James Harden trade: Blockbuster move opens up options for Daryl Morey and Nick Nurse

You could scoff at the Philadelphia 76ers’ latest blockbuster trade. It’s another star out the door and another pivot for a franchise that has, through multiple front offices, multiple coaching staffs and all sorts of scandals and strangeness, been trying to build a championship team around Joel Embiid for the better part of a decade. Maybe next summer James Harden can arrange a dinner with Jimmy Butler, Al Horford and Ben Simmons.

It is fair to criticize the Sixers for losing Harden’s trust, as their former minority owner Michael Rubin did on their backup point guard Patrick Beverley’s podcast. Given the circumstances, though, they wiggled out of the Harden era gracefully. The three-team deal does not immediately give Philadelphia another star, but it gives team president Daryl Morey and coach Nick Nurse options.

Morey has more moves to make
Normally, the team that employs the reigning MVP would not trade a star player for a package of draft picks and expiring contracts. But this is not a normal situation, and, in the absence of a suitable win-now trade, Morey made a win-soon trade, as he said he would do. With an unprotected 2028 first-round pick, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick swap and second-round picks in 2024 and 2029 from the Los Angeles Clippers, plus a 2026 first-round pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder (the least favorable of the Clippers, Thunder and Houston Rockets’ picks, per Derek Bodner of PHLY Sports) at its disposal, Philadelphia can get in the game for the next guy who’s looking for a change of scenery.

This deal itself illustrates that the players the Sixers received — Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Kenyon Martin Jr. and Marcus Morris — could be used to trade for such a player. And since none of them are signed beyond this season and Philadelphia included P.J. Tucker (who has a 2024-25 player option worth $11.6 million), the front office has a small window of real financial flexibility: They could make no moves at all in between now and the trade deadline and enter the 2024 offseason with as much as $55.7 million in cap space, via ESPN’s Bobby Marks. (That figure assumes they renounce all of their free agents except Tyrese Maxey, they pick up Jaden Springer’s option and Paul Reed’s 2024-25 salary becomes guaranteed.)

Maybe there’s only a slim chance that the Sixers use that cap space to sign a free agent like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jrue Holiday, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James or Klay Thompson. As Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in April, “Free agency doesn’t really happen anymore,” as stars tend to jump from team to team via trade. The Rockets wound up signing Fred VanVleet away from Toronto last summer, though, and Philadelphia has positioned itself to be similarly opportunistic. Trades, sign-and-trades and free-agent signings are all possible before next season.

Nurse has new pieces to play with
There is something satisfying about Covington returning to the place where he first found himself as an NBA player. One of the original success stories of The Process, the trade that sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves five years ago was the Sixers’ first all-in move. Now, until they make their next one, it’s Nurse’s job to figure out how these four new pieces fit.

This should be relatively easy. All of them were acquired by the Clippers precisely because they can complement stars. Batum, in particular, profiles as tailor-made for Philadelphia’s new offense: He’s a connector and a floor spacer, the kind of role player who constantly makes smart reads and doesn’t take anything off the table. Even at almost 35 years old, he’s still switchable on defense, and both he and Covington — still, somehow, a 6-foot-7 rim protector — made small ball lineups work for the Clippers.

The ability to play small is why, although one of the new guys will likely slide into Tucker’s starting spot, this trade could mean a lot more for the minutes in which Embiid is on the bench. Batum, Covington and Morris will allow Nurse to play 5-out, and, while Martin stands only 6-6, he can function as the screen-and-dive big that the Sixers have almost never had. Such a lob threat would have been helpful when Harden was around, but, assuming Martin is able to crack a suddenly crowded rotation — Reed hasn’t gone anywhere — his solid screens and finishing ability will make Maxey, whose speed and shooting put tons of pressure on opposing defenses, even tougher to contain.

If Maxey is indeed making another leap, then maybe this move will make Philadelphia a better, more balanced team than it would’ve been with Harden, even if Morey doesn’t make more moves this season. Maybe Morris will reverse last season’s defensive regression and provide another source of scoring. Maybe Covington will make good on his “vendetta” and prove that he never should’ve fallen out of the rotation in Los Angeles. Maybe Batum will be the guy who glues wildly different lineups together, Martin will be Sixers fans favorite dunker since KJ McDaniels and the collective length on the roster will make Embiid’s life easier defensively. There are lots of variables here, but Nurse famously loves to experiment. Time to get in the lab.

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