James Harden is one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today, and has been so for the past 5 years. Harden, since being traded to the Rockets in 2012, has led the Rockets to the playoffs every year while being a perennial MVP candidate, all-star and all-NBA player.
This past offseason, near the end of November news broke that both Harden and Westbrook wanted out of Houston, and out of playing together. Since then, Westbrook has been traded to the Wizards for John Wall and a first-round pick. The Rockets also added two high-class free agents this offseason in Demarcus Cousins and Christian Wood. The first is a 4-time all-star who has been riddled with injuries the past two years, and the second is a 25 year-old who averaged 21.6 points per game once given the starting power forward role for the Pistons last season.
These additions would lead to the consensus that the Rockets have improved, however, when Harden was asked about changing his mind in response to the recent moves, he elected to not answer the question.
Overall, the last few months have been rocky for Rockets fans, as they have watched their top two players, and former MVP’s desire to leave the franchise. Regardless of how this may feel, there are few options left for the Rockets but to trade Harden.
In the past few weeks Harden has reportedly told the front office that he wants to be traded to either Philadelphia or Brooklyn, with Miami and Milwaukee being backup options if the other two do not work out.
Where Could Harden Go and For What?
Possible destinations for Harden are the four outlined above, and in my opinion, the Denver Nuggets, the Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans.
The first scenario which would be the most ideal trade for Harden would be to the Nets. The Nets have said they will not trade KD or Kyrie, so I will not include these players in a potential deal. Based on the NBA trade machine, in order to match contracts the deal for James Harden would have to include the Nets sending back three of: Deandre Jordan, Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince. This would be supplemented with some picks from Brooklyn, but would likely not be enough for Houston to make the deal.
The second scenario would be a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. It has been reported that the Rockets would want Ben Simmons, and while Daryl Morey (76ers GM) discarded the thought, most believe Morey was not telling the truth. In the case that Ben Simmons is included in the deal, the trade for Harden would likely include the 76ers sending back Ben Simmons and one of: Terrance Ferguson, Tyrese Maxey, or Matisse Thybulle and some first-round picks. This would likely be interesting to the Rockets, but reports suggest they are looking for more.
The third scenario would be a trade to the Miami Heat. Although the Heat have recently suggested they will not be discussing this anymore with the Rockets, the trade negotiations were said to revolve around Tyler Hero and Duncan Robinson. In order to make the money work, the Heat would need to send back Tyler Hero, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala and one of Precious Achiuwa, Kendrick Nunn, KZ Okpala or Chris Silva. This package would also need to be sweetened with first round picks for the Rockets to seriously consider it.
The fourth scenario would be a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks. The issue here is for the Bucks to complete this trade they would need to package Brook Lopez along with either Jrue Holiday or Kris Middleton to make the money work. The Bucks have shown no indication that they would trade either of those two players. Therefore, I cannot see this trade happening, even though I believe the Bucks could use a guy like James Harden to complement Giannis.
Another team that has reportedly talked to the Rockets about a Harden trade is the Nuggets. The Nuggets have a few valuable young assets that could be used in this situation. In order to balance the player salaries, the Denver Nuggets would need to send back a package of Gary Harris and Will Barton. However, this would likely not be enough. It can be assumed the Rockets would want young assets, and in this case the Denver Nuggets would likely need to give up a few players such as Michael Porter Jr., R.J. Hampton, PJ Dozier and possibly Bol Bol.
The second team that could be a serious contender in the Harden sweepstakes is the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors may lack the apparent future-star to send back to the Rockets, but they do have a variety of crafty young players. I am going to assume here that the Raptors would not trade Pascal Siakam. In order to make the money match, the Raptors would need to put together a trade package including Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby and Terrence Davis Jr. This trade would likely need to be heavily padded with draft picks in order to be taken seriously.
The last team that is not included on Harden’s interest list but could be involved in discussions should they choose to be is the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans have high value young pieces. In this scenario I am going to assume Zion is untouchable, while other young pieces like Ingram or Ball are available. The Pelicans can come up with plenty of combinations due to their roster construction. I believe the Rockets would want both Ingram and Ball in return for Harden, and possibly Jaxon Hayes too. In order to match salaries, the Pelicans would need to include Jaxon Hayes, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and either J.J. Redick or Eric Bledsoe. Again, I would assume the Rockets would want some first-round picks, however this trade is enticing.
Regardless of the team, it is clear that making Harden’s salary fit is a difficult issue. As well, finding a team that has a strong young player as well as an overpaid player to match salaries with is extremely challenging. Looking at these scenarios it seems reasonable that the Rockets have not yet found a viable suitor for James Harden. The question becomes how low will the Rockets go? With two years left on his contract, Harden could be stuck in Houston for at least a year, however that could further diminish the possible trade options. If I had to put money on it, the Nuggets will get Harden if they are ready to commit to him and trade their young assets. If not, Harden will be traded for a very cheap price, likely to the Nets or 76ers.