The Harden trade should work out — but maybe not for the Nets
By Marc Stein
In the midst of an opening month marked by game postponements, depleted rosters and ragged basketball, four teams intervened last week to deliver a blockbuster James Harden trade.
It was a rousing (and welcome) diversion as the NBA strained to play through a pandemic, but a few days of reflection hasn’t changed my initial reaction. Even with so many options, clear winners in this deal do not jump off the scorecard.
The daunting truth for the Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets, who drove this whopper transaction, is that the Cleveland Cavaliers — for now — look more likely to come away satisfied after paying a modest price to acquire highly rated center Jarrett Allen from the Nets.
The Indiana Pacers should also celebrate the deal, provided that forward Caris LeVert can return safely from the scary disclosure that he is out indefinitely after a small mass was discovered on his left kidney. The Pacers shipped a potentially expensive free-agent-to-be, Victor Oladipo, to Houston for LeVert and his team-friendly contract. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana’s president of basketball operations, said the Pacers are “super confident” about LeVert’s recovery.
Indiana and Cleveland, despite their lesser roles as trade facilitators, got most of the early kudos for the deal. The Nets and Rockets might not care about that, but reservations for the headliners persist for several reasons.
The Nets, for example, had to surrender control of their first-round pick in their next seven drafts (yes, seven) to acquire Harden and put him alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The Nets have their new star trio under contract only through next season, while facing many questions about their sudden defensive shortcomings and how they plan to keep three volume scorers content. Irving participated in a full practice Tuesday after missing seven games for what began as “just a pause” that he said he needed because of “family and personal stuff.” Yet as good as Durant and Harden looked together Monday night in crunchtime of a home win over Milwaukee, mixing in a third star who wants and needs the ball changes the dynamic dramatically.
The Rockets, for their part, collected all that draft capital in return but did not come away with the young franchise player they had long coveted in any Harden swap.
The Rockets have unexpectedly embraced a rebuilding strategy more associated with a front-office alumnus not named Daryl Morey. Stockpiling future first-round draft picks, remember, is Sam Hinkie’s trademark. Of course, for the strategy to be successful, Houston will have to turn those picks into at least one cornerstone player more talented than Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. Houston chose the Nets’ trade offer and a trial run with Oladipo, who is still recovering from his own injury woes, over the 76ers’ Simmons-centric pitches. It’s a call that has some around the league wondering if the Tilman Fertitta-owned Rockets, at closing time, dealt with the Nets because they could not bring themselves to send Harden to Morey’s new team.
It should be noted that there is some scattered praise out there for the Nets and the Rockets that has been drowned out by the conspiracy theories and news media skepticism. One Western Conference executive, for example, chided me for focusing too much on Harden’s various acts of sabotage that fast-tracked his Houston exit and too readily dismissing what his distinct offensive talent can do for the Nets.
Harden got what he wanted in the end after some of the worst trade-forcing behavior ever seen. He showed up late to training camp, flouted the league’s health and safety protocols on camera, let his level of play and conditioning decline and, finally, cemented his newfound villainy by publicly criticizing the collective quality of his now-former Rockets teammates. The executive nonetheless described Harden, if only for the moment while he’s taking such heat, as the league’s most underrated player.
Another executive in the West asked me why I was so quick to scoff at Houston’s return for Harden when the Nets are being openly questioned for possibly trading away too much to get him. Along with the 2022 first-round pick it acquired from Cleveland (via Milwaukee), which the Cavaliers shrewdly tossed into the trade to nab Allen, Houston will receive the Nets’ unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026, as well as the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in the 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027 drafts.
Perhaps those executives will be proved right. If the Nets win a championship this season or next, or if Houston can construct an enviable new core with its replenished trove of assets, no shortage of scribes like me will face told-you-so recriminations.
You just wouldn’t dare at the outset to, especially in the Nets’ case, throw a lot of support behind the risk-taking.
The Los Angeles Clippers surrendered a fistful of draft assets to Oklahoma City in July 2019 because they knew trading for Paul George would also clinch the free-agent signature of Kawhi Leonard. The Los Angeles Lakers made a similar move to put Anthony Davis next to LeBron James. Those were NBA no-brainers.
Milwaukee’s gambit in November to part with three future first-round picks and the rights to swap first-rounders in two other drafts to pry Jrue Holiday away from the Pelicans is in a tier of its own. The Bucks endured after the Holiday trade until Giannis Antetokounmpo agreed to a five-year, $228 million contract extension. Persuading Antetokounmpo to stay, on some levels, equated to a championship in itself for the small-market Bucks.
Then the Nets’ trade realistically falls into a tier below that, since Milwaukee’s move was fueled by the understandable desperation to please and then re-sign Antetokounmpo.
As swiftly as Durant’s 30.6 points-per-game brilliance has made so many forget that he is only in the nascent stages of a comeback from the most dreaded injury in the sport — no one in the NBA, frankly, has ever looked better than Durant after an Achilles tendon tear — so many unknowns nag at the Nets.
Who in this trio will embrace third-wheel status like Chris Bosh so crucially did in Miami beside James and Dwyane Wade, or like Ray Allen did in Boston alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce? Who among Durant, Harden and Irving has the personality to lead the way to a pecking order? How can the Nets play passable playoff defense against offensive monsters like Antetokounmpo and Davis when Durant, Harden and Irving share the floor? How much can the Nets even count on Irving after his messy exits in Cleveland and Boston and this season’s bumpy start?
Don’t forget that the Nets are asking a rookie coach, Steve Nash, to steer this group — without a training camp on top of Nash’s lack of experience. Don’t forget, furthermore, that it took the James/Wade/Bosh Heat more than a season to figure a lot of this out.
Winning a championship is not the Nets’ only motivation here. If the Harden trade persuades Durant to re-sign, and if Harden sticks around, those would be significant triumphs.
The Nets, though, will not be graded on the ancillary benefits or merely their success in ensuring that Harden didn’t land with the division-rival Sixers. They went all in believing that a change of scenery for the unhappy Harden will lead to a title in Year 1 — like it did for Leonard in Toronto and for Davis with the Lakers.
As much as we relished an actual basketball debate, temporarily hauling us away from the NBA’s mounting coronavirus concerns, there are simply too many holes in that script to buy into it playing out three seasons in a row.