Winners and Losers of the James Harden trade

The trade that loomed large over the Association since the start of the 2020 offseason has finally been completed. Early this morning (PH time), the Houston Rockets and the Brooklyn Nets, along with the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, executed a humongous transaction, with the marquee being James Harden going to team up with former Thunder partner Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, in Bed-Stuy.

Here are the details of the league-shaking transaction, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania:

Houston Rockets

Get: Victor Oladipo (IND), Rodions Kurucs (BKN), Dante Exum (CLE), Brooklyn 2022, 2024, and 2026 unprotected first-rounders, Milwaukee 2022 first-rounder (via CLE), unprotected first-round pick swaps with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027
Lose: James Harden (to BKN), 2023 second-round pick (to IND)

Brooklyn Nets

Get: James Harden (HOU)
Lose: Rodions Kurucs (to HOU), Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince (to CLE), Caris LeVert (to IND), 2022, 2024, and 2026 unprotected first-round picks (to HOU), unprotected first-round pick swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027 to HOU

Indiana Pacers

Get: Caris LeVert (BKN), 2023 second-round pick (from HOU)
Lose: Victor Oladipo (to HOU)

Cleveland Cavaliers

Get: Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince (BKN)
Lose: Dante Exum (to HOU), Milwaukee 2022 first-round pick (to HOU)

It’s obviously a lot to take in, but to help you process everything, here are our winners and losers:

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WINNER: James Harden

It’s exceedingly rare for a superstar’s trade wish to not be granted, and in the cases where it doesn’t happen, it’s usually because that player’s team pulls off a massive trade or signing to keep their headliner happy.

Harden is the latest in a long line of disgruntled, top-shelf talent whose relationship with their club had soured, necessitating a switch in scenery. The Rockets, despite trading for another former Thunder teammate in Russell Westbrook last season (a move Harden pushed hard for), floundered against the LA Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, losing 4-1. Then, team architect Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni both left, Westbrook demanded out, and Harden requested a ticket out of there as well.

While Houston was eventually able to find a place for Westbrook, shipping him to the Washington Wizards for John Wall, Harden was still unhappy. The team though was willing to get “uncomfortable,” as new GM Rafael Stone did not want to just take the first deal available. As a result, Harden began “subtly” rebelling, coming to training camp late, getting into fights with teammates, and suiting up for games looking woefully out-of-shape. The final straw was the former MVP saying that the squad as constituted was “just not good enough.” The Rockets then opted not to have him at practice, and worked the phones to get him dealt.

Over the past few months, Harden’s reputation has taken an immense hit. But for The Beard, it must have been worth it. While reports have had him okay-ing more potential landing spots since his ultimatum was first issued, he goes to Brooklyn, the team he longed from the start.

Speaking of…

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It goes without saying, whenever you can add a perennial MVP candidate (and a former award winner) in the prime of his career, you have to do it. And so, the Nets did.

Setting aside his current season, James Harden, the Rocket, was a one-man wrecking machine, nearly an automatic trip to the Playoffs because of his scoring prowess. By leaving the ultra-competitive Western Conference for a relatively easier East, and arriving to a squad that already has two superstars, the Nets instantly shoot up the conference’s power rankings.

The Nets are going to be a terrifying puzzle for opposing coaches to solve. Harden, Kyrie, and KD are three of the toughest individual covers, and doubling one means someone, another of the Big Three, a sniper like Joe Harris, or a lob threat like DeAndre Jordan, is open. There will simply be games where everyone is clicking, and buckets are raining down with no end in sight.

However, all of that is the best-case scenario, and already things are far from ideal in Brooklyn.

The reason, perhaps, why the Nets pushed so hard for the trade to be completed right now is the MIA status of Irving. Absent for multiple games now, he’s been both partying and being his politically-active self. The team doesn’t seem to know when he’ll be back, and he’ll likely have to sit games due to COVID protocols too. And when he does return, we’ll still have to see if he and Harden can play alongside each other. True, at the start of the season, Irving endeavored hard to reintegrate Durant, after the latter missed a full season due to injury. But to do so for another superstar, someone he’s not as close to as KD, could result in a volatile team chemistry situation. It’s almost a certainty that someone will find himself in the corner, wide-open, clapping for the ball, only to be ignored in favor of some 1-on-1 play.

The Nets, as currently constructed, have some significant roster holes too. On one hand, the team probably won’t miss Caris LeVert off the bench, as Coach Steve Nash can juggle the rotations to make sure at least one of Irving/KD/Harden are on the court at all times. The bigger issue might be on defense. Jarrett Allen was easily the superior player at center, but he’s now a Cavalier, meaning the squad will be forced to trot out Durant and Irving buddy Jordan out more. Alternately, the team could go small more often, with Durant, or Jeff Green at center, but it would be unwise to have to play Durant more big man minutes.

Yes, he’s versatile enough to cover all five positions, and he may in fact be the team’s best defensive player now, but coming off an Achilles injury, you’d hope the team could ease back on him a bit more. Any gains from not having to involve him on offense as much are mitigated by the need to involve him heavily on defense. To put it another way, the Nets would have to lean on Durant to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, then Joel Embiid, and then Anthony Davis in a potential postseason run. That’s far from ideal.

Then there’s the draft asset part of the cost the Nets paid to land Harden. In a move that may traumatize older fans, Brooklyn essentially gave up all of their first-rounders from 2021 to 2027, thanks to a combo of unprotected picks going Houston’s way, and unprotected first-round pick swaps. It’s a hefty price to pay, especially since the team is barely a few seasons removed from finally recovering from the 2013 trade with the Boston Celtics that saw them pay a similar amount of draft capital. Sure, if Brooklyn wins a title, all of that is forgotten, but the flip side is dire. Every member of their Big Three has a player option for the 2022-2023 season, giving the Nets a two-season clock, a clock that includes the current campaign no less, to get everyone on the same page and lift the Larry O’Brien trophy. And given the tempestuous nature of the personalities involved, who knows how things will play out?

The Nets are once again rolling the dice. The odds seem tilted a bit more to their favor hoops-wise than in 2013; their core is younger, and LeBron is not in the same conference. But because this is actual hoops and not 2K, there’s no telling if these personalities can all co-exist. And if things blow up, they will blow up spectacularly.

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LOSER: Kevin Durant

Imagine you’re Kevin Durant. Not only do you have to keep Kyrie Irving in line, you now have to do the same with James Harden. Oh, and as mentioned, you’re going to need to expend a lot of energy on defense now, and you probably shouldn’t expect the same volume of shots as you’re used to.

Sure, there’s a chance (and not even a great one!) that the Nets could beat LeBron James and the LA Lakers in the Finals, but you know how fans think. Anthony Davis comes to Hollywood, but it’s still The King’s squad. A Brooklyn win would see credit divided amongst the trio, with the lion’s share likely going to Harden, because of recency bias. Given how Durant opted not to return to Golden State because he felt he wasn’t getting Best Player in the League status (despite out-playing James in back-to-back Finals series, thanks to playing alongside Stephen Curry), you can see how this might rub the Slim Reaper the wrong way.

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LOSERS: Houston Rockets’ decision makers

When the Rockets brass decided to get “uncomfortable”, it was because they were holding out for a blockbuster-level trade offer, one that would see them get at least one young, foundational player, plus multiple draft picks to refill a cache that had gone empty, thanks to trading for, and then dealing, Chris Paul and Westbrook in consecutive seasons. Oddly enough though, having finally pulled the trigger, the Rockets got back lots of picks, but seemingly forgot about that young talent.

In fact, the Rockets seemingly went out of their way to avoid taking back some of the Nets’ up-and-comers, instead redirecting Allen to the Cavaliers, and LeVert to the Indiana Pacers. They did take back players, but Victor Oladipo is turning 29 and some ways removed from his All-Star form, Dante Exum is oft-injured, and Rodions Kurucs is…a basketball player.

Houston could still eventually turn around and deal away Oladipo, but it’s hard to imagine the return being better than an Allen-LeVert combo. And even if they were not high on the duo, they could have then traded them away too.

Let’s also not forget that they might not have been in this situation, draft picks-wise, in the first place, had they not kowtowed to Harden’s whims and traded Chris Paul to the Thunder for Westbrook.

Harden will always have a special part in Rockets lore. He might even be their second-best player of all time, behind Hakeem Olajuwon. And that fact is why their return for him seems a bit underwhelming.

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WINNERS: Houston Rockets players

There is a seed of a good team in Houston, setting Harden aside. Christian Wood is putting up huge numbers, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have bounced back nicely from injury, and holdovers like Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore and Danuel House Jr. have looked decent.

Of course, the team’s future is now up in the air. Veterans like PJ Tucker could fetch a hefty return at the trade deadline. Could they rebuild around Wood exclusively, or continue to showcase him for a trade? Oladipo might also find a better groove in H-Town before moving onto a contender. Whatever the result though, odds are good that in the games they do play together, before any more future roster moves, this group will find basketball a lot more fun, compared to before the trade.

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WINNER: Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers

Usually when grading trades, the team that gets the best player is said to win, but we’re in seemingly uncharted territory here, because the Cavaliers and the Pacers found themselves in the right place at the right time, giving up almost nothing, in exchange for young players who fit their respective cores.

For Indiana, LeVert gives them a more dynamic player than “better than in the bubble, but still not pre-injury form” Victor Oladipo. Playing alongside Irving and Durant at the start of the season also refined LeVert’s play-making skills (career-best 6.0 assists per game), which makes him a great fit alongside Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and TJ Warren, when the latter returns from injury. Best of all, he’s in the first year of an affordable ($52.5 million over three years) extension, giving the team more security than Oladipo, who was on an expiring deal.

For Cleveland, the Cavaliers get the upgrade at center position they thought they were getting when they traded for Andre Drummond last season. While Drummond has been balling so far this season for The Land, Allen is younger, better at defending the rim, and is much better at the free throw line. He’s also a restricted free agent, while Drummond is unrestricted, this upcoming offseason.

All it took for Cleveland was Exum, and a first-rounder from Milwaukee that will likely end up in the 20’s. Given how Allen was the 22nd pick in his draft class, it’s almost like the Cavaliers opted for a sure thing instead of a lottery ticket.

There’s a parallel universe where Houston and Brooklyn completed this trade with any more teams (a world likely where Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t get hurt). But because of the timing and the circumstances, Indiana and Cleveland were able to hop on board, and get great return on guys who weren’t in their long-term plans.

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WINNERS: Fans who want more transactions

As previously mentioned, the Rockets will probably take the next month to see what they have, but as the March trade deadline gets closer, they’ll likely shop their veterans to see if they can get more draft picks and possibly a young player or two.

You should also expect some action from Brooklyn too. We touched on their roster shortcomings in their section, and while they may not have a lot of things to trade left (though I’d imagine some canny GMs will call to inquire about the status of someone like Landry Shamet, in exchange for a rotation big), they may be active on the waiver wire, especially if someone like Al Horford gets bought out.

Expect Cleveland to hit the phones again too. Allen is clearly their big man of the future, which means Drummond, and offseason add JaVale McGee are now expendable. Maybe Kevin Love finds a new home? One thing’s for sure, this Harden trade might wind up being the biggest in-season deal this season, but it likely won’t be the last.