Before he arrived in Philadelphia last season to lead the 76ers as president of basketball operations, Morey built the Houston Rockets into a perennial contender by pouncing when top talent sought a change of scenery. James Harden wanted to be a franchise player rather than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s sixth man; Morey executed a reputation-making blockbuster in 2012. Dwight Howard couldn’t make it work with Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers; Morey rolled out the red carpet in 2013 free agency. Chris Paul reached the conclusion that the “Lob City” Los Angeles Clippers had run their course; Morey worked another mega-trade in 2017.
Now it appears the shoe is on the other foot. Instead of operating patiently and from a position of strength as he did so often in Houston, Morey has found himself with little time or wiggle room as the Ben Simmons saga drags into September.
Following Philadelphia’s baffling second-round playoff exit in June, Coach Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid pointed their fingers at Simmons, whose aversion to three-pointers, poor foul shooting and unwillingness to attempt a key layup in the closing minutes of a Game 7 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks made him the obvious fall guy. Trade rumors swirled immediately, but both the draft and the August free agency period passed without a deal. The drama kicked up a notch last week when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Simmons told the 76ers that he wants to be traded, suggesting that he would sit out training camp if he isn’t moved.
The 25-year-old is not an easy player to trade. He’s owed more than $140 million over the next four years. Although he’s a skilled passer and a versatile defender, he’s a total non-shooter who has struggled to make an offensive impact during his three postseason runs. His lack of assertiveness or even comfort in key moments during the 2021 playoffs should give aspiring contenders serious pause.
In an ideal world, Simmons’s next stop would let him lick his wounds, rebuild his confidence and take on a leading role after years of enduring major scrutiny and playing second fiddle to Embiid in Philadelphia. Simmons is probably better suited to raising a mediocre team’s floor as a centerpiece rather than lifting a second-tier contender over the top as a third or fourth option, although it would be understandable if he didn’t view it that way.
Morey knows better than anyone that it’s hard to construct fair trades involving disgruntled stars. When the Rockets acquired Harden, Morey sent Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-round draft picks to the Thunder in a package that was panned at the time. When Paul forced his way to the Rockets, Morey traded Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and a first-round pick to the Clippers.
The Thunder and Clippers weren’t crippled by those moves, but they had their momentum blunted because they hadn’t kept their stars happy and couldn’t land a comparable talent by trade. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2014 and 2016, but it never fully delivered on its promise and fell short of a title.
The new-look Clippers put together an entertaining 2017-18 season before undertaking a dramatic retooling effort that culminated with their successful pursuits of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Those efforts finally paid off with their first Western Conference finals trip this season, but the Clippers were eliminated by Paul’s Phoenix Suns and Beverley was the only player left from the original group.
From that history, it’s easy to envision Embiid’s 76ers stalling out if a Simmons trade doesn’t bring back a star. While Embiid received a long-term extension this summer, the roster around him is uninspiring. Like Simmons, Tobias Harris has a gigantic contract and a spotty postseason track record. Philadelphia’s younger contributors hardly look like they have breakout potential. Meanwhile, Morey has yet to put his stamp on the 76ers, spending a quiet summer re-signing rotation players such as Danny Green and Furkan Korkmaz.
There was one other notable trade from Morey’s Rockets tenure that is relevant to his current predicament. In 2019, Harden and Paul had a falling-out that led the Rockets to trade Paul and two first-round picks to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. That deal was the riskiest of Morey’s career, and it proved to be so ruinous that the longtime executive, Harden and Westbrook all departed the Rockets within 18 months.
For once, Morey had lacked control over the timing and player sentiment. That debilitating position showed in the poor trade terms and the immense negative repercussions to his franchise.
Therein lies a lesson and a great irony: Rivers, Embiid, Philadelphia fans and media members can scapegoat Simmons, but Morey must find a happy new home for the Australian forward if the 76ers are going to remain among the East’s contenders. After all, Morey’s greatest successes and biggest misstep were directly shaped by the desires of the players involved. This time will be no different.