Why a James Harden for Ben Simmons trade might save the Nets season

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Something is rotten in Brooklyn. 

The Nets are losers of eight in a row and just got walloped by the Nuggets on Sunday. They’re currently sitting at seventh in the Eastern conference with a 29-24 record. Their play is looking flatter than Kyrie Irving’s perception of the Earth. Could a James Harden-for-Ben Simmons swap actually help them in the immediate short term? 

Those rumors gained steam on Friday after a report by The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The trade has mostly been discussed from the lens of how it benefits the Sixers. But it might also help the Nets this year. They need some sort of shakeup, because this ain’t it. 

Harden is still having a great season. He was named an All-Star reserve after averaging 22.5 points, 10.2 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game. Still, he’s definitely fallen way below the top-five level that he was at in previous years. His fit with the Nets hasn’t been great. Charania’s report touched on those problems. 

But beyond availability, sources say there have been growing concerns over Harden’s playing style — one of dominant ballhandling and his own pace from his MVP and All-NBA days in Houston — that contrasts with the free-flowing, organic approach from his two co-stars. Nets coach Steve Nash has met with his team’s stars over finding the balance and most beneficial styles, and although there have been bright spots, too often the team has reverted to a more dry offense at the end of games, especially against the league’s elite teams. In addition, the Nets’ game plans tend to shift depending on when Harden is on and off the floor, meaning a different play style at certain points. This has also been a point of contention from the coaching staff and players, sources said.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe hit on the Nets dysfunction in his most recent Lowe Post podcast episode, noting that "this team does not look like it’s in a good place right now. I have not heard fantastic things about the chemistry." 

The biggest issue with the Nets is their defense. It stinks. They’re ranked 19th in the league, and Harden is killing them. His most recent performance against the Kings was a pitiful display of effort.

Simmons would immediately address those defensive concerns. It seems like eons, but it was just seven months ago that he finished runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. The Sixers defense has been missing him, falling from second last year to 11th this year. He would immediately provide the point of attack defense that the Nets have been badly missing. 

Simmons would also fit in well with what the Nets are already running defensively. They’ve been a heavy switching team, in part to accommodate how bad Harden has been at getting around screens. At 6-10 with great mobility, Simmons is one of the most switchable players in the league. 

Two of the Nets’ other areas of weakness are in defensive rebounding, where they are a bottom-five team per Cleaning the Glass, and transition offense where they rank 18th in points added. 

Simmons would provide a boost in both of those areas. He’s been in the 91st percentile or better as a defensive rebounder for every year in his career, per Cleaning the Glass, and he’s terrific as a transition point forward. 

Simmons seems like a great fit on paper. The obvious question though is if he is mentally prepared to play. The last time we saw him, he looked like he was afraid to shoot the ball

There are a couple of things working in Brooklyn’s favor here. 

First, coach Steve Nash is used to working with big personalities and has done an admirable job since he took over last year. 

Second, Simmons could have a reduced role offensively, which would put way less pressure on him. The Nets already have dynamic isolation players in Irving and Kevin Durant to run their halfcourt offense. Simmons could stay in the dunker spot, as he did with the Sixers, and be a low-usage option. He could take over in transition situations and with bench units as the primary ball handler 

Admittedly, it might be a challenge to get Simmons to buy into that role. But it’s probably time for the Nets to take that gamble. 

The other reason why this swap might make the Nets better is that it would have to include more players in addition to Simmons. Because of Harden’s $44 million salary, the Sixers would have to throw in at least one more player to make the money match. 

The Nets need to upgrade some of their bench pieces, so the throw-in that the Sixers provide could legitimately be a difference-maker for them. Tyrese Maxey would be their No. 1 target, but the Sixers almost certainly wouldn’t include him in a deal. There are other solid role players to choose from like Matisse Thybulle, who would greatly help the Nets. 

It might seem crazy to think that this deal could help the Nets this year. This diminished version of Harden is still a better player than Simmons in a vacuum. But Simmons could be a better fit. And this Nets team has plenty of talent. It's the other stuff that's been missing.

Simmons clearly comes with a ton of risk. But if he can put it together, and that’s a big if, then this could be the move that gets them out of their funk. 

Author(s)
Stephen Noh is an NBA writer for Sporting News