Tonight's much-anticipated matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets -- marking Ben Simmons' in-person return to Philly -- provides our first look at two potential long-term rivals in very different states in the aftermath of their trade deadline megadeal.
Judging any trade right away can be dicey if the teams approached it with different timetables in mind.
The Nets hoped to make a run this season behind the fully optimized Simmons-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant trio, but they also knew the Simmons-James Harden swap -- made through gritted teeth, facing interminable melodrama -- might insure them against future collapse.
Harden is 32, battling off-and-on hamstring issues and questions about how his game will age. He is eligible for an extension that would make him the highest-paid player ever.
Simmons is 25 and under contract through 2025. His flaws might shine brighter as Durant and Irving age (or if Irving leaves in free agency), but he should keep the distant-future Nets afloat -- perhaps insulating them from the disaster scenario that befell them the last time they traded away their entire draft-pick stockpile.
The Sixers and Daryl Morey were thinking only of today. They were willing to swallow the potential downside of Harden's twilight for multiple title shots over the next three seasons.
Early indications are Morey was right about Harden turning Philly into an immediate inner-circle contender. The Nets, meanwhile, remain the league's foremost theoretical team. Their three stars fit, but it's uncertain when or where they might be able to play together -- and how Simmons will respond to postseason pressure. They flash glimpses of being an unstoppable super-shooting machine, with two 3-point marksmen surrounding their stars; they played much of their Tuesday win over the Charlotte Hornets -- when Irving erupted for 50 points -- in such alignments, with Bruce Brown keeping the Simmons non-shooter slot warm.
Durant alone gives the Nets a chance in any one game, and in some series -- should the Nets reach the postseason. Durant and Irving together give the Nets a chance in any one playoff series. But to win three or four? They need more.