James Harden Trade Packages Houston Rockets Should Actually Consider

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 4, 2020

Houston Rockets' James Harden, left, shoots against Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson (11) during the first half of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

Just one day after Daryl Morey was introduced as the Philadelphia 76ers' new president of basketball operations, rumors of a possible James Harden reunion hit the cyber-waves.

According to The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania, "Philadelphia is expected to be interested in and pursue James Harden."

Of course, he went on to add that Harden trade proposals are likely to be met with an "emphatic no" from the Houston Rockets, which should come as no surprise.

Harden is 31 years old and coming off his third consecutive scoring title. He's 12th in NBA history in career MVP shares. As long as he's a Rocket, the team figures to have a top-tier offense.

Since he arrived in Houston in 2012-13, the Rockets are first in points per 100 possessions, second in effective field-goal percentage and sixth in net points per 100 possessions.

Barring truly mind-blowing offers, retaining Harden for the back end of his prime would be the safer bet for Houston.

So, let's start from the baseline assumption that there are a few chasms, a canyon here and there and a river fording between today and any possible Harden deals.

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If the Rockets were to make him available, though, there are a few teams that could at least pique their interest.


Philadelphia 76ers

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Let's start with the team in the rumor we already mentioned.

In his introductory press conference, Morey said, "Joel [Embiid] is the kind of player you win championships with, if you look back through NBA history."

But it's difficult to imagine anyone else on Philly's roster motivating Houston to move Harden.

Embiid and Ben Simmons are, by far, the best trade assets the organization has, and the idea of playing Simmons alongside Russell Westbrook is nonsensical in today's NBA.

Both need the ball, and neither spaces the floor with outside shooting. If the exercise was to pick the two stars who'd create the biggest stylistic clash in the NBA, one could make an argument for Russ and Simmons.

One might argue that a Harden trade would coincide with a rebuild and a potential Westbrook deal for Houston, but the contract of the latter could be one of the toughest in the league to move.

Embiid, on the other hand, may be exactly the kind of player around whom Houston could mold a new identity, with or without Westbrook.

In theory, Embiid can shoot from the outside, which would pull bigs away from the rim for Westbrook's drives. The Rockets could stagger their minutes and allow Embiid to total most of his post-ups with Russ on the bench.

He would also become an instant anchor for a defense that has been middle of the pack during Harden's tenure in Houston.

The issue, of course, is Embiid's durability. Even if you don't include the two full seasons he missed after being drafted in 2014, Embiid has only averaged 52.3 appearances per NBA season. He's five years younger than Harden, but the latter is an iron man. The potential for injuries make this even more of a gamble.

For Philadelphia, plenty of fans would begrudge giving up The Process. But if you take sentimentality out of the equation, a deal centered on these two would be a no-brainer for the Sixers.

Harden is one of the greatest offensive players of all time, and the idea of him running an offense that includes Simmons as a supercharged playmaking 5 makes a ton of sense in today's game. Flank that pick-and-roll with shooting and Philly would have a nightmare-inducing attack.

In terms of logistics, Embiid and Josh Richardson for Harden works under the collective bargaining agreement, but that doesn't feel like enough for Houston.

If the 76ers were willing to kick in their 2020 pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder and their own 2022 pick, would the Rockets budge?

They emptied their cupboard of assets for Russell Westbrook last summer, and such a deal would help recoup some of that loss.


Brooklyn Nets

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The idea of Bradley Beal joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets has been floating around for months. If both he and Harden do become available at some point, the Nets would be wise to offer their treasure chest of assets to Houston before the Washington Wizards.

Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dzanan Musa works for CBA purposes, but that's obviously not enough for the Rockets. Adding three first-round picks might entice Houston, though.

LeVert and Dinwiddie aren't necessarily spring chickens (by NBA standards) at 26 and 27, but they're still on the right side of their primes. And both have shown No. 1 option potential.

LeVert scored at least 34 points on six different occasions (including the postseason) in 2019-20. And one of those games was a 51-point outburst in March.

Dinwiddie, meanwhile, just averaged 20.6 points in 31.2 minutes and finished this campaign tied for 30th in the offense-only version of box plus/minus ("a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference).

Then, there's Allen. The Rockets gave up on traditional centers last season, but he's a 22-year-old who could restore their faith in the position.

Last season, he averaged 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 75 possessions while posting a 66.4 true shooting percentage nearly 10 points above the league average. Putting him in the dunker's spot or in pick-and-rolls with Russ would lead to plenty of open looks at the rim.

And though he's certainly no Rudy Gobert right now, Allen has the size, athleticism and potential necessary to anchor a solid defense.

Finally, there's Musa. His $2 million salary makes the math work, but he should be seen as more than trade fodder. Houston is getting three first-round picks in this scenario, but Musa is just 21 and only has 526 NBA minutes to his name. He's largely a 6'9" blank slate with first-round talent.

The other side of this trade doesn't require much explanation. There would certainly be the possibility for some tension over possessions between Harden, Durant and Irving, but the talent level would be off the charts.

After much of the league broke down into star duos last season, the Nets could lead the charge back to Big Threes.


Golden State Warriors

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

OK, let's get nuts.

This article opened with a discussion on how unlikely any Harden trade would be. Similar sentiments could be attached to Golden State Warriors stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

But the Warriors may be one of the few teams that can put together a package that even tempts Houston.

A recent panel at ESPN predicted Golden State would trade the No. 2 pick, and Harden would be a way-more-than-worthwhile return. What would make Golden State balk is including two key cogs in three title runs.

Harden and P.J. Tucker for Thompson, Green, the No. 2 pick and a 2022 first-round pick satisfies the league's trade rules and might actually make some sense for both teams.

It would take some time for Harden and Stephen Curry to learn how to jell, but the latter obviously has plenty of experience ceding control. He humbly did so during Durant's three seasons in the bay.

However the offense would look with those two, defending it would be nearly impossible. These are two of the best isolation scorers we've ever seen. And Curry's off-ball prowess would be even tougher to contain when Harden is the player handling the ball.

If defenses elected to stay home to keep Curry from going off, Harden would feast. On the other hand, heavily rotating to Harden would lead to loads of open threes for the greatest shooter of all time.

Swapping Green for Tucker would obviously be a sizable downgrade, both in terms of defense and playmaking, but his ability to space as a corner three-point shooter and compete with bigger defensive assignments would make him an important part of a new rotation.

For Houston, this trade would serve a couple of purposes.

First, it would do a bit to replenish that stockpile of assets that was pretty much spent in its entirety on the Westbrook trade. And, as opposed to the packages detailed from Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Rockets would know that at least one of these picks is near the top of the draft.

The 2020 draft doesn't forecast to produce a great class, but just about every year gives the league at least one star. And having the second pick would give the Rockets a much better chance to find him.

Before that player develops, a Westbrook-Thompson-Green-led Rockets team would remain competitive. This could be one of those two-track rebuilds that doesn't require a total teardown and years of losing.

Thompson would be one of the best kickout options Westbrook has ever played with. And Green could help the team continue to play the micro-ball strategy that unleashed uncharacteristic efficiency for Westbrook last season.

In 2019-20, Russ averaged 28.4 points per 75 possessions with a 59.2 true shooting percentage when he played without a traditional 5. His career marks in those two numbers are 25.2 points per 75 possessions with a 53.0 true shooting percentage.

Green doesn't space the floor quite as well as Tucker, but he also doesn't clog the paint. Those lanes would still be open for Russ' drives.

A deal along these lines would be a massive gamble for either side. And again, the chances of any Harden trade happening are exceptionally slim. But if there's anything the NBA has taught us over the last decade or so, it's that the league is wildly unpredictable.

Rumors can go from "impossible" to "done deal" in a heartbeat.