Photo via Sports Illustrated
Coming off a disappointing season, the Philadelphia 76ers are looking to finally live up to some of their potential.
Coming into last season, they were the favorites to come out of the East, along with the Milwaukee Bucks. Fast forward to the playoffs, and they flame out in the first round against the Boston Celtics. Ben Simmons was injured, Joel Embiid was disheartened, and Al Horford and Tobias Harris were blooming into some of the worst-looking contracts in the league. It wasn’t the season many were expecting. Their future was looking about as bleak as it had in years.
Now, the 76ers are beginning to make moves to get back on the right track. They began by hiring Doc Rivers, a coach that I don’t necessarily like or respect, but is leaps and bounds better than Brett Brown. Then, they went out and hired one of the smartest executives in the league, Daryl Morey. I can tell you for a fact, Morey wouldn’t have even thought about giving Horford or Harris the money they got, and that should bode well for the future. They should make fewer roster mistakes, and Morey has been lauded for two things in his career: acquiring stars, and filling out the fringes of rosters extremely well. With this bolstered front office, the 76ers are on the right track to getting back in the contention conversation.
Now, it is time for Philadelphia to put together the best roster they possibly can. This is the hard part. It is easy to hire an upgrade at coach or a coveted executive, but making all the pieces on the roster work is much harder. Especially with this roster, which consists of two budding superstars that many believe don’t fit well together, combined with two-of-the-five most untradable contracts in the league. In my opinion, they have three major choices to make moving forward with the roster. Here is how I see each of these choices playing out.
1. Trade Joel Embiid for James Harden straight up
This move seems almost too obvious. Daryl Morey has praised Harden throughout his career, even calling him the best offensive player of all time. Embiid is an injury-riddled player with questions about his heart, weight, and durability. For the 76ers, this makes a lot of sense. It unjams the Embiid-Simmons duo and allows Harden to run the offense with Simmons as the defensive anchor. Simmons could also become more of a slasher on offense, filling the role that Russell Westbrook played for the Houston Rockets last year. For the Rockets, you get to move in a different direction. Harden is on the wrong side of 30, and he has demonstrated year after year that he can’t get over the hump in the playoffs. Westbrook, Embiid, plus all the shooters they have create an interesting dynamic for the Rockets. I think this deal makes sense for both teams, and for the 76ers, it should be their number one option.
The downside of this deal is real, but somewhat minor. Harden isn’t getting younger, and you are shortening your window by making this deal. Embiid means a lot to the city of Philadelphia, but we have seen more egregious backstabs than this. Harden is a hard player to fit into a system, because for years he has been the system. There will be some questions, but I think the upside well outweighs the downside.
2. Trade Ben Simmons for Bradley Beal and a draft pick
This is a very conditional trade, because I don’t know that the Washington Wizards have any intention to trade Beal. However, if Philadelphia is unable to trade Embiid, but they wish to trade one of the two, this is probably the best possible outcome from trading Simmons. They would be adding a much better offensive player, a player that also projects to fit with Embiid much better than Simmons. Because Simmons is a bit younger than Beal, they also may be able to get a pick from the trade. This gives the 76ers more offensive firepower, and I would expect Morey to push for Beal to become what Harden is in Houston. For the Wizards, they get a very young star in Simmons, who becomes unleashed with a bad roster around him, and a contract that locks him in for the next five years. If I were Washington, I would absolutely take this deal. There are a lot of good reasons to think Simmons would become even better in a situation where he has his own team, with John Wall coming back to give him help. The Wizards are a rebuilding team, and makes them better in the long run, without hurting them that much in the short term. I don’t think there is much downside to this trade for either team, unless Embiid can’t stay healthy and the 76ers become what the Wizards were when Beal was the only star player. If Philadelphia has to choose which player they want to keep, I think they should keep Simmons, but if they choose Embiid, this is about as good as they can do.
3. Keep the stars, become better with shooting around the edges, and pray that a miracle Harris/Horford trade materializes
There is a chance the front office will want to see if Doc Rivers can figure out how to maximize Embiid and Simmons next to each other. This may work, it may not. Either way, they have to get better shooting down the roster. Morey did this in incredible fashion in Houston, turning the likes of Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and Ben McLemore into much better players than anyone thought they were. I trust him as much as anyone to find these players for Philadelphia.
On top of these improvements around the edges, there is a hope that a trade of Horford or Harris will happen. Ideally, you take on some other bad contract, but get a couple of serviceable players and/or picks. Horford and Harris are not bad players, but if you could turn their contracts into more valuable assets (maybe two good players that make between 10-15 million), it would be a miracle for the 76ers and open up their fringe options. It is unlikely because of how bad these contracts are, but it would be the absolute best-case scenario.
Ultimately, I think the 76ers should try to trade Embiid or Simmons, because I think that this duo will always be limited when paired together. If they can do the Embiid for Harden swap, that should be their priority. Along with this, they will need to get more shooting around the edges, because neither Simmons or Embiid are good shooters. Lastly, they will need to try and find something to do with Horford or Harris. If they can accomplish all or at least most of these objectives, I think they will find themselves in contention for the East for at least the next few seasons.