On Thursday, the two teams known to be his preferred destinations—the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers—face off, and it's unclear how much urgency either team has to get a Harden deal done.
Ever since Harden made it clear he wanted out of Houston, the question has been whether any team would both be willing to meet the Rockets' justifiably high asking price and feel that doing so would get them closer to contention. Some teams might ultimately do that, but the Nets and Sixers should not be among them.
Harden's desire to play for the Nets centers around the opportunity to reunite with his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant, as well as Kyrie Irving, to form a new Big Three in the east. Thus far, there have been no indications that the Rockets are interested in what the Nets have to offer outside of their superstars—especially now that guard Spencer Dinwiddie is likely out for the season with a partial ACL tear.
At 4-4, the Nets are very much a work in progress. Their season-opening blowout wins over the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics showed just how lethal the Irving-Durant combo can be when they're on. The ball moves, Durant physically looks like his pre-injury self and supporting players like sharpshooter Joe Harris get easy looks.
But the defensive question marks that existed before the season started have shown themselves to be real. The chemistry experiment that was always going to be a work in progress has gotten more complicated with Durant currently in a seven-day quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 that kept him out of Tuesday's win over the Utah Jazz and will also cause him to miss the next three games.
Even before Durant entered into the league's health and safety protocol, Nets head coach Steve Nash was taking a cautious approach with his minutes, holding him out on back-to-backs. It's a smart long-term strategy for his health, but with it comes the danger of repeating what happened with last year's Los Angeles Clippers, who thought they could get by on talent without developing continuity for a first-year group throughout the regular season.
Even if the Rockets' price for Harden lowered to the Nets' level, he'd create yet another new element to introduce into an already volatile mix. He'd considerably raise their talent ceiling, but he'd bring up questions about fit, too.
On paper, the Sixers make a bit more sense as a trade destination for Harden. They're now run by former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who traded for Harden in 2012 and knows better than anyone how to build around him. And they have Ben Simmons, the most obvious centerpiece of a trade that would meet Houston's criteria.
One problem: The 7-1 Sixers already have the best record in the Eastern Conference heading into Thursday's game. The moves Morey made in the abbreviated offseason, unloading Al Horford and bringing in sharpshooters Seth Curry and Danny Green, have created a much more well-fitting roster around Simmons and Joel Embiid, who is getting some early MVP buzz.
The question of whether Embiid and Simmons can fit together on a contending team has been present since they made their debut together in 2017. Skeptics argue neither star provides enough shooting to be a long-term fit, while optimists say they just need the right supporting players around them.
The way-too-early returns of this year's Sixers suggest the latter is closer to the truth. Various reports have suggested Philadelphia has already made Simmons available in talks with Houston, but Morey denied that last month in a statement to The Athletic's Shams Charania.
An on-the-record denial from a GM doesn't mean much these days, but if the Sixers were that desperate to land Harden, they likely would have pushed harder to get a deal done before the season started. As it stands, any in-season trade would involve punting around a week of games as players involved in the deal travel from one city to another and register the required amount of negative COVID-19 tests. It's a lot more complicated than it would be in a normal season.
Neither the Nets or Sixers make much sense for Harden right now. Perhaps that changes by the March 25 trade deadline, or maybe another team enters the mix with an offer that moves the needle for Houston.
Thus far, the Rockets aren't enough of a disaster to be ready to pull the plug on Harden for any reason other than the convenience of ending the drama. John Wall looks healthy in his first on-court action in two years, and free-agent signee Christian Wood is developing a nice connection with Harden.
Despite Harden's wishes, the Rockets should be in no rush to unload him in the absence of an obvious trade partner. For now, that list doesn't include the Nets or the Sixers.
This trade saga appears poised to drag out for a while.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.