Houston Rockets trade James Harden to the Nets
By Marc Stein and Sopan Deb
The Brooklyn Nets will embark on an ambitious attempt to blend three high-scoring stars together after they agreed Wednesday to acquire All-Star guard James Harden from the Houston Rockets in a four-team trade — just one day after a disgruntled Harden publicly described the Rockets as “not good enough.”
The trade, which became official on Thursday, will reunite Harden with the Nets’ Kevin Durant and send Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo plus four future first-round picks to Houston.
“I can’t comment on the rumors, but we know this is a star’s league,” Nets coach Steve Nash said Wednesday before his team played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and before the deal was officially announced.
Just a handful of games into his coaching career, Nash will soon have the luxury — but also the immense challenge — of overseeing a roster headlined by Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving. The Nets, widely billed as an Eastern Conference title contender, were off to a bumpy 6-6 start before the deal.
Harden had been seeking a trade since November, reported a week late to the Rockets’ training camp and — in a nod to his friendship with Durant after three years playing together in Oklahoma City — had the Nets at the top of his list of preferred destinations. But the Nets had to fend off strong competition from the Philadelphia 76ers, who were also pursuing a trade with Houston. Philadelphia’s new president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, has a relationship with Harden after bringing him to Houston through a trade in 2012, when Morey was the Rockets’ general manager.
The Sixers had been trying to acquire Harden in trade packages built around All-Star guard Ben Simmons, according to two people familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to discuss them publicly. The Rockets instead went ahead with a four-team trade involving the Nets, the Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers so they could bring Oladipo to Houston in the final year of his contract — and get a bountiful package of future first-round picks to replenish the draft assets they lost in trades to acquire Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers and Russell Westbrook from the Thunder.
The uncertainty surrounding Irving, who hasn’t played since Jan. 5 for personal reasons, made the Nets even more eager to find a workable trade for Harden and bolster their top-end talent, according to one of the people. There will be questions about the offensive fit when Harden arrives in Brooklyn and Irving returns to the lineup. But the Nets will be better insulated against a star player’s injury or absence and, perhaps more crucially, they will have swung a deal for a player Durant wanted to play with again.
The trade calls for the Nets’ promising forward Caris LeVert to go to Indiana and for two other Nets — Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince — to go to Cleveland. The Rockets will receive Cleveland’s Dante Exum and the Nets’ Rodions Kurucs in addition to three first-round picks from the Nets (2022, 2024 and 2026) and Cleveland’s first-round pick (via Milwaukee) in 2022. Houston will have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in the 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027 drafts.
The Nets pulled LeVert, Allen, Prince and Kurucs out of their game against the Knicks in anticipation of the trade. ESPN first reported the agreement between the Rockets and the Nets; The Athletic first reported Indiana’s involvement in the trade.
Harden won three scoring titles and the 2017-18 MVP Award in Houston and led the team to the Western Conference finals twice in his first eight seasons there. Yet he was ordered away from the team Wednesday and told not to come to practice in the hours before the trade after blasting the quality of Houston’s roster.
“We’re just not good enough,” Harden said Tuesday after the Rockets’ 117-100 loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. “I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. The situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”
Harden’s unhappiness in Houston had festered since the team lost to the Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season. Morey and Mike D’Antoni, who was Houston’s head coach last season and is now a Nets assistant coach, left the Rockets after the season. Houston also traded Westbrook to Washington for John Wall after Harden and Westbrook had played together for just one season.
Harden, 31, had only grown more distant under first-year head coach Stephen Silas in the wake of all those changes. Amid increasingly loud criticism of his commitment to the team and his conditioning, he averaged a lackluster 17.4 points on 37.8% shooting from the field in Houston’s last five games, four of them losses.
Yet neither the potential pitfalls of bringing in Harden, nor the steep cost in draft picks, dissuaded the Nets. Sean Marks, hired as the Nets’ general manager in 2016, has assembled the most talented trio of NBA players since the Durant-era Golden State Warriors or the LeBron James-era Miami Heat.
This is not the first time that the Nets have gone this route. In 2004, they traded for a 27-year-old Vince Carter, who was almost as open about his displeasure with the Toronto Raptors as Harden was about his with the Rockets. Though that deal didn’t cost the Nets foundational pieces or many draft picks, and Carter played well, the team only won two playoff series with Carter.
Then came the ill-fated deal with Boston in 2013 for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, who were past their primes. It was supposed to transform the Nets into finals contenders after their move, combining Pierce and Garnett with Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Deron Williams. They won one playoff series and were stuck in the NBA’s wilderness for years while the Celtics rebuilt their young core with the draft picks they got from the Nets in the trade. Boston added future stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; Pierce left the Nets after one season, and Garnett was traded in his second.
If the Harden deal goes as poorly, it will be worse. This time around, the Nets gave up more picks and two players with significant potential in Allen and LeVert. Allen, a 22-year-old center, was on pace for a career season, and LeVert, 26, is a dynamic guard who can score. The duo was a big reason the Nets were able to emerge from the NBA’s shadows so soon after the failed Pierce and Garnett trade.
Even so, the Harden trade gives the Nets three elite scorers and playmakers no team can match. That could mean easier looks for everyone as defenses scramble, but what made Harden successful in recent years was having the ball in his hands full time and breaking defenses down through isolations. Continuing to play like that doesn’t seem feasible with two ball-dominant stars on the floor as well, which Nash, with D’Antoni’s help, will have to figure out.