With head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey gone from the Houston Rockets—not to mention Russell Westbrook asking for a trade—it seemed only a matter of time before James Harden was going to look for the exit.
On Monday, that time arrived with Harden reportedly asking for a trade to a contender, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
According to Charania, the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are at the top of the 2017-18 MVP's list. And per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, there's a clear favorite among the two:
With three years left on his contract (including a player option in 2022-23), this is not a Kawhi Leonard situation. If Harden's preferred destination is Brooklyn, the Nets can chase their third star with confidence. But the Sixers shouldn't fear making their best offer considering the Beard is locked into his current deal long-term.
Basketball-wise, Harden is not an easy player to work alongside, and there have been rumblings of discontent in the Rockets locker room this offseason. The style of basketball previously played in Houston put the ball in Harden’s hands the majority of the time and involved a lot of standing around from his teammates. That said, it got the guard an MVP and made the Rockets consistent contenders.
So the real question is whether Brooklyn or Philadelphia would be the best fit for Harden.
Brooklyn Nets’ Case
Expectations were low for the Nets in 2019-20 since Kevin Durant was always going to miss the entire season due to the Achilles tear suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving’s campaign was cut short due to injuries, but he averaged 27.4 points, 6.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds in 20 games while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three.
Assuming a deal for Harden involves only Brooklyn and Houston, the Nets would likely send out Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwidde as centerpieces in the trade. It would also cost them DeAndre Jordan to make the money match.
This trade would create a new Big Three while reuniting former teammates Durant and Harden. It would arm first-time head coach Steve Nash with three top-20 players—two of whom, at minimum, are top-10 players. Harden would also be reunited with D’Antoni, who is on Nash’s staff and was the coach with whom Harden saw the most success.
The Nets would immediately become the most talented team in the East with two MVP awards, three titles, 24 All-Star appearances and 18 All-NBA teams between Durant, Harden and Irving. Since the NBA is a league in which talent wins out more often than not, this would make them the favorite to get out of the Eastern Conference.
Philadelphia 76ers’ Case
The Sixers have gone through changes, as well.
Doc Rivers replaced Brett Brown as head coach after the team underachieved last season. Then, when Morey stepped down from his position with the Rockets, they acted quickly and added him to the organization. Change is in the air, and that might be just the start of it.
The construction of the Sixers roster is frontcourt-heavy with $91.4 million tied to Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Al Horford alone this season. That does not include the $27.3 million owed to Ben Simmons, who doesn’t have a true position.
For argument’s sake, the Sixers could make the deal for Harden by sending Simmons and Josh Richardson to Houston. Such a move would begin to shift the balance of the roster by placing a surefire heavy hitter in the backcourt.
Bringing Harden in would immediately create more space and opportunity for Embiid in the post with another shooting threat, and the duo would be a pick-and-roll force. With Simmons running pick-and-rolls, teams have gone under screens, knowing there was no threat of him pulling up for three. With Harden, teams would have to change their coverages and, in doing so, create another scoring avenue for Embiid.
Harden would be playing with the best big man he’s ever worked alongside. Clint Capela was limited to functioning as a pick-and-roll threat. Dwight Howard was not fully healthy with the Rockets and never gained comfort playing with Harden. Embiid, on the other hand, can roll and pop, space out to three and command double-teams in the post that should open things up for the guard.
As intriguing as creating a Brooklyn Big Three may be, and as much as Harden may prefer it, Philadelphia is the best fit for Harden’s talents.
The last truly successful Big Three in the East was the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, but that was a little easier because it featured two dominant ball-handlers in James and Dwyane Wade while the stretchy Chris Bosh was the big man. This iteration with the Nets would consist of three high-usage players. Harden’s career usage rate is 30.7 percent, while Irving and Durant are at 29.3 and 30.1 percent, respectively. It would be challenging to form a cohesive offense around that trio.
Even if the Nets figure out an offensive system that works and keeps all three players happy on the offensive end, they would have to figure out how to defend. That’s not impossible, but it would not be a clean fit and would require all three stars to adjust their games.
The fit in Philly is just much easier.
For starters, Harden would still be the unquestioned lead ball-handler. The 76ers do not have the shooters he is accustomed to playing with but would pair him with a big man who would help make things easier. When Harden needs a break, he could just drop the ball to Embiid in the post. On the defensive end, he’d have a big man who could cover for him if he gets beat on the perimeter.
Of the two teams, Philadelphia is the better and cleaner fit—unless, of course, the Nets want to throw caution to the wind and trade Irving for Harden.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.