Over the course of his eight years in Houston, James Harden has revolutionised our thinking on many things. He’s almost single-handedly created the concept of an elite heliocentric offensive system; he’s redesigned the geometry of the court by taking threes and layups exclusively; his unusual combination of horrible perimeter defense/excellent post defense has facilitated the ‘switch everything’ defense. Now he’s pushing the limits of player power and testing the boundaries of ‘essential duties’ in Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Harden has also made it abundantly clear he wants out of Houston. As well as the heavily scrutinised possible destinations of Brooklyn and Philadelphia, he’s reportedly added Miami (of course) and Milwaukee to his list of preferred landing spots.
Each team will have to surrender substantial talent and/or draft capital to secure The Beard, so it’s tough to give a proper analysis of how those teams would look with Harden in tow, but let’s take a preliminary look at how the trades might play out and where that would leave each of the players at the table.
Rockets receive: Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, draft picks.
Nets receive: James Harden, Chris Clemons.
The Rockets would be able to somewhat retool for the present with this trade. Levert isn’t a superstar by any means, but he’s a capable scorer and play maker who could grow into a legitimate second star. Dinwiddie gives them an excellent third guard or starter if (when?) John Wall is injured. Allen is the obvious Clint Capela replacement and can conceivably fit alongside the recently signed Christian Wood. Prince is…a player in the NBA. He’s OK.
For the Nets, there is suddenly an over-reliance on the rapidly aging DeAndre Jordan as the sole legitimate centre on the team, though it does open up the possibility of the all offense Kevin Durant at the five lineup. That team would cook the opposition at one end, but would they be able to defend the rim?
There is also the very real question of who is the alpha on this team? Pre-injury, Kevin Durant was clearly the best player, but what will be at age 32, with eighteen months out of the game? Harden is probably the best pure scorer the league has seen in the past twenty years, but his style will relegate KD and Kyrie Irving to spectator status. Will KD be happy to go back to his late era OKC role? And if you think Kyrie will be happy playing off the ball, then you should probably stop watching basketball. Irving wasn’t happy playing alongside Jayson Tatum and he’s going to see less of the ball in this alignment than he did in Boston.
This trade would undoubtedly improve the Nets, but it’s probably not the best use of resources. And clearly not the best use of Harden’s incredible skill set.
Rockets receive: Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, Derrick Walton Jr.
Sixers receive: James Harden
This trade gives the Rockets their superstar to build around. For all of his reluctance to shoot, Simmons does literally every other part of the game very well. If they can convince him to attempt a few treys, all the better. Milton is a handy pickup to replace Austin Rivers. Walton is nothing more than salary ballast.
The Sixers two current superstars might eventually mesh, but we’ve seen enough by this stage to know that it’s a long shot, requiring very specific teammates around them. In swapping out Simmons for Harden, the Sixers instantly upgrades their outside shooting without losing much – if any – play making. The hope would be that the presence of Joel Embiid would be able to cover for Harden’s less than attentive defense. In Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green, new coach Doc Rivers has players that can handle Harden’s direct assignment, too. With shooters like Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Green surrounding the new superstar tandem, this would give Philly it’s best chance at breaking it’s almost four decade title drought.
Rockets receive: Tyler Herro, Precious Achiuwa, Andre Iguodala, Meyers Leonard and draft picks.
Heat receive: James Harden.
(Note: due to Leonard’s being recently signed, he cannot be traded until February 5th, so this would need to be an in-season transaction)
This deal is perhaps the most speculative for the Rockets from a talent perspective. Herro played magnificently in the bubble, but those believing he’s a star in the making are clearly choosing to ignore those blaring Small Sample Size klaxons. The rookie Achiuwa is a good prospect who gives off some Bam Adebayo vibes. Leonard is a good foot soldier who can shoot the lights out from the centre position, though he’s limited defensively. Iggy is in there for salary matching purposes and would likely be moved on in a similar vane to his Memphis experience. Whilst there are a couple of nice prospects in this trade for Houston, it’s clearly not an ideal trade. There would need to be some serious draft capital thrown in for Houston to make this type of deal.
For all of Jimmy Butler’s heroics in the playoffs, he’s best cast as the two-way demon and second offensive option. Providing coach Erik Spoelstra with another proven scorer could have put Miami over the top last season. With an elite pick and roll partner in Adebayo – Harden has never played with a play making big of Bam’s quality, for what it’s worth – and a cadre of shooters around him, Harden would thrive on offense. There is of course the usual questions as to how Harden would adapt to the Heat’s defensive requirements, but if there is a franchise in the league that can reign in the worst elements of James Harden, it’s the Miami Heat.
Speaking of ‘worst elements of James Harden’, another little bonus for him: South Beach. He’d love Miami after dark.
Rockets receive: Khris Middleton, DJ Wilson, draft picks.
Bucks receive: James Harden.
Creating a trade with the Bucks is undoubtedly the most difficult construct due to Milwaukee’s unbalanced salary sheet. They would be loathe to give up their second best player but the two time All-Star Khris Middleton simply would have to go the other way for salary matching as much as talent purposes.
Middleton would be the same player in Houston as his is in Milwaukee: a do everything really well, but do nothing elite player that takes nothing off the table but probably doesn’t put you over the top. Harden’s shooting and creativity would more than cover for Middleton’s offensive contributions in Milwaukee and the team would surely be hoping that their stellar defense would give Harden enough cover on that end of the floor.
Pairing Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo would terrify the rest of the NBA. The winners of the past three MVP’s would give the Bucks a 1-2 punch that would be unmatched in the league, with only LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the conversation.
There is one potential fly in the ointment, however: The Beef.
What started in August last year as a minor back-and-forth about Giannis winning the 2019 league MVP has, over the course of the next few months, developed into a feud about: selfishness, god-given talent, application to the game, and narrative. If the two superstars can put their differences aside – Harden nominating the Bucks as a potential destination suggests they can – then a move to Milwaukee makes the most sense for Harden.