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ESPN: Inside the trade call ... and what led up to it

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It ended with an f-bomb.

In describing the final minutes of the trade talks that led to the blockbuster trade between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski lay out a back-and-forth between Sean Marks and Daryl Morey that ended with a final word ... and not a nice one.

In the final minutes of negotiations, Daryl Morey was shouting to Sean Marks: “Stay on the f---ing phone!” Here it was, 1:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations had come too far to let this deal die. He implored Marks to stay on the line until they had an agreement on the biggest trade of the year.

“We’re going to finish this!” Morey said. He was on the cusp of getting disgruntled star Ben Simmons out of his life and James Harden back into it, the protections on these draft picks were within reach, and Morey wanted it over. For months, everyone had told Morey to settle, cave to the marketplace’s mediocre offers and unburden the Sixers of the Simmons saga. To hell with that. Morey wanted Harden, and now it was here.

“We’re dropping F-bombs now, Daryl?” Marks said, joking.

Within minutes, Shelburne and Woj report, the deal was done, the final piece those being those protections and options on the two first round picks that the 76ers turned over to the Nets. It wasn’t acrimonious, the two wrote, just urgent.

Most might be surprised that nothing became acrimonious in their conversations in recent days. They’d also proven to be risk-takers throughout their executive careers, and this was the rare risk that gave each team a chance to win a title and solved each other’s considerable personnel problems.

What drove Morey to spout obscenities? Shelburne and Woj write that it was Marks desire to run the final package past Joe Tsai.

The two GMs, she noted, are both risk takers but quite different, Marks a bit more cerebral, Morey a bit more gruff. Shelburne and Woj, in fact, offer this description of Morey: “Here was Morey, the combustible, disheveled, dealmaking junkie with an admitted habit of cursing under stress.” They were also close, having spent time together at the NBA Bubble in 2020. (It was during those conversations, Marks has said, that Morey raved about Harden being a “basketball savant.”)

The ESPN reporters write about the proximate as well as the immediate in discussing the trade, the Nets relationship with The Beard came apart.

Marks and the Nets had gone from believing Harden was the key to their championship dreams with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, to accepting that they were about to dismantle one of the greatest theoretical super teams after just 16 games played together in two seasons. They weren’t happy Harden had gone from the superstar they could count on to the one who was bailing on them, but they also were realists.

Things got ugly early. Durant was not happy with his teammate’s conditioning on arrival in Nets camp at the University of San Diego back in September. KD was in world-beating shape — as was Irving. Harden not so much.

Harden was heavy and out of shape, and intrigued with the idea of free agency for the first time in his career.

Then there was Irving’s vaccination status, or more appropriately, his lack of vaccination status. There were issues that grew out of that. Harden who wanted to play fewer minutes wound up second in the league in time on the court second only to Durant.

Other issues also played a role in Harden’s unhappiness — like the rule changes that prevented him from getting to the line — and the Nets weren’t happy with him either, particularly his late night socializing as recently as the team’s West Coast road trip last week.

Shelburne and Woj say that Harden had long harbored the idea of testing free agency and resisted when Sean Marks and Joe Tsai pressed him on committing.

Little stays a secret within the NBA community, and Harden was quickly hedging on his future with the Nets, sources said. He kept telling Tsai and Marks he wanted to stay long term, but simultaneously started canvassing player agents for advice on an eventual exit strategy to Philadelphia.

Marks and Tsai spoke to Harden often, but he didn’t provide them the counter information he had been feeding to those outside the organization.

“Don’t believe any of the rumors,” Harden would tell them. “If there’s a problem, you’ll hear from me directly.”

Shelburne and Woj also report that initially, KD was not a fan of giving up on Harden, that Paul visited him and his business partner/agent Rich Kleiman on January 13.

While on business in New York on Jan. 13, Paul met with Durant and Durant’s business partner, Rich Kleiman. The conversation transitioned to basketball, and Paul made his case for a Harden-Simmons trade, sources said.

Durant initially resisted, but within 48 hours, Durant suffered the MCL injury, and his absence became an accelerant to Harden’s spiral with the franchise.

Harden’s attitude began to spiral. Then, this week, push came to shove with rumors flying, many of them the Nets believed had emanated from Philadelphia or more specifically the 76ers training facility and executive offices in Camden, NJ. On the court, Harden’s lack of commitment showed.

His play, often dispassionate and sloppy, culminated with a four-point performance in a loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings. Maybe Harden could maintain this lifestyle in his 20s, but it wasn’t working now. For a player purporting to have a hand and hamstring injury, this wasn’t inspiring confidence within a team in freefall.

Finally, there were the conference calls involving Harden, Marks and Tsai.

Over FaceTime calls, Harden told his GM and owner that he wanted a trade to Philadelphia, sources said.

The Nets told him that they would only make a deal that was good for the franchise. The Nets had unloaded significant assets to acquire him a year ago — Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, four first-round draft picks and four pick swaps. Brooklyn couldn’t reclaim all of that, but it needed a substantial return on a deadline trade with the Sixers and that would be difficult to do without other teams to leverage.

Harden told them he understood, and they agreed he wouldn’t play until after Thursday’s trade deadline. Harden had checked out on the organization, a reality made clearer when Harden informed them that he was returning to Houston on Wednesday to wait out the deadline, sources said.

Morey, working with minority owner Michael Rubin, saw his opening to reunite with Harden.

Meanwhile, in Moorestown, NJ, a few miles from Camden, Simmons was waiting and waiting for a reprieve from his own issues. Rich Paul, his agent, had made it clear that Simmons was not not returning to Philadelphia. Now, there was a confluence of events that could not just get him back in the NBA but with a team with whom he had a LOT of connections.

Paul had been telling Simmons a deal for Harden was possible. In the hours before the trade, Simmons was still telling teammates that he was pessimistic on the chances. He spent Thursday at his home with his family, monitoring social media and news reports. Simmons had built the 10,000-foot mansion in suburban Moorestown, New Jersey, in 2019, the same year he’d agreed to a five-year, $170 million extension to stay with the Sixers.

Then, finally, it came together and the Nets and Simmons had their phone call, more upbeat than the one Tsai and Marks had had with Harden. The 25-year-old was, according to Shelburne and Woj, emotional about the prospect of heading up the Turnpike and to the right.

As the trade was nearing completion just 90 minutes before the deadline Thursday, Simmons spoke to Durant and the Nets’ executives who spent the day hunkered in a meeting room to execute the trade. He is not a man of many words, but they could all hear the emotion in his voice as he thanked them for trading for him and believing in him.

In Philly, there was yet another call with Morey, Doc Rivers and Harden. They were happy, emotional as well. Shelburne and Woj, like others, question whether the fit between the ball-dominant point guard and the ball-dominant center will work, but point to the relationship that the two players already have.

Harden might not have a direct history with Embiid, but he has always respected him. He even pushed Morey to try and trade for him in Houston, sources said.

“James respects players who do a good job defending him,” a source said. “And Joel has always done that.”

Rivers understood the questions as well and addressed them, write the ESPN reporters, in the 76ers locker room.

All around the Sixers’ locker room, there’s a deep curiosity in how they’ll mesh. Every set of eyes will be on Embiid and Harden when they step on the court together.

If Morey’s burden was to deliver Harden to the franchise, it is now Rivers’ burden to make it work on the floor. D’Antoni will assuredly lurk in people’s minds until Rivers can make a deep run into the playoffs. Still, there was no fear in his voice when he addressed his staff on Thursday.

“Fortune favors the brave,” Rivers told the Sixers.

Shelburne and Woj report that the real nitty gritty of the trade talks began on Wednesday then heated up on Thursday morning with offers and counter offers.

When Philadelphia wouldn’t include Mattise Thybulle, Brooklyn insisted on two first-round picks. For both sides, the consequences and cost of doing nothing on Thursday could have had a lasting impact on these franchises. The cost of making those deals could have implications too. There are no sure things in this deal: James Harden and Ben Simmons come with risks and rewards. Ben Simmons waited seven months for his Philadelphia exile to become an exit. Daryl Morey waited 18 months to be reunited with James Harden. Everyone stayed on the bleeping phone long enough to get this trade done on Thursday, and this ever-unstable basketball landscape erupted with dramatic displacement again.

In the end, as Durant said, everyone got what they wanted and indeed it may work out for both sides and as Shelburne and Woj note, the rivalry between the two teams is fast becoming “the fiercest rivalry in the sport — Sixers-Nets.”

Exactly a month after the trade, the two sides will face off at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. If all goes well, the new look Nets with Durant, Irving and Simmons will be on the court against Harden and Embiid. Expect fireworks ... and emotion.