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Is it too early to say who won Nets-Sixers trade? Probably, but Brooklyn looking good

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

It’s reflexive. The morning after James Harden has his most disastrous playoff game ever — looking 10 years older than his age, as Skip Bayless tweeted Thursday night — Nets fans are taking great joy in pointing at their former point guard saying, “See, he’s done. We won the trade.”

While on one hand, Harden, 32, looked awful, the February 10 trade was never going to be won or lost in May. There are too many variables. Harden and Ben Simmons health is the biggest one, but there are others: How’s Seth Curry’s ankle? Is Andre Drummond a rental? Can the Nets get good value from the two first rounders: the 2022/23 unprotected first and the 2027 (top 8) protected and the two trade exceptions at $11.3 million and $1.7 million. (We’re not even talking about the 37-year-old Paul Millsap who did not play in the post-season and is likely to retire.)

All that said, one thing becomes obvious in recapping things: the Nets have a LOT more to work with than the 76ers. a longer title window and fewer big decisions to make than the 76ers...

Or as Joel Embiid put it post-game: “Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” said Embiid. “But that’s not who he is anymore.”

First things first: The Nets have to decide by June 1 whether to use the unprotected pick in 2022 or 2023. At this point, it’s almost a sure thing that the Nets postpone the pick. As Sam Vecenie pointed out earlier in the week, there are two reasons to do so: 1) the 2023 NBA Draft is viewed as much stronger than the 2022 Draft and 2) Philly’s good fortune with Joel Embiid’s health is unlikely to hold for a third straight year. Then, there’s the usual back-biting that comes with a loss like the Sixers just experienced. Embiid criticized Harden, Harden criticized Doc Rivers (in a back-handed way). Does all signal a Philly fall back next season? Maybe but one thing seems certain: the pick is more valuable today than it was yesterday.

Vecenie and Adrian Wojnarowski strongly believe that the Nets will use the pick(s) as trade assets this summer. Vecenie said we may know more about what the Nets are planning from scuttlebutt that comes out of the NBA Draft Combine. The combine, he noted, is when teams typically start talking about trades using draft assets. It begins Monday in Chicago.

Health was always going to be a big determinant in how the trade would play out, both short-term and long-term. Yes, Harden’s hamstring woes and generally poor conditioning hurt his game enormously, but Simmons hasn’t played since June 20, 2021 and won’t play again until October following a three-month rehab off his back surgery. Sean Marks said Wednesday that Simmons is already feeling relief from the microdiscectomy, but backs are tricky. Harden said Thursday night that he’s excited to begin his offseason training regimen. but as Amar’e Stoudemire told ESPN Thursday you can’t trust Harden, that he doesn’t “take his body seriously.”

“I cannot commit to that if I’m the owner of the Sixers,” Stoudemire said in talking about extending Harden to a five-year, quarter billion dollar deal which will be in play this summer. “I just don’t see the dedication that I will need to see from one of the top 75 players. You have to have a certain level of dedication and focus to be the best player you can possibly be and also be there for your teammates when they need you the most.”

That is no longer the Nets problem, of course, but assuming Simmons returns to good health, physically and mentally, the Nets will be paying him a lot less money over the next three years than the Sixers will presumably play Harden. The ex-Net did signal that he might take less money. “Whatever it takes to help this team grow,” he said. “I’m in a really good situation in Philadelphia,”

That savings from the trade, Nets officials say, will be used to bolster other parts of the roster. (Would the Nets have paid Harden all that money if he elected to stay? Yes, they would have.)

Health could also be a factor in determining Curry’s value. His ankle surgery seems run-of-the-mill but if the Nets want to use him in a trade, will it hurt? Curry who will be paid $8.5 million next season on an expiring deal is probably the Nets best trade asset. He is the finest active 3-point shooter in the NBA, both in the regular season (44 percent) and post-season (47 percent). So, he is a bargain. Curry also carries no baggage. A package of Curry, the two Philly firsts and other assets could be a nice start in trade talks for a big or a 3-and-D wing.

Drummond has said he would like to return, but at what price? He’s probably going to get more than the vets minimum on the open market — he is unrestricted — but how much more at this point? He is a back-up center on most teams and at this point, it’s hard to imagine the Nets using their taxpayers MLE — around $6.3 million — on him rather another more needed asset. The center position remains a huge question mark going forward. Nic Claxton is a restricted free agent and despite progress, Day’Ron Sharpe is 20 years old and a development project. Then, there’s Steve Nash’s persistent comments that he can see using a healthy Simmons at the 5.

The two least appreciated assets coming out of the trade are the two exceptions, specifically the big one. With no cap space, no picks of their own and only the taxpayers MLE, the $11.3 million, such a large TPE is a big help. In fact, other than their players, it is probably their biggest asset and they can use it through the trade deadline in February 2023.

There are limits in using trade exceptions, but the Nets will likely use it (or their next biggest TPE, the $6.3 million one they received from the DeAndre Jordan salary dump.) They used most of their big TPE from the Spencer Dinwiddie trade to take on Curry’s contract. The question is whether Joe Tsai would take on the added luxury tax if Marks comes to him with a deal using the exception. Marks says he’s not concerned.

“The objective here is to win. [Tsai has] made it very clear. That’s what we want to do,” Marks said on Wednesday. “And he has never said no, and if the decision is the right one, and we think going forward it doesn’t hamstring us long-term, I have no problem going to Joe and saying this is the decision we do, whether it’s trading a player, signing a player, or using an exception such as you pointed out.”

And again, Tsai’s luxury tax liability has dropped dramatically since last August, when he was due to pay out $130 million. By the time of the Harden deal, it had dropped to $110 million, then $95.5 million after it. The final number is a little higher. Again, the collective savings from not having to pay Harden gives the Nets and Tsai a little more flexibility.

Finally, it’s beyond math, beyond mixing and matching assets. It’s more dynamic than that. The Nets are in the midst of what KD has said will be a crucial summer. They will do things outside the parameters of who won or lost the trade, things like deciding how to treat Kyrie Irving’s player option and extension, how much to pay Claxton and Bruce Brown or how to react to the unexpected. This is the Nets, after all.

For the moment, there is a temptation to say the Nets won the trade and indeed, at the moment, after Harden’s mostly poor performance in the playoffs and the mostly positive news coming out of Simmons recovery, it sure looks that way. Nets fans certainly think so and Sixers fans are begrudgingly coming around to that position as well despite their blind hatred for Simmons. Simmons himself apparently liked a tweet from Bayless that said he will “eventually make this trade look so phoolish for Philly.”

The NBA schedule typically comes out in early August. Everyone will scour it to mark the dates for those four Nets-76ers games. Until then, it’s just speculation.