Nets and 76ers both improved
But the Bucks are still the East favorites
BY DAVID THORPE
Sixers acquire James Harden and Paul Millsap
Daryl Morey and the Sixers got their guy. There is a lot to unpack here. First, we can’t forget that any solid player is better than the zero that Ben Simmons has been for the 76ers on the court this season. But it cost them Seth Curry, one of the top 3-point shooters in the game. Someone who at least tries to execute the game plan on defense, and who knows how to play alongside Joel Embiid. Is he as effective as Harden? Well that depends on which Harden plays, doesn’t it? The guy who played most of his games in Brooklyn is far better. The dude we saw score four points in Sacramento the other night would be a different story. Henry mentioned players sandbagging the other day, and I suspect that’s what Harden was doing in that game.
Harden is not what he once was, but he’s every bit the elite offensive player on many occasions, not just all of them. Alongside Embiid’s colossal talent, that’s plenty. Daryl Morey has often been accused of not worrying enough about how All-Stars fit, with him mostly focused on just acquiring the talent. I’m on his side. Harden and Embiid should mesh together on the court perfectly, and quickly. The Sixers turned a significantly better future into a slightly better present with this deal, likely the best possible outcome once Simmons made his decision to never return. On paper, and on the court, the team got better. Currently 10th on defense, Harden knows he has to compete some to maintain that ranking, and I suspect he will. Morey knows, better than anyone, what kinds of defensive strategies best work with Harden’s game on that end. His staff likely already has a book on the best defensive systems for this exact player.
That 14th-ranked 76ers’ offense will start to ascend. Way up. The Suns, Heat, and Grizzlies are the only teams who are top ten on offense and defense in Estimated Plus-Minus. I predict the Sixers and Bucks will join them by season's end. By that point, Philly should be playing their best of the season, which is all Morey and Doc Rivers could have hoped for when this Simmons saga began.
One word of caution, though—beware the idea that now James Harden is finally settled and happy. We might never see that. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant all have stories to tell of an incredible player who struggles to find a home.
The Suns are the title favorites. The Bucks are the best in the East. For this season though, the Sixers are complete enough to win a title with a little luck. They’re not the favorites in the stacked East, but it would be shocking if they’re not in the Eastern Conference finals with a real shot at winning it.
Money: D Wins: A Process: B
Final Grade: B-
Nets acquire Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, 2022 first-round pick (right to defer until 2023), 2027 first-round pick (top-8 protected)
The Nets have some kinks to work out. Even though he hasn’t played since his flame out Game 7 against the Hawks last summer, Ben Simmons is the least of their concerns. Kyrie Irving will be able to play in just 10 more regular season games, thanks to vaccine mandates in Brooklyn, New York, and Toronto. And we don't know when Kevin Durant or Joe Harris will return.
The offense will hum when everyone can play. Simmons can lead breaks better than almost anyone, and if there isn’t a great shot, he can fill the dunk spot or easily play two-man games with either KD or Kyrie. Seth Curry is going to be just as open in Brooklyn as he was in Philly. He knows how to slide into space and has been one of the top shooters in the league for a few years now. As Harris may be out for the season, Curry could have real meaning. There will be some growing pains for everyone on offense, but not many.
It’s on defense where I have concerns. You can’t win a title with the 22nd-best defense. They must get better. Simmons will absolutely help a number of ways, but good team defense takes time, and there isn’t much. Harden joins the 76ers offense and it’s plug-and-play. The Nets’ defense is more of a riddle.
Don’t think they can just learn on the run in the first round of the playoffs. The Nets are the eighth seed today. Every team ahead of them got better. Even the Bulls, who sit in third a full four games up on the Nets in the loss column, will get Lonzo Ball back in about a month. No matter where they finish, the Nets will have a very tough opponent in the first round, likely without Kyrie in home games. There is pressure, right now, to experiment with and nail down the best defensive strategies.
The least-discussed name in this big trade, Andre Drummond, will mean something if the Nets face the 76ers in the playoffs. The Nets don’t have great defensive options against Embiid (few do). Simmons can give it a shot, but Embiid will spend the whole series trying to put his elbow in in Simmons mouth. Drummond knows Embiid’s game as well as anyone, and can join Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nic Claxton in taking turns.
Still, going forward, even just a lineup of Simmons and Durant has to excite Nets fans both today and tomorrow. I’m excited. I see KD as one of the few guys in the league who is chill enough, as a superstar, to help Simmons improve on offense. He’s not loud and in charge, like LeBron or Draymond. He’s capable of averaging nearly 40 a night but clearly not interested in doing so. Because he understands what that would mean for both him and his teammates. Durant, as a teammate, has a superb demeanor, a quiet presence that belies his greatness, something we witnessed both in Golden State and with Team USA. They all know how good he is, and while he has shown to have some thin skin issues off the court, on it he’s just a perfect teammate. Embiid never had a chance to impact Simmons as a shooter, it’s not in his bag and they are too close in age.
Durant, though, merely has to suggest, in his way “hey Ben, take some early 3s for me please so I can…” and it won’t matter what comes next. Probably. Durant won’t tell a teammate how to live his life, but making a suggestion on the court is not foreign to him. The Embiid-Simmons partnership was hugely successful on the court. So too will the KD-Simmons duo be. Eventually.
There are an incredible number of variables–including New York City vaccine politics–but for now I’d say the Bucks are the favorites in the East, followed by the Sixers, Heat, and Nets in no particular order. These playoffs should be electric.
Money: B Wins: B Process: A
Final Grade: B+
Friday: David Thorpe’s review of just about every trade (for subscribers) and all this and more on BRING IT IN.