Could James Harden Actually End Up on the Nets?

We now apparently stand on the brink of the next major league-altering NBA Superteam. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi reported last night:

If this trade were to happen, it would instantly tip the balance of the NBA. I don’t know if the KD-Harden-Kyrie Nets would be on the same level as the LeBron Heat teams or the KD Warriors, but they would be close.

The main thing right now is, there are no Big Threes in the NBA anymore. In the years following the break-ups of the LeBron Cavs and the KD Warriors, the league suddenly featured a bunch of power duos: LeBron + AD, Kawhi + Paul George, Harden + Westbrook, Luka + Porzingis, Lillard + McCollum, Jokic + Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler + Bam, Giannis + Middleton, Embiid + Simmons, KD + Kyrie, Steph + Klay (although you could consider them a big three with Draymond), etc.

Getting James Harden on the Nets to pair with KD and Kyrie would suddenly give the Nets the advantage over everyone else, with three superstars instead of two.

At least on paper.

But there are still significant hurdles that could prevent it from happening.

And even if it does happen, could it actually work?

Let’s go over the trade itself first:

  • Just to throw some cold water on things off the bat: Harden is still under contract for at least 2 more seasons. He cannot opt out of his current deal with Houston until after the 2022 season. So he does not have much leverage over where he wants to play. Normally when a guy is at the end of his contract or has one more year left, he can basically pick where he wants to get traded because he can say, “The only place I’ll sign an extension with is X Team,” or something like that. And then the trade market dries up for him because all the teams outside of X Team want nothing to do with that trade if all they’re getting is a year rental at most. That’s what happened with Anthony Davis. But whoever trades for Harden gets him for at least 2 more years. So it’s going to become a bidding war. Teams who are trying to win now like Philly, where Harden’s old GM in Houston Daryl Morey just landed, are definitely preparing offers as we speak.
  • To try to get a sense of how much Harden will cost the Nets, let’s look at some recent trades. The Rockets just sent Robert Covington to the Blazers in return for Trevor Ariza and a first round pick in tomorrow’s draft (pick 16), plus a protected 2021 first round pick. Two first round picks plus a decent veteran role player for Robert Covington. If that’s the market value of Covington, then how many first round picks would Houston want for James freaking Harden?
  • Another barometer of current market value: the Pelicans just sent Jrue Holiday to Bucks in exchange for three first round picks, plus Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. There were also two pick swaps included in the deal, which I’m assuming are skewed in New Orleans’ favor. Three first-rounders (potentially more) plus two decent role players for Jrue Holiday. Holiday is an All Star-level point guard, but obviously not on the same level as Harden. Harden will fetch more than this.
  • The 2019 LAC-OKC Paul George trade is a closer comparison to Harden. The Thunder got five first round picks plus a young stud in SGA, plus a high-quality veteran starting-caliber player in Danilo Gallinari. The Thunder basically had the Clippers over a barrel in that trade negotiation because Kawhi told the Clippers he wasn’t coming unless they traded for Paul George, but George still had at least two more years left on his contract, which he had just signed a year prior with OKC. In other words, even though Paul George wanted out of OKC, the Thunder could’ve told him “tough shit, you’re under contract with us for at least another two years.” Which meant the Clippers had to give up a king’s ransom for him.
  • Last year’s Anthony Davis trade cost the Lakers three first rounders, plus Lonzo, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart. Ingram is an All Star-level player, so that probably enabled the Lakers to only give up three first rounders. However, Anthony Davis only had one year remaining on his contract when he was traded, and everyone knew that if he wasn’t traded he was going to sign with the Lakers in 2020 free agency anyway. So while the Pelicans knew the Lakers were desperate to make the trade last year (in order to have Davis for 2020) because LeBron wasn’t getting any younger, the knowledge that Davis was going to bolt in the 2020 offseason somewhat weakened the Pelicans’ negotiating position.
  • I would say the Nets will have to give up at least four first-rounders as a starting point for a potential James Harden trade. Then you look at players like Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, who Houston would 100% demand in a trade. Maybe even Jarrett Allen, and/or Joe Harris too.
  • While the Nets have KD through 2022 (player option for 2023) and Kyrie through 2023, the clock is already kind of ticking on them. KD is already 32 years old and as everyone knows, is coming off a torn Achilles. Outside of that one game in the 2019 Finals where he only played 12 minutes, the last time he played a full game of basketball was May 8, 2019. If he plays in the season opener next month, it will be more than 19 months since KD’s last full game of basketball. While most of us assume (hope) he’s going to be mostly the same player, it’s possible he will never be the same guy again. I’m not saying the Nets have to make this trade, because they technically don’t, but I can totally see why they might be somewhat desperate to get Harden. If KD is not the same player he was before the injury, the Nets might actually need James Harden in order to ensure this new KD-Kyrie era isn’t a waste. The only way the KD-Kyrie Nets can win a title as currently constructed is if KD is the same player he was pre-Achilles tear. They’re not beating the Lakers with a diminished KD and Kyrie. I’m sorry but it’s just not happening.
  • I’ve heard some talking heads say the Rockets might demand Kyrie as part of the trade. But I can’t see the Nets actually doing that, as much as it might seem appealing. It would be extremely bogus to Kyrie considering it was his idea to team up with KD in Brooklyn. Plus KD wouldn’t like it because, again, Kyrie was the one who convinced him to come to Brooklyn. Now I guess KD is the one who has been pushing for the Harden trade to happen, but I can’t imagine he wants to trade Kyrie away. He wants all three guys there.
  • As far as the trade itself goes, Harden is in the same position contractually as Paul George was when he was traded to the Clippers. He can’t opt out until after the 2022 season, when he’ll be 33 years old. If the Rockets aren’t wowed by the Nets’ trade offers, they do not have to make the trade. At that point Harden will probably have to pick another team he wants to go to.
  • The biggest risk the Rockets run is playing too much hardball with Harden and gaining a reputation around the league as not being “player-friendly.” That kind of stuff gets around and if players have a bad perception of the Houston front office, it will impair Houston’s ability to land big free agents and keep good players. Plus, at this point, it’s hard not to sympathize with Harden not wanting to be a part of a rebuild at age 31. He’s been nothing but a model citizen in Houston over these past 7 years, and given them tons of memories and winning seasons. He won an MVP there. If you’re Houston, you probably have an obligation to do right by a guy who will go down as one of the best Rockets ever.
  • It’s just crazy that the Rockets are blowing it all up after just one season of Harden-Russ. They fired D’Antoni, got rid of Darryl Morey, and have already traded away Robert Covington. They gave the Small Ball Experiment one season, and when it didn’t work, that was it. However, on the flip side, they did not look like championship contenders last season. They lost to the Lakers in 5 in the second round. It wasn’t a particularly close series. They were not championship-caliber. But still, I figured they would have chalked that up to the bubble and the pandemic making things weird. Apparently Houston ownership saw enough and decided it was time to pull the plug on the whole thing.

If this trade actually happens, could it actually work on the court? It seems like a recipe for disaster in my eyes, but I know better than to predict superstar pairings in the NBA will flame out. Stars win in the NBA, period. Guys just figure it out.

When LeBron went to the Heat, there were plenty of people out there saying (more like hoping) that it wouldn’t work out, they wouldn’t be able to get along, too many egos, only one ball, they’re going to implode, etc.

People said the same thing about the KD Warriors.

And if Harden goes to the Nets, people will say the same thing about them. And they’ll probably be wrong, again.

Harden is 31 years old right now and doesn’t have a ring. He hasn’t shown any signs of aging or falling-off, but he knows full well he doesn’t have a ton of time left to get a ring. He is going to do whatever it takes to make it work. That you can count on.

The one guy I worry about is Kyrie Irving. He’s a total wild-card. The guy forced his way off the Cavaliers even though he, LeBron and Love had just made back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals.

He forced his way out of Boston just two short years after forcing his way out of Cleveland. None of this has been good for his reputation. He’s seen as high-maintenance and a player who has a lot of baggage.

Will Kyrie be cool being the #3 player on that team? Typically the #3 guy in Big Threes does not put up huge numbers. Think Bosh in Miami, Love in Cleveland, Klay when KD joined the team.

Is Kyrie going to want to be Kevin Love? He knows first-hand what it’s like to be part of a Big Three. He’s too good to be a #3. This is a guy that averages 18 shots a game for his career.

With James Harden on the team, he’s not going to get anywhere near 18 shots a game. Over Harden’s last three seasons in Houston, he averaged 22.3 shots a game. Harden is a ball-dominant volume shooter. He’s not a sniper like KD and Kyrie are. If Harden joins the Nets then Kyrie will be the player most directly affected, and nobody knows how Kyrie will deal with that.

Plus, Harden famously did not get along well with Chris Paul towards the end of their time together in Houston. Kyrie is not the same type of personality as Chris Paul, but I still think it could be tough for him and Harden to get along. Especially if Kyrie sees Brooklyn as his team and views Harden as a party-crasher.

I wouldn’t bet against a KD-Harden-Kyrie Big Three figuring it out, but if the trade does happen and the team ends up imploding, it will probably be because of Kyrie.

I already thought the Nets were the favorite in the East going into the 2021 season without James Harden. Not only do they have KD and Kyrie, but LeVert and Dinwiddie are great role players. Joe Harris is money from three. They have one of the best rim protecters in Jarrett Allen. DeAndre Jordan still has some left in the tank.

But of course, if the Nets get James Harden, they go from slight favorites in the East to overwhelming favorites in the East, and probably favorites to win the whole thing.

Again, they’re going to lose a lot of those good role players if they acquire Harden, but as the LeBron Heat, KD Warriors and even the LeBron-AD Lakers have shown: all you need to do is get the superstars on your team and then you can figure the rest of the roster out later. Vets will take less money to come chase a ring. You’ll absolutely be able to fill out the roster. Get the superstars and the rest of the roster will fall into place eventually.

As a certified LeBron Stan, I don’t like the idea of Harden going to Brooklyn and assembling yet another superteam that will deprive LeBron of multiple rings.

But as an NBA fan, I’ve come to accept that the league is more fun when there’s a superteam. It just is. It’s good for the character drama aspect of the NBA when there’s a villain.

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