Saturday, May 25

Sixers trade James Harden, but what’s next is what matters for Daryl Morey, Joel Embiid and Philadelphia

So … who is Daryl Morey going after now?

In the wake of the long-awaited trade that sent James Harden from Philadelphia to the LA Clippers late Monday night — and thereby ended one of the most contentious standoffs between a star player and a front-office executive in league history — the lack of clarity surrounding that crucial question means it is virtually impossible to truly analyze what this all means for the Sixers.

Step 1 of Morey’s plan is now complete with 76ers president of basketball operations sending Harden to his destination of choice (along with P.J. Tucker) in exchange for Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, KJ Martin, Marcus Morris Sr. and draft picks. As I detailed earlier this month, it’s those picks that matter most if Morey’s going to salvage this situation that had been so sour since the summertime.

A quick refresher on what’s coming the Sixers’ way, according to league sources: A 2026 first-rounder (from the Clippers via Oklahoma City), a 2028 first-rounder, two second-rounders and a pick swap from the Clippers. As Morey sees it, his best chance at taking this Sixers team even closer to title contention is to round up all those draft assets and go searching for the sort of high-level player who can somehow replace the former MVP who just left town. And while he’s at it, help quiet the noise among Sixers rivals about reigning MVP Joel Embiid eventually doing the same. That’s Step 2 here, and it remains to be seen if Morey can pull it off.

GO DEEPER

James Harden trade grades: How did the Clippers and Sixers do in the deal?

Say what you will about Harden, but he led the league in assists (10.7 per game) and still scored at a high level (21 ppg.) at the age of 33 while playing a pivotal part in the Sixers’ 54-win 2022-23 season (and Embiid’s MVP campaign). On his best nights, he’s still a top-tier talent.

It’s safe to assume Morey has a list of targets for his possible replacement, but he’s also well aware that it could take some time for those players, whoever they might be, to become available. That’s the unavoidable truth that comes with this time of year when most teams remain hopeful enough about their prospects that the willingness to deal is relatively minimal. The annual uptick in desperation doesn’t typically come until later – like, say, much closer to the league’s Feb. 8 trade deadline.

Morey will surely share his perspective in the coming days, but it stands to reason that three key factors played a part in this choice to be done with The Beard once and for all:

• The draft assets coming the Sixers’ way were finally enough that he felt reasonably confident about his ability to eventually complete the aforementioned Step 2, even if the Clippers held onto Terance Mann in the end.

• The uncertainty surrounding Harden and the way he was choosing to handle his Sixers existence was increasingly disruptive with the league announcing on Thursday that it was “looking into the facts” surrounding Harden’s absence from the Sixers’ season opener against Milwaukee. He had yet to play this season and was on the bench in street clothes for Philadelphia’s Sunday home opener. The odds of the messiness and discomfort increasing on this fractured front appeared to be very high.

• The Sixers have looked good without Harden, winning two of three games while posting a net rating of 10.9 that is (small sample size and all) behind only the Clippers and Nuggets. Philly nearly ruined Milwaukee’s opening night (118-117), then won at Toronto (114-107) and at home against Portland (126-98).

More specifically — and importantly — the early revelation that Tyrese Maxey is on his way to becoming an All-Star is of great importance. The fourth-year guard is averaging 30.3 points so far (he averaged 20.3 last season), 6.3 assists (up from 3.5) and 6.7 rebounds (up from 2.9).

But wait, there’s more: After shooting 42.7 percent from long range two seasons ago (on 4.1 attempts) and 43.4 percent last season (on 6.2 attempts), he has hit 56 percent of his 3-pointers on even greater volume (8.3 per game). It’s early, yes, but Maxey has been making quite an impressive case for this increased workload on the offensive end to become his new norm under first-year coach Nick Nurse.

Not surprisingly, Embiid has looked like his MVP-caliber self so far (averaging 31.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 3.0 blocks per game). Tobias Haris and Kelly Oubre Jr. are both averaging nearly 20 points per game as well.

Put all those developments together and you start to understand why the time had finally come for the NBA’s latest superstar saga to come to an end. The question now — one without an answer just yet — is whether there will be another star en route to Philadelphia in the months ahead.


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(Photo of James Harden and Joel Embiid: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)