How Daryl Morey’s trade history shapes the future for the 76ers and Ben Simmons

By | September 8, 2021

“Until you have your foundational players, your franchise should be in a state of flux. You need to keep trading and moving players until you get to that point.” — Daryl Morey, as told to the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram in 2019.

In case you haven’t heard, Ben Simmons is on the trade block. 

Now maybe we haven’t seen the last of Simmons in a Sixers uniform. Perhaps the Simmons saga in Philadelphia hasn’t run its course. Perhaps one party extends an olive branch and genuine heart-to-heart conversations fix all that is wrong. Perhaps the former No. 1 overall pick hugs it out with Joel Embiid, Doc Rivers and every Sixers fan, leading to a 20,000-strong contingent all wearing No. 25 jerseys singing Kumbaya together after Simmons takes over down the stretch of the fourth quarter during their home opener against the Brooklyn Nets.

Or maybe not.

MORE: Timeline of the Ben Simmons saga

When it comes to wheeling and dealing, Daryl Morey is not your ordinary NBA decision maker. Unlike the typical front office executive who sits back patiently and waits for the stars to align before making any major decisions, Morey’s ambitious, calculated and unbridled “go for it” mentality mimics the type of attitude most fans and writers relish when incessantly talking trade rumors and firing up the NBA trade machine. He’s not waiting around and his track record speaks for itself.

After Morey took over as president of basketball operations for the 76ers before last season, FiveThirtyEight’s Jared Dubin analyzed his time with the Houston Rockets from 2007 to 2020 and ironically found that the only team that conducted more trades during that span was the Process-era 76ers.

Most famous for his league-altering trade for James Harden in 2012, Morey’s storied career is defined by an unmistakable penchant for swinging — and usually winning — both big-time and beneath-the-radar trades. 

With the Simmons saga dominating the NBA offseason news cycle, here’s a look at the biggest trades made by Morey. In all, he swung a whopping 77 of them with the Rockets and five so far with the 76ers. We went through all 82 to identify Morey’s biggest deals and why they’re important to consider given the current context. Again, this exercise isn’t to litigate the past but rather provide insight into Morey’s methods and the types of moves we could see as it relates to Simmons.

MORE: Why the Warriors are hesitant to trade for Simmons

Installing an early revolving door in Houston

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Before landing Harden in his seminal masterstroke just before the start of the 2012-13 season, Morey took plenty of chances. The constant revolving door over his first five years in Houston demonstrates the mindset of a restless tactician, constantly tinkering and surveying the waters to land the proverbial big fish.

The list of players Morey moved speaks for itself:

  • He gambled on a trade for Metta World Peace in 2008.
  • He gambled on Steve Francis in his final season before trading him away after 10 games.
  • He acquired Kyle Lowry in 2009 before sending him in 2012 to Toronto, where he turned into a perennial All-Star.
  • He landed Kevin Martin in a three-teamer when dealing a past-his-prime Tracy McGrady to the Knicks in 2010, a move which ultimately paved the way for the Harden trade.
  • He took a long-shot flyer on Hasheem Thabeet just 18 months removed from being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

He won some, he lost some. But Morey can’t ever be criticized for a lack of effort, and his early tenure in Houston laid the groundwork for a remarkable eight-year run during which the Rockets never hesitated to stand toe to toe with anyone.

Swinging the James Harden trade

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There’s really not much that already hasn’t been said about one of the most defining trades in NBA history.

Morey saw a burgeoning 22-year-old Sixth Man in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and plucked him away for the aforementioned Martin, Jeremy Lamb and three picks that turned into Steven Adams, Alex Abrines and Mitch McGary.

An analytics darling in OKC whose performance skyrocketed whenever given the chance to cook without Durant and Westbrook, Harden checked every box on Morey’s wishlist. 

Did he know Harden would evolve into the most dominant isolation scorer since Michael Jordan? Probably not. Did he surmise that Harden would become a perennial All-Star, franchise anchor and scoring title contender for years to come? Absolutely.

The analytics-driven NBA landscape in 2021 is vastly different than in 2012, when young budding stars such as Harden could hide more easily in plain sight. That Rockets team didn’t have an Embiid-type player in his prime and ready to win now, so maybe Morey won’t gamble on an unproven young star currently miscast in a smaller role. But if you’re looking for the type of player he may ultimately target in a Simmons trade, don’t bet the farm against history repeating itself.

Giving up the farm for Chris Paul

Morey will venture to the end of the earth to find a second star. Just as he knew the window wouldn’t stay open forever with Harden in Houston, you better believe he feels the same about Embiid in Philadelphia.

That’s why he didn’t balk at giving up a whopping eight assets for Chris Paul heading into the 2017-18 season. The package included a starting point guard (Patrick Beverley), the league’s premier bench scorer (Lou Williams), a future Sixth Man of the Year (Montrezl Harrell), a 22-year-old former top-20 pick (Sam Dekker) and a future top-3 protected first-round pick.

It didn’t matter that Paul was a ball-dominant point guard.

It didn’t matter that Paul was 32 years old.

It didn’t matter that Paul was prone to untimely injuries.

All that mattered was raising the ceiling and finding the best possible player to pair with his franchise cornerstone smack dab in the middle of his prime. It wasn’t perfect. But had the Rockets not suffered through an 0-27 stretch from 3 against the Warriors in 2018, there is an incredibly high probability that they would have won the NBA title with Morey’s bet on CP3 the move that tipped the scales and put them in a position to do the unthinkable: take out Golden State.

Do the 76ers want to give up more than Simmons? Of course not. Morey would love to hang on to Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton and his future first-round picks. But he’ll do whatever it takes and if that means giving up the farm to land a legit star to put the Sixers over the top, then so be it. 

Gambling on Russell Westbrook

Trading Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook was Morey’s last big swing in Houston.

MORE: How will Russell Westbrook fit next to LeBron James?

And even if this one doesn’t ultimately fall on Morey — there are substantial rumblings that both Harden and Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta ultimately made the decision — the consistent characterization of a high-risk, high-reward pattern remains.

On paper, the idea of a Westbrook and Harden pairing never made sense. And yet time and again, the NBA has proven to be a star-driven league that revolves around the brightest constellations in the sky. Given Paul’s injury woes after his two seasons in Houston, it’s not exactly like there were a battery of other options out there for Morey to pursue in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle.

Winning the Seth Curry trade

Every Sixers fan: “We need shooters.”

Morey, two weeks into the job: “How about the second-most accurate shooter in NBA history?”

Most Accurate 3-pt Shooters All-Time
  3-pt FG Pct
1. Steve Kerr 45.4
2. Seth Curry 44.4
3. Hubert Davis 44.1
4. Joe Harris 43.8
5. Drazen Petrovic 43.7

Morey waltzed into Philadelphia and within 16 days, parlayed Josh Richardson — on the heels of an incredibly lackluster and underwhelming first season with the 76ers — into Seth Curry, a battle-tested shooter who solved two of Philly’s biggest problems (trusted playoff experience and shooting). 

Six months later, Curry averaged more than 20 points on 60 percent shooting in the second round while Richardson fell out of the Mavericks’ rotation and got sent packing to Boston in exchange for an undrafted 21-year-old.

Undoing the Al Horford contract

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The year before Morey showed up, the previous regime decided it would be a good idea to sign a 33-year-old center to a four-year, $109 million contract despite the fact that he plays the same position as Embiid.

Predictably, it didn’t work out. Lineups with Horford and Embiid were outscored by 0.4 points per 100 possessions and even on their best day, simply proved to be an awkward fit. Horford turned in the worst season of his career and looked well past the point of “key figure on a potential title team” and certainly a far cry from someone owed $81 million over the next three seasons.

Suddenly, Philly was saddled with one of the most unmovable contracts in the entire league.

Not only did Morey move it, but the Sixers are still benefiting more than a year later. Not only did they land Danny Green, a key two-way starter and much-needed shooter, they also landed Terrance Ferguson and Vincent Pourier, who Morey held onto for a year before flipping last March for George Hill, who could end up starting depending on how the Simmons saga plays out.

At worst, that’s two dependable and experienced rotation players. At best, that’s the starting backcourt for a potential 2022 title team. All for an overpaid center once thought to be among the worst contracts in the league.

MORE: Winners and losers from NBA free agency

It’s a lot to pore through and that doesn’t even get into the weeds of the deft moves such as packaging non-guaranteed contracts to open up additional cap space for future moves down the chess board. As the Simmons saga drags on, it’s prudent to keep in mind Morey’s track record when trying to figure out his next move. This is a grand magician who has long since graduated from simply pulling rabbits out of hats. 

No matter how bold, shrewd or seemingly insignificant, every Morey move is connected by a single common thread: an unwavering and unparalleled commitment to winning big.