You've probably seen someone say this already in the past 24ish hours, but it bears repeating: the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets have the chance to do the funniest thing ever. The Sixers solving their James Harden situation by trading him back to Brooklyn for Ben Simmons is the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. But it's just not happening…right?
It's clear that Harden is itching to get away from Sixers, though his decision to rely on them to provide the trade that made it happen has backfired in the ugliest way. The Nets are trying to get Simmons back on track after a woefully disappointing first full season but must know deep down how unlikely it is that he plays up to the worth of his contract again. The Sixers once looked like clear winners of the trade but have since joined the Nets in the reality that it has failed spectacularly for both sides.
The Sixers ridding themselves of Simmons was supposed to be the move that gave Joel Embiid a revamped supporting cast. That was seemingly the case for the 2022-23 season before the mighty castle was exposed as a glorified house of cards. Philly — the team and the city — is prepared for the headache they are gritting through now because of Simmons' actions throughout the 2021-22 season, ending any chance of an amicable split and forever pitting the two sides against each other.
Or, at least, that’s what we all thought. Simmons rekindled the flame for a potential Sixers reunion by speaking kindly about the idea of being traded back to Philadelphia. However softly that flame glows, it's more light than anyone would have thought existed.
“People always ask me like, ‘If you were to get traded again where you want it to be?’ I always say, ‘Just Philly. Philly is a second home to me,’” Simmons said in an interview with Marc J. Spears of Andscape. “And in time, you learn and grow as people. I don’t really have anything bad to say about Philly. It was a crazy situation at the end, but it is what it is.”
Simmons has plenty of love for Philly but does not mention the Sixers, at least by name. In Spears' question that prompted this response, he didn’t use the team's name either, though it was clearly inferred what he was talking about. Simmons isn’t an Embiid-level troll but does know how to get his licks in. The back-handed impact of these comments is a knife twist into the fans who grew to despise him — the ones who are so down bad that they’re actually feeling a willingness, however slight, to bring him back in exchange for Harden after, you know, all of that.
Few other athletes in the history of Philly sports are as loathed as Simmons. For his inability to meaningfully develop his game beyond what he came into the league with, epic failures in the postseason, and holdout that dragged on for months after he grew entirely dissatisfied with the organization, he is one of the very top public enemies among Sixers fans and will be for a long time.
Andrew Unterberger, a writer for the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast's website, said in a live show in April that “if Harden does leave in the offseason, we can pivot to just calling that trade the Ben Simmons salary dump and still feel like we got off pretty easy.” Spike Eskin, one of the podcast’s co-hots, wrote and recited a poem bashing Simmons to the delight of the crowd. This is just a sliver of the vehement — yet still among some of the more tame — resentment lobbed Simmons' way by the Sixers faithful.
When Simmons played his first game in the Wells Fargo Center as an opponent, Sixers fans kept the boo birds singing all game long and got them started well before tip-off. Embiid played the game like his main mission was to score on Simmons in the most demoralizing ways and has been outspoken about former teammates who don’t understand that winning in Philly takes a firm blend of hard work and perseverance. Plus, remember how he reacted to the news of Simmons being traded to the Nets?
— Joel “Troel” Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) February 10, 2022
With Harden's latest playoff flop and trade demand, there are a few angles where Simmons coming back has a hope of working out okay, though it requires the generous assumption that Simmons' back issues don’t flare up again. The Sixers will need playmaking in Harden's absence. New head coach Nick Nurse could probably craft up some wicked defensive schemes with Simmons. Simmons' rift with Doc Rivers obviously wouldn’t be a problem anymore. And the Nets may have an interest in Harden to provide some much-needed offensive firepower, plus clearing some future cap flexibility.
The odds of the Sixers re-acquiring Ben Simmons should still be considered to be near zero for reasons other than how his tenure ended there. Daryl Morey has made it clear that if he's going to trade Harden, he's going to receive a star or the assets necessary to get one. Simmons told Spears that he's in great shape but suggesting he can become an All-Star again is nuts. It's not entirely out of the realm of possibility — but so are an infinite number of unlikely things.
Does Morey really want to hang his future with the Sixers on trying to get Embiid and Simmons to work together again? Will Simmons be able to figure out a way to translate his game to the playoffs — especially with his back issues? Simmons said he's 100 percent but any assurances will be met with skepticism after his last two seasons. The team doesn’t have the requisite snipers to make the pairing excel in the playoffs and has few assets to acquire them. Morey is also a huge fan of the cap space the Sixers have next offseason; Simmons' contract would eat up a huge chunk of it.
While the Nets may have to attach draft picks and/or young players to trade Simmons after how he played last year, that wouldn’t be the case for a Harden trade. The veteran guard is a sunk cost. Philly’s leverage went kaput when Harden straight-up said he would never join forces with Morey again. The Nets aren’t ruling Simmons out of trades but also haven’t shown a serious sense of eagerness to trade him.
Simmons and Harden, once some of the biggest stars in the NBA, are duking it out for who the more negative trade asset is. Both the Sixers and Nets would approach the trade believing it is owed more from the other side. The dual dissatisfaction between both stars' previous teams provided the spark that ignited the blockbuster at the 2022 trade deadline. Without that, and with both players' stocks in a freefall, an agreement will not come about easily, if at all.
But the primary underlying reason why the Sixers and Nets can’t pull off a second Harden-Simmons is the humanity of it all. Even in the drama-laden and trade-dependent NBA, there has to be some semblance of cosmic integrity in the world of professional basketball. Reversing the trade is too insane to actually happen…right?
The NBA can often be as much of a soap opera as it is a basketball league. Another Harden-Simmons trade may be as close to jumping the shark as it can get. How could another trade or dramatic development top that? What could bring together the entire basketball-enjoying public and explode their brains in one fell swoop more assuredly? None of that will hold any potential deal but it provides a backdrop to illustrate why this potential trade is so difficult to see coming to fruition.