Answering the massive questions driving this James Harden trade

 proxy.yoo.workers.dev  01/14/2021 03:41:00 
3:17 AM GMT

In the end, the Houston Rockets didn't get the blue-chip young player they boasted they would receive in return for James Harden -- the second-greatest player in franchise history, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon, and one of the league's all-time best scorers.

Victor Oladipo, acquired in exchange for Caris LeVert as part of this monstrosity, does not quite qualify. Oladipo is almost 29, two years and one major leg injury removed from his only All-NBA season. He has looked more like his old self this season; he is getting to the rim at a pre-injury level. But he also is eligible for free agency this summer, when there will be oodles more cap space than available stars. It's not out of the realm of possibility the Rockets will have to pay Oladipo the maximum salary, or something close, to retain him -- if they want to when the alternative is potential cap space.

LeVert doesn't have Oladipo's track record, and he was off to a blah shooting start as a supporting actor in the most predictable soap opera in basketball. But he is more than two years younger than Oladipo and has shown -- including during the bubble -- that he might be ready for a larger scoring role. He is on a decent contract for three seasons -- one that would have carried positive trade value for the Rockets had they decided to flip LeVert later on.

Houston isn't wrong to bet Oladipo will be better for the next three seasons. I still might rather have LeVert. For the Indiana Pacers, nabbing LeVert in exchange for a player who was likely leaving anyway is a huge win. Oladipo's future with Indiana has been murky, to say the least, since talks about a potential extension went nowhere before last season. LeVert has a broadly similar skill set to that of Oladipo and fits alongside Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner.

There are two questions that really matter about the Harden megadeal:

" Did Houston get enough?

" Did the Brooklyn Nets improve their championship odds enough to justify the massive pile of draft assets they forked over: three unprotected first-round picks and four unprotected swaps, a bounty that sustains through 2027 -- when Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving will be ancient (by NBA standards) or retired?

The answers, from here, are "yes" and "maybe, but I'm wary because, umm, defense."

That is an enormous amount of draft equity. Enormous. I don't care how good the team is now, or how good it projects to be in 2023, dealing that many unprotected draft assets that far into the future is a giant risk. It can ruin your franchise for years. If you don't win at least one championship, the trade can go down as a bust -- even if you win 60 games a bunch of times, and breach the inner circle of contenders every year.

That draft equity is a strong return for the Rockets. Is it stronger than Ben Simmons by himself? To be clear, I don't know precisely what the Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers discussed, what the Sixers offered, or whether they even made an ironclad offer in the end. Reconstructing trade talks in the moment is maddening. Maybe one team, or both, got too cute haggling over whatever young players and/or draft picks Philadelphia might attach to Simmons. I feel confident saying this: The Rockets could have had Ben Simmons if they wanted him. They apparently decided they preferred the mother lode of picks from Brooklyn. Maybe they got greedy in negotiations with Philly.

Time will tell if they were right. Simmons is a great player coming off an All-NBA and All-Defensive season. He is 24, and he provides an identity upon walking in the door: Run like hell and put shooters around him.

Building a good version of such a team would have taken Houston years. And even if you construct one, it's unclear if Simmons can ascend into being the best player on a title team. I'm dubious, though the designation is more fluid than people would like. Few conceived of Jimmy Butler as being in that circle, but the Miami Heat came within two wins of a title despite multiple injuries in the NBA Finals.

The Rockets decided they'd rather (basically) start over. You need picks to do that, and the Rockets had flung away two -- plus two swaps -- in the disastrous Chris Paul-for-Russell Westbrook deal. They get more back here. They are shorting the Nets' future, wagering on a train wreck. Can you blame them given the train's current status?

Of course, trading Simmons down the line could have brought Houston some picks -- though likely not this same bounty. And even with this trade return, the Rockets still can't compete with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New Orleans Pelicans -- fat with picks -- for the next disgruntled superstar (should either of those teams decide to get in on that fun).

Either way, Houston has come out well here.

Back to the Nets. They also gave up three rotation players, including a rising rim protector and ferocious rim runner in Jarrett Allen. (The Cleveland Cavaliers are an undisputed winner for turning a lousy Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick into Allen, even if they already have so many centers that they are playing Dean Wade -- look him up -- at shooting guard in spot minutes.)

From the moment the Nets acquired Irving and Durant, they faced an existential dilemma many championship hopefuls have navigated in many different ways: depth or a third star, Big 2 or Big 3?

It is the question that keeps GMs up at night -- makes them queasy. There is no universal answer. If your Big 2 are Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, perhaps you roll with a deeper and more flexible roster behind two top-five overall players.

Irving has never been a top-five player. Right now, he's not actually playing at all. The clock was also ticking on Brooklyn's depth. Allen is eligible for a big, new deal this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie, a likely ingredient in any blockbuster of this sort before tearing his ACL last month, has a player option for next season. Teams often trade depth for stars because the depth is about to become too expensive to keep all of it.

Perhaps that was not of concern to Joseph Tsai, the Nets governor and one of the wealthiest humans. If Tsai was willing to swallow huge luxury tax bills year after year, Brooklyn could have run almost a dozen deep in quality NBA players around its centerpiece stars.

But no amount of depth compensates for an ill-timed injury to a superstar. Lose one superstar in the playoffs and any two-star team is toast. Acquiring a third star fortifies the Nets against an injury to Irving or Harden. An injury to Durant might destroy any title hopes, considering the team right now has two players with any experience at power forward (Durant and Jeff Green, who is somehow always around NBA history, like a backup singer to the stars) and one solitary experienced center (the recently benched DeAndre Jordan.)

Acquiring Harden also opens the possibility of trading Irving at some point to recoup depth and draft picks (if he rebuilds his trade value). It is a hedge against Irving vanishing.

As of now, the Nets have nine proven or semi-proven NBA rotation players: their new Big 3, plus Joe Harris (a perfect fit anywhere), Jordan, Green, Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Some might include Tyler Johnson, but he has been more or less bound to the bench for the past two seasons. Three of those guys -- Brown, Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Shamet -- are mostly untested on the biggest stages.

It's a thin team, but the Nets can carve a workable rotation out of it. They will find another center. They should dominate the buyout market. Stars win in the postseason.

They are going to be impossible to guard. I'm more optimistic about the fit on offense than those snarking about how Brooklyn's three stars can possibly share one ball. That's a real concern. There will be growing pains. Irving has to buy into a third option role after winning a title as LeBron James' No. 2.

But Durant is the most malleable superstar in NBA history, playing at his old MVP level again. He can do everything, on and off the ball. He has always been content toggling between one-on-one plays and everything else: scurrying around pindowns, screening for other dominant ball handlers, spacing the floor.

Harden should supersede Irving as Brooklyn's lead ball handler. He is just better. He will have to pivot from James-ball back to regular basketball. Harden won't be able to dribble endlessly into 15 step-back 3s every night. He will have to, like, move his body and limbs when he doesn't have the ball. Maybe set some screens.

Doubt over whether Harden can rewire his game crept into discussions within teams on the fringes: Boston, Denver, Toronto, Miami, Portland, others. At go time, none was really a contender to get him, sources said. Boston wasn't trading Jaylen Brown, according to sources. Portland wasn't going to include CJ McCollum -- a beloved player currently raining fire across the league -- in any deal construction that approached Houston's desire to strip teams of picks and young players, sources said.

Harden's listless play and off-court flouting of both Houston's training camp schedule and the league's coronavirus protocols had several within those teams wondering if Harden -- at age 31, two years from free agency -- was worth upending their franchises. He will perk up. You watch: We are going to see peak Harden pouring in 40 very soon.

But what would happen if anything was not to his liking -- if he grew weary of their coach, or soured on yet another superstar teammate? Would he pout and carouse? It was entirely predictable -- I have discussed it in several podcasts and columns dating back months -- that Simmons would be the only blue-chip young player available to Houston.

Some grappled over whether any Harden deal would leave enough talent for them to win the title in the next two years. That is the window we are talking about here. For all the talk in the media over whether Harden would re-sign in 2022 with whatever team acquired him, that extended timeline was of little concern to a lot of teams poking around. Any deal for Harden would have been about winning today.

That is what made Philly such an intriguing fit. Joel Embiid is almost 27, playing like an MVP. When engaged and in shape, he is maybe the best defensive player in the NBA -- ideal cover for Harden's weak spots. The Harden-Embiid duo would have fit complications to work through on offense, but the Harden version of the Sixers probably has a better chance to win the 2021 title than the current one. If Houston's ask was as big as has been speculated elsewhere, Philly can feel OK demurring. Maybe there was no price that would have made Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets' governor, comfortable trading Harden to Daryl Morey. If Houston's reported demands are exaggerated, the Sixers have to wonder if they haggled themselves out of a deal they should have made. (My best intel suggests Houston was at least signaling it would have taken much more than Simmons in players and picks to beat Brooklyn's offer.)

Teams confident in their ability to contend with Harden then asked themselves whether he would rise to the occasion when it mattered -- if he would commit to the grimy things that win in the playoffs. Harden's postseason rsum is not as bad as his harshest critics conceive of it. It's also not what you would expect from a player of his caliber. It is almost devoid of signature moments since his 3-pointer turned the 2012 Western Conference finals between the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

Dig deep into Harden's postseason record and you will find a disproportionate number of his best games came with Houston down 3-0 or hopelessly overmatched -- that many late-game scoring flurries came with Houston far behind in the waning seconds, and sometimes with the opponent conceding layups. You will also, somehow, find three 2-of-11 shooting performances in super-high-leverage games.

Harden redefined the boundaries of basketball in Houston. He wasn't the most enjoyable player to watch, but the strategic implications of his game made him among the most interesting. And playing his way, the Rockets in 2018 came within a whisker of derailing the Golden State Warriors dynasty and maybe winning it all.

But they didn't, and both the Rockets and Harden disappointed in several other postseasons -- including in falling flat on their faces against the Warriors in 2019 (with Durant injured late in Game 5 and the deciding Game 6) and against the Los Angeles Lakers last season. The Nets provide his latest chance, and maybe his last, to write a meaningful postseason story.

Irving is the one who will have to sacrifice most for this to work. Even so, he is going to stumble into 25 points on a lot of nights without forcing any shots. He'll have chances to bring the ball up and orchestrate. His usage will spike when one of Durant and Harden sits.

More broadly, no one will be able to guard these guys. How do you defend a lineup of Irving, Harden, Harris, Durant, and Jordan rim-running? What about when they go with Durant at center?

The uncertainty is whether Brooklyn can defend well enough to win four playoff series. Their core lineups will feature three solid to great (Durant) defenders around two stars with track records on that end ranging from uneven to comatose. In that sense, losing Allen might hurt more than losing LeVert. Even the best scoring teams reach moments -- quarters, games, series -- when they have to dig down and defend at an (at least) average or better level.

But the real scoring juggernauts don't necessarily have to be elite defensively. The 2016 and 2017 Cavs come to mind. They were mediocre on defense and all-world on offense. The first won the title. The second was clearly championship-caliber; it steamrollered the Eastern Conference before losing in five games to what might be the greatest single-season team ever -- the Warriors, with four superstars who only came together because of an anomalous spike in the salary cap.

Building an average defense is not that hard. A great offense gives you a leg up, since the other team has to take the ball out of the basket so often. The burden on Durant to guard every elite scorer, and every position, is going to be huge -- and a little scary given he is coming off an Achilles tear.

This team can win it all. The Nets pre-Harden had a chance to win it all too, though that was contingent on Irving being present and at full throttle. Brooklyn improved its championship odds on Wednesday. If the Nets did so as much as the FiveThirtyEight system projects -- by almost 15 percentage points -- almost any price would have been worth it.

I'm skeptical they boosted their title odds that much. If that skepticism proves right, they overpaid. If they win a title, it doesn't matter. If they don't, it hurts. That's the standard now, even with all the luck and health variables that go into any title run: championship or failure. And if it really goes bust, the downside potential is disastrous.

I heard a lot of chortling from team executives and agents about the Nets going all-in for a season with no fans and constant virus-related roster disruption: Are we really going to care who wins the title this year? Won't there be an asterisk?

I get that criticism, but don't really buy it. For one, we don't know what the landscape will look like when the playoffs start. Will players be vaccinated? Will the league hold at least the last two rounds in a bubble?

Besides, the Nets already went all-in when they handed over their team and their culture to Irving and Durant. Are they supposed to stop now because of a pandemic no one predicted (at least on this specific timeline) and that impacts everyone? The NBA is proceeding. They should too.

They cast their lot with Harden, trading almost their whole future to add him to the Irving-Durant duo. This isn't the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal again. Those guys were old. Harden is squarely in his prime. The stakes, though, are the same. For some teams, winning 50 games and making the second round is fine. The Nets aren't one of those teams anymore. When you make a deal like this, it's to win everything.

LISTEN: Zach Lowe and Chris Herring on the Harden trade

« Go back