely hope we can get him back in the near future, but there’s no universe in which giving him up isn’t acceptable. 

Now, I will say that this trade does open up a pretty significant weak spot. The signing of Andre Drummond last year was an excellent move and one that people didn’t give enough credit to. Before him, we had lacked a competent backup center for a while. Nerlens Noel was alright, but he was an unfortunate casualty of the Process era. And Dwight Howard was essentially just a foul machine that did very little for us. 

Drummond solved this problem, and now that he’s gone, our second unit is going to be noticeably weaker. “B-Ball Paul” Reed is developing nicely, and will hopefully blossom into a real threat in due time, but he has yet to prove how useful he can be when things get real. 

But overall, a backup center is a perfectly reasonable person to give up when you’re after a player of Harden’s caliber.

Claim #3: We Made the Nets Too Good.

This…is actually hard to disagree with. It’s no secret that, before this, the Nets were stacked.

And we just added two more great pieces to their backup arsenal. Curry is an easy 15 ppg, and Drumond is a true center, not the small-ball quasi-center that the Nets have, like, four of already. 

None of that compares to what Ben Simmons will do for them. Let’s be serious, here. Despite all of his faults, he is a generational talent when it comes to two specific things: defense– which the Nets have sorely lacked– and assists.

Again, defense isn’t as easily quantifiable as other aspects of this sport, but if you’ve watched him play, then it’s obvious just how skillfully he can lock down pretty much any player in the league. And last season he was almost universally seen as a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY), but lost to Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz. 

Assists are a different story. Numerically, he’s pretty solid, averaging 7.7 assists per game over his whole career. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. 

I hesitate to rely on highlights to make a point, but you really do have to watch the footage for this one. Look at how he operates. Look at the way he can facilitate a dazzling offense. Look at how he can distribute the ball, and create picture-perfect situations for his teammates. 

Now think of him doing these things with Kevin Durant. Think of him employing his razor-sharp athletic mind to be Kyrie Irving’s wingman. 

The Eastern conference is already teeming with threats. Jimmy Butler has been leading the Miami Heat on a revenge mission, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have planted their feet on the ground and aren’t budging, and the new Chicago Bulls roster is way better than it has any business being. Before this trade, the Nets were in turmoil and on an eleven-game losing streak. Now? They’re another threat. 

I don’t have a logical rebuttal to this. Instead, I implore everyone to have a little faith. I have no idea how the dominos will fall in the postseason, but if we end up facing them at any point in the playoffs, I am confident that we’ll at least give Brooklyn a good fight if they stand in our way. We’re evenly matched now, and that’s always more exciting. 

I’ll conclude with a more esoteric point: between the anti-vaxxer (who is also a flat-earther, apparently), Kevin Durant- who has always served as a sort of dark foil to LeBron James- and now the 6’10” toddler, the Nets are just a straight-up evil franchise, perfectly poised to take up a villainous role within the league. Now tell me: how often do the bad guys win? 

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