Biggest Winners and Losers from Nets-Rockets James Harden Trade
As the sage Ron Burgundy once said: "Boy, that escalated quickly."
Less than 24 hours after the lifeless Houston Rockets were thumped by the Los Angeles Lakers and James Harden characterized his team and situation as "something that I don't think can be fixed," the superstar is headed to the Brooklyn Nets.
We sometimes toss around the term "megatrade" haphazardly, but in this case, it genuinely applies. The details, via The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania, read as follows:
- Nets get: James Harden
- Rockets get: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, three first-round picks from Brooklyn, one first-round pick from Milwaukee (via Cleveland) and four first-round pick swaps from Brooklyn
- Indiana Pacers get: Caris LeVert and a second-round pick
- Cleveland Cavaliers get: Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince
These trades often end up more complicated than the machinations we dream up on Basketball Twitter, but four teams, this many picks and Victor Oladipo winding up in the deal likely exceeded anyone's expectations.
It'll take a while to fully process what it all means (probably years, given the number of outgoing picks and the fact that those stretch out to 2027), but there's nothing wrong with gut reactions.
Here are the biggest winners and losers as we sift through the immediate aftermath of the Harden megadeal.
Winner: James Harden
We've been in the "player empowerment era" for a while now (at least as far back as 2010, when LeBron James' Decision aired), but the way Harden pushed this deal is one of the most vivid displays of the balance of power to date.
In mid-November, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden was "singularly focused on a trade to the Brooklyn Nets." He showed up to training camp late. He became a meme when the internet mockingly compared his preseason shape to Kendrick Perkins. For his last several regular-season games, he and the Rockets looked about as close to lifeless as an NBA team can.
Although that hypothetically might have impacted leverage on either side of the deal or hampered Harden's trade value, he still got his way. And the Nets paid an immense price to land him.
We'll examine the potential of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen later on. For now, we'll simply acknowledge that those two are far from salary-dump throw-ins. On top of forfeiting their potential, Brooklyn has surrendered control over its first-round pick in each of the next seven years. LeVert hasn't even been in the league for seven years.
There are win-now trades, and there are "if we don't win it all, this is potentially a disaster" trades. This one is the latter.
The upside is clear, though.
Harden and Kevin Durant are tied with Stephen Curry for third place all-time in career offensive box plus/minus. Kyrie Irving is 14th on that list. The obvious "are there enough basketballs?" caveat applies, but in terms of raw talent, this trio stacks up with the likes of the Heatles.
Losers: Eastern Conference Contenders
There are still plenty of question marks for Brooklyn.
A "your turn, my turn" approach on offense would work to a degree, but a little more creativity and movement is probably necessary to win it all. It'll take some time to find that rhythm.
It might also be a while before the Nets are decent on defense (if that ever happens at all). When you scan the current roster, there isn't a single clear-cut, lockdown defender. KD, in his first season upon returning from an Achilles tear, may be the most reliable defender.
That's all nitpicky, though. If Durant, Harden and Irving all remain healthy and engaged (that isn't a given for Kyrie, given this week's developments), it's tough to imagine any Eastern Conference defense truly bothering them.
It's way too early to write off the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and maybe even the Indiana Pacers. There is plenty of star power on those rosters as well, including the two-time reigning MVP, but it's easier to see their ceilings.
For the Bucks specifically, just go star for star with these opposing top threes. There's an argument for Brooklyn in all three matchups (KD over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden over Khris Middleton and Kyrie over Jrue Holiday).
Depth becomes the question at that point, and though the Nets aren't the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, there are a few holdovers after this trade who will be helpful.
Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot provide floor spacing (in theory). DeAndre Jordan is prone to major lapses on defense, but he's still a solid rim-runner who gobbles up rebounds. Nic Claxton and Bruce Brown will likely have opportunities to prove their worth now.
The real swing player could be Joe Harris, though. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, he's averaged 14.1 points on 10.6 shot attempts per game while shooting 45.3 percent from three. A player who doesn't demand a ton of touches, moves off the ball and shoots the way he can is an ideal complement to three ball-dominant superstars.
Winner: Rockets GM Rafael Stone
Just a few months ago, Houston had what appeared to be one of the most daunting cap sheets in the league. Russell Westbrook and Harden were both on monstrous contracts. Neither seemed keen on sticking around.
Now, the Rockets have been unburdened of both deals. They got a first-rounder (in addition to John Wall) for Westbrook and a whopping four first-rounders, four first-round pick swaps, an expiring contract (Victor Oladipo) and two youngish players with something to prove (Exum and Kurucs) for Harden.
There's an adage in basketball that the team sending out the star rarely wins the trade. There are exceptions, though (like the post-Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets), and Rockets general manager Rafael Stone has given his organization a chance to be one of those.
The pressure is off in Houston. The toxicity should clear up. Wall and Oladipo have a chance to push for the All-Star form they showed prior to their respective season-ending injuries. Exum, Kurucs, Christian Wood and other younger players can prove they belong in the next era of Rockets basketball. And the massive haul of future draft picks gives Houston a buffer as it moves into that era.
Loser: Jarrett Allen
Jarrett Allen is 22 years old. Prior to Wednesday, he was averaging a double-double as the best center on a team with very real title aspirations. Just over a week ago, he dominated former All-NBA center Rudy Gobert to the tune of 19 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
Now, he's on the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team likely headed to the lottery. His minutes should be prioritized on a younger squad like that, but he's now sharing a spot on the depth chart with Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee (and maybe even Larry Nance Jr.).
There's a way to spin this positively. Maybe Cleveland makes him the starter and gives him more minutes than the vets. Maybe he has instant chemistry with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Maybe we'll see a pretty clear picture of the Cavs' future in those three.
For now, though, the move from critical role player on a title contender to NBA purgatory stings.
Winner: Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert is out too, but it's much easier to paint his new situation in a positive light.
The Indiana Pacers are tied for third in the East. The player they just unloaded in this deal, Oladipo, was taking roughly as many shots per game as LeVert was with Brooklyn. The former Nets guard is heading to a steady situation where he'll get plenty of usage alongside unselfish teammates.
Indiana is fifth in the league in assists per 100 possessions. Its two best players, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, are combining for 13.3 dimes per game.
The player-team fit here feels almost seamless. If LeVert can be a little closer to the version we've seen over his last five games (26.0 points and 6.6 assists with a 56.6 effective field-goal percentage), the Pacers could come out of this trade looking like the bandits.
Potential Loser: Kyrie Irving
There's a decent chance we're all about to be inundated with fake-trade ideas for Kyrie Irving.
He, KD and Harden are 19th, 16th and 12th in NBA history in career usage percentage. Figuring out how to share the ball between those three won't be easy. And if it proves to be a problem, the most obvious name to put on the block is Irving's.
"No, he's not. He's not worth [the drama] at all," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said of Kyrie hours before Wednesday's trade. "... I think Kyrie Irving should retire. ... Clearly you don't want to play basketball bad enough."
The current drama Smith is referencing includes Irving sitting out a number of games for personal reasons and recent videos of him in violation of the league's health and safety protocols, but this is hardly the first time he's had fans and analysts scratching their heads.
When he's on the floor, he's one of the most electrifying scorers in the league (right now, he's fifth in box plus/minus). And KD likely wouldn't be on the team without Irving going there too. But if things start to go sour between these three huge personalities, there may be a temptation to flip Irving for depth or future draft picks.
Jury's Still Out: Brooklyn Nets
The best version of this Nets team can win the 2021 championship.
All three stars have experience deferring. KD did it with Russ and as a member of the Golden State Warriors. It's been a while, but Harden used to be a sixth man. Kyrie won a championship with LeBron.
If each can tap into what made them successful in those roles and Steve Nash can concoct a system that keeps everyone sufficiently involved, this group can annihilate opposing defenses.
We've seen plenty of examples of the superteams that just didn't click, though. Nash and Dwight Howard joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles was doomed by injuries and friction between Kobe and Dwight. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were too far past their primes to contend after Brooklyn traded for them. Even LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took a while to find their potential in Miami.
It's too early to know for sure if this was the right call for the Nets, but fortune often favors the bold.