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James Harden for Ben Simmons in off-season? A rumor that won’t go away

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Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

What is going on here? Is there something we’re missing? For the second time in a week, a national writer or two has speculated that the end of the 76ers’ Ben Simmons melodrama will end in Turnpike sign-and-trade.

Last week, it was Marc Stein. This week, it’s Shams Charania and his colleague at The Athletic, Sam Amick, going over the same ground. Previously, Brian Windhorst of ESPN and Keith Pompey, 76ers beat writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer have also done the speculation thing as well.

However, one league source told NetsDaily the report is “spin ... craziness.”

Still, are all these writers trying to tell us something? Sure seems that way. In The Athletic report, which like the others seem to emanate from the City of Brotherly Love, Charania and Amick write...

With the NBA trade deadline just over two weeks away, rival teams interested in three-time All-Star Ben Simmons believe Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey has his sights set on a bigger target in the summertime: Brooklyn Nets star James Harden.

As noted before, there’s a lot of things that would seem to make this a bit of a stretch, things like the degree of difficulty of a sign-and-trade, Harden’s oft-stated love for Brooklyn and his happiness with the organization. Not to mention there’s never a mention of how the Nets feel about Simmons.

But the hits keep coming.

Charania and Amick cite “multiple sources, including people with direct knowledge of the team’s thinking and also from rival teams involved on the Simmons front.” Their point, as stated elsewhere, is that Harden and Sixers GM Daryl Morey have a relationship.

The notion of Morey holding out hope for a Harden reunion should surprise no one who saw them thrive together during those eight seasons together in Houston. It wasn’t just the on-court success that created their bond, though the perennial playoff appearances (including two Western Conference Finals) didn’t hurt.

It was the way Morey empowered Harden like never before, hiring a coach in Mike D’Antoni whose system played so wonderfully to his strengths and building the roster around him throughout. And after Morey’s failed attempt to pull it off last summer, when a deal that would have sent Simmons to the Rockets was real enough that the Sixers point guard even started shopping for homes in the Houston area, it makes perfect sense that Morey would want to go down this familiar road again.

The writers also note that the 76ers thought they had a deal in place for Harden before the Nets made a better offer. The Philly deal would have involved Harden for Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and two firsts. The Nets topped that, of course, with their package of four firsts and four swaps (now down to three) and Harden preferred Brooklyn.

The two questions left unanswered in all the reports are 1) is Harden unhappy with the Nets and 2) are the Nets willing to make a deal. That of course is further complicated by the degree of difficulty involved in moving such a huge contract — perhaps the biggest ever — in the process.

Charania and Amick note that Harden did turn down the Nets extension offer before the season, but they also concede that Harden has given no indication he’s given up on his championship dreams.

The closest they come to dealing with that issue is that Morey and the Sixers believe Harden would be happy in Philly, playing with Joel Embiid.

Morey still has some optimism that he can finally find a way to bring Harden his way. More specifically, he believes that the nine-time All-Star and 2018 MVP sees the Sixers’ situation in a positive light. And while it may be counterintuitive, Embiid’s MVP-caliber play this season has inspired more patience among Sixers officials to make the right deal than it has pressure to get something done by the deadline.

That’s by no means an acknowledgement that Harden is unhappy and wants out of Brooklyn, but each story in this series makes one wonder.

Finally, there is the difficulty in the details of any such transaction, as Charania and Amick concede.

As is the case with most potential free-agent suitors, there are two primary ways the 76ers can bring in Harden in the offseason: signing him with cap space and negotiating a sign-and-trade with the Nets. However, the 76ers are roughly $20 million over the 2022-23 salary cap with just their fully guaranteed players and filling out the roster, so clearing enough space for Harden would require sending out $61-65 million in salary without taking any back, which is a big undertaking in any offseason, especially this one, where so few teams will wield space. That means a sign-and-trade involving Simmons and/or Harris is the practical option, although the Nets would have to agree.

Would the Nets agree? Charania and Amick provide no answer and although Simmons for Harden may be Morey’s dream scenario and it’s always possible that a team makes Morey an offer he can’t refuse at the trade deadline, maybe it’s time to watch this space. The question remains: Is Shams along with the other writers speculating or is he working?