The bullet points of James Harden's beef with Daryl Morey, and by extension, the Philadelphia 76ers, have been pretty well chronicled. He felt that when he sacrificed money last summer so the Sixers could ink P.J. Tucker, he would get it back in the form of a long-term deal this summer. That didn't happen.
So he exercised his $35.6 million 2023-24 player option with the apparent understanding that Morey would trade him, with his destination of preference being the Clippers. That didn't happen either. Training camp is less than a month away. It's about to get messy in Philadelphia.
That said, Sixers majority owner Josh Harris is looking at the glass half full.
"The situation with James Harden is unfortunate," Harris told ESPN. "I want this to work out for all sides, including James. But we have to keep our eye on the big picture, which is that we're still a contending team and most teams in the NBA would change places with us in five minutes."
This got me to thinking: Is Harris right? Would most teams really switch places with the Sixers if given the opportunity? Here's the upside: You get an MVP player in Joel Embiid, a ready-made fringe contender if Harden stays and actually tries, a potential future All-Star in Tyrese Maxey, a bunch of cap space opening up next summer.
The downside is you might have to trade Harden, which means you're no longer a contender. Then it's only about the future upside of Philly measured against what some of these other teams are building -- at which point it becomes a more complicated decision when you ponder the possibility of Embiid being the next to demand a trade and the fact that Philly has just one trade-eligible draft pick in 2029 (Philly traded its 2025 and 2027 first-round pick with light protections and the Stepien rule prohibits not having a first-round pick in consecutive years).
There's a very realistic scenario in which the Sixers have one more year to make a run as a second-tier contender before this turns into a rebuild. Even with Embiid, that's not some dream situation. You would have to bring in another star, and that's a lot easier said than done with cap space and just one trade-eligible pick.
So, considering all this, how many teams would take that gamble to get their hands on one of the five most bankable regular-season stars who has never been able to get the Sixers past the second round? I decided to go team by team and give a yay or nay on whether they would, if given the opportunity, switch places with the Sixers.
ATLANTA HAWKS: Yes. I like Atlanta's roster and youth, but Hawks ownership is desperate to compete right now and the Sixers, however tenuously, are in a better position to do that. There are questions as to whether you can build a legit contender around Trae Young; there are no such questions about Embiid.
I think this would be a short-sighted move that Hawks ownership would regret if Embiid winds up leaving, even with the haul he would bring back, but I think they take the swap anyway, take their shot this season, and deal with the potential fallout later.
BOSTON CELTICS: Absolutely not.
BROOKLYN NETS: No. They already lived through the Harden headache. You think they want it back? They'll take Mikal Bridges, 13 first-round picks over the next eight drafts and a flexible cap sheet and be on their merry way.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Yes. Chances are neither LaMelo Ball nor Brandon Miller will ever be anywhere close to as good as Embiid. The Hornets have an uphill climb just to become a playoff team. They'd gladly take the opportunity to become even a fringe contender overnight.
CHICAGO BULLS: Yes. They love big-name rosters, Embiid is better than anyone the Bulls have, and Philly's cap sheet looks a lot cleaner moving forward. The Bulls have to blow this up soon. Worst-case scenario, the Sixers have to do the same, in which case Maxey is better than any building block the Bulls have and Embiid is fetching a much bigger return than Zach LaVine.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: No. I can argue that Donovan Mitchell is just as valuable a playoff player as Embiid, and long-term Cleveland is in a way better position from an overall roster standpoint with the likes of Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, the latter of which could become a more valuable trade chip than Philly has outside of Embiid. Fact is, the Cavs are just as good as the Sixers right now anyway, maybe better with what they added this summer, without all the drama.
DENVER NUGGETS: Moving on.
DETROIT PISTONS: Yes. Detroit quietly has one of the most intriguing young rosters in the league led by Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. Throw in 2023 No. 5 overall pick Ausar Thompson, and that's four guys that you can convince yourself have future All-Star potential all on rookie deals. But again, the chances that any of these guys become an MVP-caliber player are extremely slim.
Even if Philly has to blow it up and trade Embiid a year from now, I'd rather have their cap space, plus the huge return Embiid would bring, than Detroit's stable of youth, although I think this would be a tougher call than perhaps it appears on the surface as Detroit has a lot of reason for optimism.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: Don't be ridiculous.
HOUSTON ROCKETS: Yes. Ime Udoka obviously doesn't want James Harden (he could have him right now if he did), but he'd gladly take him if Embiid came as part of the deal. Houston has a lot of young talent and no pressure to win right now, but there's no guarantee it ever amounts to a contending core.
INDIANA PACERS: I'll say yes, but I had to think about it. Tyrese Haliburton and Ben Mathurin are a super-intriguing young tandem. Buddy Hield is one of the best 3-point shooters ever and an ever-tradeable asset. Myles Turner, another trade asset, is now on a contract well below his market value because the Pacers had the cap space in the middle of last season to give him the first $17.1 million up front. Throw in their savvy trade for Obi Toppin to fill the power forward hole, and Indiana quietly has a pretty good thing going.
Still, it's doubtful any of these guys ever turn into Embiid, and a small-market team like the Pacers is going to have a hard time becoming something more than a potential conference finals team, which is what I can safely call the Sixers at this moment, with a big emphasis on potential. Indiana takes the gamble, I think.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: No. Unlike the Sixers, the Clippers, if they can stay healthy, are an actual contender as opposed to a paper one. You're talking about potentially fast-closing windows for both franchises. The Clippers are the better team without the drama, and they might end up getting Harden anyway, only the happy version who will actually try.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS: No. Rob Pelinka has put together a strong roster. LeBron James is still, at worst, a top-15 player. Anthony Davis is locked up. They're the Lakers for crying out loud. For the mystique alone, there is zero chance the purple-and-gold brass wants anything to do with a Sixers swap.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: No way. Ja Morant and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. would be the most sought-after under-25 duo in the league if they hit the open market. Desmond Bane is just 25 years old. The Grizzlies, assuming Morant is able to keep things clean off the court after he returns from suspension, are already a better team than Philly, to say nothing of the more stable and promising future.
MIAMI HEAT: You're kidding, right? A franchise this obsessed with its Culture wants to swap places with a Sixers locker room on the brink of Chernobyl? A team that is probably going to end up with Damian Lillard would rather go into business with James Harden? This isn't even a conversation.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS: Next.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: No. The Rudy Gobert contract is tough, but they can recoup some of the draft picks they gave up to get him if they trade Karl-Anthony Towns, and when all is said and done, they have Anthony Edwards, who would probably go above Embiid anyway if the whole league were opened up to a draft considering his age and potential. You give up Edwards and Embiid demands a trade a year later, and you'll never get a good night's sleep again.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: No. I understand that Zion Williamson's health is a blinking-red question, but the possibility of finally pairing a healthy Williamson and Brandon Ingram together, plus the barrel of draft picks New Orleans has in its war chest, is more intriguing to me than one last year of fringe contention with the Sixers before the Embiid trade talks ramp all the way up.
NEW YORK KNICKS: No. They have Jalen Brunson on one of the more team-friendly deals in the league and eight trade-eligible first round picks. The Knicks are looking big picture over short-term gambles. They held off on a Donovan Mitchell trade and advanced just as far as the Sixers last year anyway, without any of the headaches. Besides that, if the Sixers do burn down the Knicks might end up with Joel Embiid anyway!
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Not even an inkling of a chance. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Chet Holmgren. Josh Giddey. Jalen Williams. A zillion draft picks. You think Sam Presti spent all this time hoarding assets to flip them into the second-round Sixers? This is a hard no.
ORLANDO MAGIC: No. The Magic have the makings of a perennial playoff team and eventual contender for the next decade plus with what is, in my estimation, the second-best under-25 duo in the league in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. They hope they just drafted their future point guard in Anthony Black. It's possible that Jalen Suggs still makes good on his potential. All these guys are 22 or younger. Orlando is positioned for a lot of cap space next summer. They've taken too long to build too promising a future to trade it all in for what will be a 30-year-old Embiid in March and a team on the brink of a blowup.
PHOENIX SUNS: LOL.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: No. The Blazers did the second-round ceiling thing for years. They're going young because they want to eventually build something more than that. Fact is, if the Blazers thought having one of the league's premier players was enough to contend, they would've traded the Scoot Henderson pick and continued to aim toward immediate contention with Damian Lillard, who's arguably better than Embiid in a playoff setting anyway.
The Sixers are falling apart in front of our eyes. Henderson is the best prospect either of these franchises has, and Lillard, quite obviously, is a far better trade asset and James Harden. Throw in Shaedon Sharpe, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, and whatever comes back for Dame, and Portland's five-year outlook is better than Philly's.
SACRAMENTO KINGS: No. They just made their first postseason in 16 years and nearly took out the Warriors. The excited vibes around this Kings team couldn't be more opposite from the Sixers. Sacramento is seriously on the verge of being every bit as good as the Sixers even with Embiid and Harden, let alone without Harden.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS: One word. Wemby. Forget about it.
TORONTO RAPTORS: Yes. Masai Ujiri knows firsthand the power of partnering with an MVP-level player. Kawhi Leonard won him a title. Embiid would give him that kind of talent again, and my guess is he would be happy to figure out the details later. The Raptors, meanwhile, are in no-man's land with a bunch of tough decisions on their hands regarding Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. With the Sixers, you at least know that you have Embiid (for now), cap space, and a lot of draft picks to reload once the Harden mess sorts out.
UTAH JAZZ: No. Danny Ainge is too savvy to go throwing all his chips into a burning building. Yeah, Embiid is better than anyone on the Jazz is ever going to be, but collectively, factoring in all of Utah's draft assets and the upside of a roster anchored by Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler is worth more than the final few days of a pseudo contender.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Yes. No question. Whatever you think the Wizards are capable of building with Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma, no matter how high on Bilal Coulibaly you are, there's no way you don't turn all that into Joel Embiid at the drop of a hat. Worst case scenario, the Sixers trade everyone except Maxey, in which case they still are in a better position to build a contender via trades and cap space than the Wiz.
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By my count, that's eight teams that would switch places with the Sixers if given the opportunity and 21 that would not. Of course, some of these are debatable. Maybe you think Orlando would, or the Kings, or New Orleans, maybe even the Blazers, though I don't see the argument for that one (just trade Scoot and keep Dame if you want to have a second-round team with a small shot at something more).
Even if I give you all of those that's 12 teams that would switch places with the Sixers and 17 that would not. That's not anything close to most of the league. Bottom line, Harris is overestimating what the Sixers have, or, looked at another way, what they're extremely close to not having -- which is a contender now or anywhere in the near future.
Again, I don't believe they're a real contender even as currently constructed. Take away Harden, and put in whatever dismal return he brings, and they're nowhere near a contender. Once that reality sets in, Embiid is a big threat to leave. Even if he doesn't, the Sixers fall way out of contention in the immediacy as they try to parlay some cap space into yet another iteration of a supposed contender around Embiid, who will, by then, be nearing his mid-thirties. This is not an enviable situation in Philadelphia. At least not nearly as enviable as Harris seems to think.