In an interview on former teammate JJ Redick's "The Old Man and the Three" podcast, Joel Embiid said that, before the 2022 NBA trade deadline, he thought that the Philadelphia 76ers were more likely to acquire James Harden after the season.
Leading up to Feb. 10, there were conflicting reports about the seriousness of discussions between Philadelphia and Brooklyn Nets, and even if they were having discussions at all. After it was completed, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski reported that, at 1:15 p.m. ET on deadline day, Sixers president Daryl Morey and Nets general manager Sean Marks were trying to finalize the deal that would send Harden and Paul Millsap to Philly for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks after days of conversation. Harden had told Marks and Nets owner Joe Tsai that he wanted to be traded to Philadelphia, and he had flown to Houston the day before the deadline, per ESPN.
On the podcast, Redick asked Embiid when he got the sense that the deal might go down. Embiid replied, "Not until it happened."
Embiid continued: "I believed that in the summertime it was likely to happen just because of everything that was out there and, you know, Daryl's relationship (with Harden) from the Houston days. So I believed that that was something to monitor. But at the time, until it happened, I was like, there's just no way. Like, that's just not going to happen."
Embiid said he was on his way home from the practice facility when it happened.
"My phone started blowing up," he said. "So I'm like, what's going on? And then I saw it. I'm like, 'wow, Daryl got what he wanted.'"
According to ESPN, Marks didn't actually negotiate with Morey until late on Feb. 9, having previously listened to potential frameworks and turned them all down. At a shootaround media availability on the morning of Feb. 10, Nets coach Steve Nash was still publicly denying that anything was happening. By then, Kevin Durant had called Marks to sign off on moving Harden, according to Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer.
If Harden hadn't made that reported FaceTime call and Durant hadn't given his reported thumbs-up, would this blockbuster trade have been made? If the Sixers were not able to send Simmons to Brooklyn, would they have sent him somewhere else? Harden was reportedly hesitant to directly ask out, and Morey said on "The Rights to Ricky Sanchez" podcast that Philadelphia had "a whole plan of convincing Ben to come back to play" if there was no deal.
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The idea that Harden could have come made his way to the Sixers in the summer is not new. The two sides could have worked out a similar deal after the season, provided that Simmons was still on Philadelphia's roster and Harden had opted into the final year of his contract. Alternatively, Harden could have opted out and become a free agent, and the Sixers could have, in theory, found a way to create enough cap space to sign him outright, leaving the Nets empty-handed.
The risk of losing Harden for nothing, less than two years after giving up a ton of stuff to get him, is one of the reasons it made sense for Brooklyn to make the trade when it did. Waiting for the offseason would have been risky for Philadelphia, too. If Harden had stuck around made a deep playoff run with the Nets, would he still have his eyes on the Sixers?