Trade Packages and Landing Spots for Rockets Guard James Harden
Given his conspicuous absence from the first week of training camp and his reportedly expanding list of acceptable trade destinations, it feels more like James Harden won't finish the 2020-21 campaign with the Houston Rockets.
The organization may want to push through the demand and is "willing to get uncomfortable," according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon, but we've seen this situation play out plenty of times before. Anthony Davis, Paul George and Eric Bledsoe are just a few recent examples that come to mind.
If Harden is determined to push his way out, it'll most likely happen. Stars have that leverage in today's NBA, and Harden is exercising his right now.
If that gets Houston to break and actually start fielding offers for the superstar guard, here are some teams that could pony up.
The Deal: James Harden for Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2025 first-round pick
When news of Harden's desire to get out of Houston first hit the cyberwaves, the Brooklyn Nets emerged as the leader of the clubhouse to land him.
"After turning down an extension offer to become the first $50M a year player in league history, James Harden's message to Houston is clear: Get me to Brooklyn," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski wrote. "Rockets and Nets have been in contact, but there's been no meaningful dialogue."
The Nets' pursuit becoming "meaningful" likely comes down to how many picks they're willing to surrender. In terms of current players involved, other teams can top Brooklyn's offer.
Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie have both shown the potential to be No. 1 options on solid teams, but they're 26 and 27, respectively. Neither is a surefire future All-Star, and Wojnarowski and MacMahon reported that the asking price for Harden is "a package that includes a young franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round picks and/or talented players on rookie contracts."
Brooklyn doesn't really have the "young franchise cornerstone" to offer, so it'll have to get aggressive with picks. If multiple teams are in the running, it's hard to imagine the Nets acquiring Harden without including two or three future firsts. They might even have to throw in some pick swaps on top of that.
Jrue Holiday commanded three first-round picks and two pick swaps, for crying out loud.
The Deal: James Harden for Ben Simmons, Terrance Ferguson, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2023 first-round pick
The Philadelphia 76ers have a couple of trade headliners they could send to the Rockets. The swap built around Ben Simmons appears to have the most traction, but there's actually a world in which he and Harden could coexist.
Simmons could do a lot of on-court damage in the point center role Russell Westbrook played during the second half of 2019-20. And with Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris flanking those two, they'd have plenty of space to operate in the middle of the floor.
The potential fit with Harden and Joel Embiid would be smoother, though. An offense built around a pick-and-roll with those two would be devastating. And Embiid is clearly better equipped to anchor a defense than Simmons or any other big Philly might deploy.
What may be a little tricky for Houston is the fact that Simmons and John Wall make very little sense together. Both need the ball, neither can space the floor for the other, and Wall is under contract through 2022-23.
There's something to be said for raw talent, though. And the Sixers may have the trump card there.
Simmons is a 24-year-old two-time All-Star who is under contract through 2024-25. He's one of the best passers in the league and has Defensive Player of the Year potential on the other end.
This is a player who can absolutely be billed as a "young franchise cornerstone."
The Deal: James Harden for Gary Harris, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., a 2021 first-round pick and a 2025 first-round pick
The fit here is far from perfect. Having Harden on the Denver Nuggets would undoubtedly reduce the number of possessions engineered by Nikola Jokic, who may be the best passing big man of all time.
The raw offensive talent of a trio with Jokic, Jamal Murray and Harden would be off the charts, though. All three can create, shoot and pass at a high level. Provided they could keep the ball moving, Denver would be a perennial contender for the best offense in the league.
This isn't a no-brainer for the Nuggets, though. It hurts their depth, and Harden would be a major flight risk in 2022, when he can enter free agency.
Michael Porter Jr., on the other hand, is still on his rookie contract. His 2023 free agency will be restricted, meaning the Nuggets can match any offer sheet he signs. And he may be the third star Denver needs.
He looks like exactly the kind of playmaking 4 who makes perfect sense next to Jokic, which should make him appealing to the Rockets too.
He and Christian Wood would have the potential to be a dynamic offensive combo in the frontcourt. And multiple first-round picks would help Houston recoup some of what it lost in last year's Russell Westbrook trade.
New York Knicks
The Deal: James Harden for RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2023 first-round pick, a 2025 first-round pick and two second-round picks
This one likely comes down to how you feel about RJ Barrett. He's coming off a historically inefficient season, even for a rookie, but he's only two years removed from being the top recruit in the 2018 scouting class.
The theoretical version of Barrett is exactly what teams are after these days: a multipositional player who can hit open shots and create a little bit for others. That reality appears a long way off, though. So, the Rockets would almost certainly need a massive haul of picks from the New York Knicks to make this one tenable.
New York could also kick Mitchell Robinson into the deal, but then what would be left for Harden to play with? The resulting roster would pretty much be begging Harden to leave in 2022. Having Robinson there wouldn't exactly make them title contenders, but you can at least squint and see a promising core with that pick-and-roll combo.
For Houston, even with all those picks incoming, making this deal would probably mean there weren't many other aggressive offers out there.
Golden State Warriors
The Deal: James Harden for Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman, a 2021 first-round pick, a 2023 first-round pick and a 2025 first-round pick
Many of the caveats from the Nuggets slide apply here. The Golden State Warriors already have a generational offensive talent in Stephen Curry. And even though he has plenty of experience in selflessness, as evidenced by his three years with Kevin Durant, this would be a different animal.
Curry is one of the greatest off-ball threats in NBA history, though. Harden is already dangerous enough as an iso and pick-and-roll scorer. Just imagine how easy it would be for him to score with defenses also having to chase Curry around the perimeter.
Think about the inverse of that too. With Harden working the middle of the floor, defenders would have to commit to his drives from time to time, even with Curry outside. That'd mean open threes for arguably the greatest shooter of all time. Throw Klay Thompson into that mix in 2021-22, and it's not hard to imagine a last championship hurrah for these Warriors.
For Houston, Andrew Wiggins is mostly salary filler, though he's still just 25 years old. There's still a world in which he ups his efficiency, creates a bit more for others and grows into that massive contract.
The real prizes of this package are James Wiseman and the draft picks, though. The No. 2 pick in this year's draft, Wiseman has the potential to be a franchise-altering big man who can protect the rim, draw defenses in as a roller and maybe even hit some threes down the line.
A wing might make more sense for the "young franchise cornerstone" requirement, given the recent acquisition of Christian Wood, but talent is talent. And Wiseman has plenty. If he proves able to play over Wood earlier than expected, that deal shouldn't be too difficult to move.