NBA Trades

Thoughts on the James Harden Blockbuster

The Beard completed his unsavory exit from Houston, and the Nets have their Big Three.

As if recent history hasn’t provided enough examples of slovenly terrorists strong-arming their way to their desired location, on Wednesday James Harden was finally granted his trade request, heading to the Brooklyn Nets in a mammoth four-team deal. The time to reckon with his ugly departure from Houston — and the inevitable comparisons to Vince Carter’s messy divorce from Toronto back in 2004 — will come, and it may have long-lasting ripple effects on how NBA teams conduct business with their superstars. For now, let’s look at the deal, and what it does (or doesn’t do) for the four teams involved.

THE DEAL:

Brooklyn gets: James Harden, Cleveland’s 2022 2nd-round pick

Houston gets: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn’s unprotected 1st-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, unprotected rights to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027, Milwaukee’s unprotected 2022 1st-round pick (via Cleveland), and a future 2nd-round pick from Indiana

Indiana gets: Caris LeVert, Houston’s 2023 2nd-round pick

Cleveland gets: Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince

There is obviously no way to forecast where the picks and swaps will fall and what they will turn into, but let’s take a shot at a first accounting of what this trade means for each team. Nowhere to start but with…

BROOKLYN NETS

The rumors have been flying around for weeks now, but it still feels shocking to see a team consummate a win-now move of this proportion. The Nets have now assembled one of the most talented-if-mercurial Big Threes of all time, at the cost of two excellent young players and (potentially) all of their draft equity for the bulk of the decade. The upside here is clearly higher than it was for the disastrous Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade back in 2013 — it was obvious even at the time that team was never sniffing a title — but Nets’ fans (whoever they are) must still be feeling at least a twinge of terror at the prospect of looking at the stump where their collective arm used to be, nodding grimly, and diving back into the exact same shark-infested waters.

Harden, Kevin Durant, and the currently-MIA Kyrie Irving are under contract for this season plus two more (with 2022-23 being player options for all three stars), and nothing short of a title will be considered an acceptable result in any of those three seasons. They become the instant favorite to come out of the East this year, but how good can they be? Will this work? Can the whole even equal the sum of these parts, much less be greater? The old “there’s only one ball” saw is dumb and reductive, but at the same time, Usage Rate is a real thing which exists, and boy do these three guys use a ton of possessions. Their combined Usage Rate this season (one in which Harden’s is down significantly) adds up to 91.2 percent, which means there is no feasible way for these three guys to share the floor without someone taking a step back offensively. The obvious candidate is Harden, who has been an offense — and a damn good one — unto himself for 8+ years, but will now have to re-learn how to play nice in an ecosystem where he is no longer the keystone species. Can James Harden play “normal” basketball? Does he want to? Will the offense resemble the “my turn, your turn” vibe of the Russ/KD Thunder teams and early Heatles squads, or will it come closer to the ball-moving nirvana achieved by the 2016-17 Warriors?

Assuming Kyrie ever returns from his ongoing spirit quest or whatever, the ability to stagger the stars’ minutes should make this offense lethal for nearly every minute of every game. The math is such that head coach Steve Nash (yup, still feels weird) could play each guy 38 minutes a game in the playoffs, have two of the stars sharing the court at all times, and leave 18 devastating/awkward minutes a game where they all play together. Filling out the remaining 126 minutes of court time is another matter, as the remaining depth on the roster isn’t terrible, but is visibly short on large men. The starting center spot currently falls to either KD Super-friend DeAndre Jordan or frequent 24SS punching bag Jeff Green, but it feels nearly certain another move is coming to import a big man to fill out the rotation. [My pet conspiracy theory: Brooklyn GM Sean Marks targeted Cleveland to send Jarrett Allen to so that the Cavs would buy out the last year of Andre Drummond’s contract in the name of clearing the way for the future starter, thus allowing Brooklyn to sign Drummond off waivers. If this is true, it would be an all-time Jedi mind trick.]

Just as enormous as the upside of the move is the risk. Forget the draft picks; cross that bridge when we come to it. The offense should clearly be on another planet, but is there an upper bound to how explosive a basketball offense can be? And are there diminishing returns on having so much shot creation in a lineup? Perhaps more importantly, even if this is now far and away the league’s best offense, can they stop anybody? In this century, having a top-10 (or close to it) defense is essentially a prerequisite for winning a championship, and that feels like quite the stretch for this roster and coaching staff as it exists today. Trading out Allen (an elite rim protector) and LeVert (a high-end source of deflections and turnovers) for Harden and Available Big Man X is a likely downgrade to a unit which has been merely decent thus far (12th in Defensive Rating). Had they found a way to include PJ Tucker in the deal, this concern would be lessened, but alas. [Tucker is also almost certainly on the move in the coming days, and he is going to be a HUGE get for some contender.]

The other elephant in the room: how will the personalities mesh? Harden should be mollified now that he got his wish — never mind the trail of bodies he left in his wake — but his track record of working with other prickly and/or difficult superstars isn’t exactly pristine. Now he has two of them, one who simply doesn’t tolerate bullshit and another who does nothing but generate it. Everyone who knows Steve Nash says he’s basically Mother Theresa crossed with Gandhi, but managing this locker room is going to put even his supposedly saintly interpersonal abilities to the test. Beyond that, this team is now the NBA’s ultimate black hat, an uber-villain the likes of which we haven’t approached since the 2010 Heat. It will come with media scrutiny as well as an added intensity from opponents, dueling stressors for which we have no data to suggest whether or not Nash is equipped to handle.

Any way you slice it, this is now the most fascinating team in the NBA, and the one which will drive the narrative of the rest of the season, assuming we get through it in one piece.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

The reality is, when your do-everything superstar demands out, you’re fucked no matter what. The task at hand becomes damage control. Through that lens, new Rockets’ GM Rafael Stone did….pretty OK. He squeezed literally as much draft capital as is allowable under the rules out of Brooklyn, plus an extra first from Cleveland. The Oladipo part of the deal is a bit curious, but relatively recent All-NBA guards don’t grow on trees. [In a vacuum, LeVert is probably the more valuable asset, but Oladipo is an expiring contract and Rockets’ owner Tillman Fertitta is said to be hemorrhaging money as a result of the pandemic. As much as we want these things to be about what happens between the lines, sometimes personnel decisions get made for purely financial reasons. The deal also brings Houston below the luxury tax line, FWIW.]

Could the Rockets reasonably have done any better in this trade? Hard to say, mostly because we don’t know if Ben Simmons was ever actually on the table from Philly. If he was, it seems indefensible to not accept a trade package built around him, irrespective of whatever lingering animosity there may be with now-Sixers President Daryl Morey. Houston clearly would not have netted as much draft capital in a deal involving Simmons, but they would have gotten an elite player to build around, plus perhaps promising rookie Tyrese Maxey. One in the hand and all that jazz.

As it stands, where they go from here is anyone’s guess. A core of John Wall/Christian Wood/Victor Oladipo isn’t going anywhere interesting in the West. They aren’t bad enough to tank as currently constructed, and there isn’t much value in doing so anyway. Oklahoma City controls most of Houston’s own draft rights for the next several years as a result of the shortsighted Russell Westbrook trade in 2019, including top-4 protected swap rights on the Rockets’ pick in the 2021 draft. Maybe gobbling up all of Brooklyn’s picks is ultimately the right move — Boston certainly doesn’t regret it — but the Rockets may be destined to wander the NBA wilderness for multiple seasons before they get to find out.

INDIANA PACERS

Swapping Oladipo for LeVert is a tidy bit of business for Indiana. Dipo’s contract is set to expire, and it was an open secret that he was ready to move on to a new team, whether via trade or free agency. LeVert, who was originally drafted by the Pacers in 2016 before being traded to Brooklyn for Thaddeus Young, is younger than Oladipo (26 vs. 28) and is under contract for three seasons including the current one at a palatable-but-also-movable total of $52.5 million. His numbers, mostly compiled as the sixth man and undisputed creator for the Nets’ bench unit, are virtually identical to Oladipo’s so far this season. He will likely slot in as a full-time starter in Indiana, and creative head coach Nate Bjorkgren should be able to find plenty of ways to incorporate LeVert’s herky-jerky pick-and-roll game into what has quickly become one of the league’s most dynamic offenses.

Much like the next team, front offices can create real marginal value by acting as intermediaries in these enormous blockbusters, and Pacers’ GM Kevin Pritchard did some savvy, low-cost maneuvering here. Nice job.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

As with Indiana, acting as a transactional remora in these shark-sized deals can have real benefits, and Cavs’ GM Koby Altman got outstanding value for helping facilitate the trade. Giving up Milwaukee’s 2022 first-rounder is unlikely to come back and bite the Cavs, and while he’s still young, Dante Exum has failed to launch as an NBA player to this point. In return, they got a starting-caliber big man in Allen, who is remarkably still only twenty-two years old. Allen badly outplayed DeAndre Jordan in the early going with the Nets, he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, and he fits nicely with the developmental timeline of Cleveland’s other young, core players (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Isaac Okoro). Taurean Prince has struggled over the last season-plus in Brooklyn, but he could be a nice buy-low candidate as an athletic tweener forward with upside.

The only downside for Cleveland is they are now left with a positional logjam in the frontcourt. Andre Drummond and Kevin Love are still around, along with Larry Nance, Jr., JaVale McGee, and the perpetually disappointing Thon Maker. Altman will undoubtedly shop some of these names around to teams looking to add size, even if none of them has a ton of positive trade value. Drummond is on an expiring deal, and it’s likely he’ll move on in the offseason. The Cavs have gotten out to a surprisingly decent start, but ultimately this season is still about development, so sorting out the big man rotation and ensuring everyone’s happiness shouldn’t be keeping the coaching staff up at night. In the end, the front office acquired a nice building block for the future at a minimal price. Hitting those kinds of singles and doubles are necessary to turning around a moribund, post-LeBron franchise.

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