Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks said that the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Ben Simmons was a difficult one to make, but one that ultimately will allow both Harden and the Nets to get the fresh start they needed.
"Make no bones about it: We went all-in on getting James Harden and inviting him to the group," Marks said during a videoconference discussing the trade deadline Friday afternoon. "And these decisions to move on from a player like that, of that caliber, are never easy ones. I just want to be clear that this is not something that you think, great, let's just make a split decision and move on from that. I give James a lot of credit for having open dialogue, open discussions with me and with the group, [Nets coach Steve Nash] and [owner] Joe Tsai and everybody over the last 24, 48 hours.
"Again, I said they're not easy, but I think that's something we pride ourselves on is being open and honest. James was honest with us and we were honest with him. I think it's a move that enables him to have a fresh start, enables this team to have a fresh start, without trying to push things to make things work.
"If we realize this is not going to work, short term or long term, then it's time to say for both parties involved, this is better off."
The decision to part ways with Harden meant that, just a little more than a year after trading for him, the Nets find themselves moving on after seeing their Big Three of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the court together for a total of 16 games -- 10 during the regular season and six more in last year's playoffs.
It also coincides with the Nets' plummeting down the Eastern Conference standings over the past six weeks, going from first place on Christmas to now eighth in the East -- and as close in the standings to the Sixers in fifth place as the Washington Wizards in 11th.
Marks, though, said that the decision to move on from Harden wasn't about the team's recent struggles.
"It's not just eight or nine games," he said. "The things that we've had to deal with over the course of the last year since James has been here is, to be quite frank, the Big Three, quote unquote, haven't had significant time to play together for a variety of different circumstances. So, I think the frustration is more in that than in eight or nine games. Obviously it was not, and it currently isn't, trending in the right direction, but we're not going to make a decision off of one, two, five games, whatever it may be. The sample size has to be bigger. And at that point, we're sitting here saying, "Yeah. We've seen enough." On both sides.
"We obviously thank James immensely for everything he's done. Let's be honest, he's come in here and set all kinds of Brooklyn Nets records in such a short time. He's a hell of a player, without a doubt. Again, these are not easy decisions, but we're very grateful for what James has done over his short time here, but at the same time, adding these three players -- Seth [Curry], Andre [Drummond] and Ben -- help us in needs James doesn't fulfill."
This season, the primary reason the trio was limited to just two games together was Irving did not comply with New York City's vaccine mandate -- thus causing him to be away from the team for the first two-plus months of the season, only to return last month to begin playing in only road games.
When asked whether Irving's decision, and the uncertainty it created, was a cause of Harden's frustration with the Nets, Marks said no one is more frustrated than Irving himself. He then went on to say Irving hopes things will change with regard to the city's vaccine mandate -- just the latest indication that Irving will not be reconsidering his stance on getting vaccinated to play in home games while the rule remains in place.
"Look, I don't want to speak for James on that," Marks said, when asked whether Irving's decision played a role in Harden deciding he wanted to leave. "That was never explicitly expressed from him. I think the most frustrated person in this whole thing is Kyrie. I mean, Kyrie is frustrated with the fact that he's not able to be out there. I mean, all our conversations have been like, 'Look I want to be there, I want to be around the team.' He's obviously hoping for things to look different in the future here and for him to be able to participate in home and road games. So again, there's a factor of a few things.
"I probably wouldn't be honest with myself if I thought we weren't all frustrated with the ability that they couldn't be together on the court at one time and that being one of the reasons, sure. Another is obviously injuries. We've seen Kevin have injuries. We've seen James have injuries. So, there's a lot of factors going into unfortunately why we haven't seen those three together."
Marks also said it's too early to be concerned about Irving's availability for the playoffs, which will start two months from now, beginning with the play-in tournament -- which the Nets, currently losers of 10 straight games, find themselves in position to be in.
"Regarding the playoff situation, I think that's something, we cross that bridge at that point," Marks said. "I think the concerns for us are immediate, right, like it's right now, like what are we doing, how are we bringing these new players into our fold here and how are we getting the team healthy and back together as quick as possible, trending in the right direction. So, the decision on the mandate, that's obviously far above my pay grade and not something that I'm overly concerned about now.
"I mean, I think we're always going to be optimistic. I just look around the world and I see things are changing, whether it's the mask mandates, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and then you've got entire countries who are changing their outlook on omicron and COVID and so forth. So again, far bigger discussion. My hope would be that by the time we roll around the playoffs, if not sooner, the world looks like a different place and the more people that are vaccinated and so forth and we're moving on. Economies have to keep moving, let alone NBA franchises."
Marks said, when asked if Durant and Irving were involved in the discussion to trade Harden, that the talks about whether a deal would take place centered on conversations he had with Harden and Nets owner Joe Tsai, with other players being folded into them later.
And when asked whether he thought Philadelphia tampered with Harden, Marks said he would leave that up to the league to decide.
"Unfortunately, the world we live in right now, so much of this is being played out in the media," Marks said. "So much of this is, whether it's scuttlebutt, hearsay, and so forth, it's just the nature of the beast. It's just the nature of the world we're in. I'm not going to start making accusations at everybody else. Again, this particular set of circumstances was played out in the media far earlier than any conversations were ever had. I don't know and again if this is where it ends up, that will be completely up to the league to look into these set of circumstances."
While there was plenty of talk about Harden's departure from Brooklyn, Marks also expressed excitement over the possibility of what the Nets can look like with Simmons in the fold. Marks said he talked to Simmons after the trade was consummated Thursday, and again Friday while Simmons was getting his physicals in Brooklyn, and he said the All-Star guard was "ecstatic" about landing with the Nets.
"Like all players, you're here to support them. Everybody's going through different things in life outside of basketball and we're here to support Ben, we're here to support our entire group, our entire organization," Marks said. "All I can tell you is he was ecstatic about the circumstances that he was walking into and so are we. We're thrilled to get him on board and we'll be here to support him from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint and get him engaged and get him around our group.
"I think that's cathartic unto itself. When you have a guy who obviously needs, everyone likes their arm around each other and a hug every now and then and support and so forth. That's what we're going to go into this situation with arms wide open, support him, support the new players to our team and get them together."
Marks said there's no timetable on when Simmons will be able to play, saying that he will need time to practice and get acclimated to his new team and surroundings after spending the entire season away from the Sixers seeking out his own trade to a new team.
Marks also said he hasn't had any discussions with Simmons about his role in Brooklyn, but that he thinks his versatility will be a weapon the Nets can take advantage of.
"With that discussion about him being a primary ball handler, that discussion, to be quite frank, I haven't had with Ben," he said. "I'm obviously not worried about it. I think he does a lot of things on the court, whether that's handling the ball or not, that help us, that help fill some needs. The luxury is we have several players that can fill the role as primary ball handler, so you look at that, and Steve and I can handle these discussions.
"We're certainly excited about the pace with which Ben can bring to the team, the defensive ability, the ability to guard arguably 1 through 5 positions, the elite passing ability he has, the finishing at the rim, getting into the paint and finishing, those are some things that we are excited to see, let alone get the defensive rebound and push the break and lead the break. He can also be out on the wing running the lanes. It gives Steve some other weapons to use out there, and it's going to be exciting for not only Steve and Ben but the entire group."