Why the Rockets passed on Ben Simmons in James Harden trade talks

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When Houston declined a trade proposal from the 76ers for disgruntled star James Harden, many around the NBA wondered if the decision was due to alleged friction between Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and Daryl Morey, now president of basketball operations in Philadelphia.

After spending approximately 15 years with the Rockets, Morey stepped down as general manager in October 2020. Within weeks of leaving Houston, Morey suddenly resurfaced with the Sixers, and Harden’s trade request became public knowledge shortly thereafter.

Understandably, many fans and media across the league wondered if those events were connected, and whether Fertitta might have been determined to send Harden anywhere but Philadelphia in a trade. But according to longtime ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon, the thinking by the Rockets — now led by Rafael Stone, who replaced Morey as GM — simply had to do with their assessment of Ben Simmons as a trade piece.

Here’s what MacMahon had to say on the latest edition of the Brian Windhorst & The Hoop Collective podcast:

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Morey dynamic, but it simply came down to this. The Rockets felt like, ‘If we’re trading James Harden, this is a full-fledged rebuild, and Ben Simmons is not the centerpiece of a rebuild.’

Now that things have played out… certainly there was some luck involved with the way the lottery ping-pong balls bounced, with them ending up at No. 2 and not sending the fifth pick to OKC.

But if they take Ben Simmons, the Rockets win a handful more games, and they are just, at best, on a path to mediocrity. They did not feel like he was a “build your franchise around this guy” kind of player. Now, they feel like they’ve got one of those guys in Jalen Green.

I don’t think that the Rockets’ opinion of Ben Simmons is an outlier. That’s why this James Harden type of package that they [Philadelphia] are asking for… that’s not the market for Ben Simmons.

It’s worth noting that even Morey himself reportedly told confidants that he believes Houston “made a great deal” for Harden.

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Reports in recent days have stated that Simmons now wants to be traded out of Philadelphia, and he’s threatening not to report to training camp for the 2021-22 season. It would seem plausible that hard feelings from being dangled in trade talks with the Rockets last season could be playing at least a small role in Simmons’ current assessment.

From Houston’s perspective, the basketball calculus was fairly simple. The trade involving Brooklyn resulted in a historic haul of future first-round draft assets, whereas Philadelphia had offered fewer draft picks due to the presence of Simmons in their bid. That makes sense for the 76ers, since Simmons — a three-time All-Star at only 25 years old — was and is a better player than anyone in the Brooklyn proposal.

But for Stone and the Rockets, the superior short-term value was not weighted all that heavily in their thinking, since they did not see themselves as anything close to a title contender — even with Simmons on the roster. While he’s a good player, Simmons’ limitations as a scorer have left him short of true superstar status, which likely explains why Morey and the 76ers have yet to find any trade to their liking.

Moreover, in the case of the Rockets, a team led by Simmons, Christian Wood, and John Wall wouldn’t have been a championship contender, yet they also would have likely won too many games to maximize their draft lottery odds — which is what led to them acquiring Green.

In short, as MacMahon explained, it would have potentially put them on a “path to mediocrity.” On the other hand, the Brooklyn proposal offered more upside — both from the perspective of the draft assets themselves, as well as the potential of losing more games in the short-term and receiving higher draft picks (such as Green) as a result.

Ultimately, it’s that analysis that led to Houston’s final decision in January, rather than any hard feelings between Fertitta and Morey.

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Player salaries for the Houston Rockets in 2021-22, future seasons