At some point this season, a team is going to talk itself into the need to be bold, push its chips into the middle of the table, and trade for James Harden.
That time, however, is not today. Or likely in the immediate future.
The calendar may have flipped to 2021, games are being played, but the dynamics that have kept a Harden trade in a holding pattern for the last month have not changed:
Houston continues to ask for a massive haul to land the former MVP and three-time scoring champion. Right now, no team is willing to pay that price.
At some point, Houston will be willing to take a little less and a team will step up with a bigger offer; that’s when a deal will come together quickly. But right now, nothing is imminent.
Houston reportedly wants a young, franchise cornerstone level player plus at least three first-round picks in a trade, and from its perspective nothing has changed, writes Brian Windhorst at ESPN.
The Houston Rockets — who have seen the ransom of assets that players such as Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday got on the trade market with only one season remaining on their contracts — have set and maintained a high asking price for Harden, who has two seasons and more than $90 million remaining on his deal.
The difference with Davis and Holiday was there was a team that desperately wanted that player — there was demand to go with the supply. The Lakers needed Davis to pair with LeBron James and gave up an All-Star in Brandon Ingram plus other good young players and a cargo ship full of picks to get him (a trade that worked out well for the Lakers). The Bucks needed to shake things up and saw Jrue Holiday as an improved playoff fit next to Giannis Antetokounmpo (and this trade worked for Milwaukee — Antetokounmpo signed a supermax extension to stay).
Right now, there is not a team that desperately wants Harden. Not enough to meet Houston’s asking price, even as Harden has made it uncomfortable for Houston to keep him around. Teams have concerns about how Harden’s ball-dominant style on the court will fit with their roster, how he will fit with an organization that will not bend to him the same way the Rockets have the past few years, and they know he is 31 and in a couple of years he will demand (and deserve) a max contract again.
Everyone’s favorite speculation game around the league is guessing which team will see where it stands 10-20 games into the season, realize it’s not the contender it thought it could be, and suddenly goes all-in on Harden.
It is not a coincidence that a number of teams such as the Celtics, 76ers, Heat, Nets and Raptors — teams that are in the “good not great” zone — have at least made a courtesy call to the Rockets, sources said. Even the Bucks, sources said, at least had an internal conversation about it and ran it past Giannis Antetokounmpo before deciding not to get involved…
Of course, the West has similar stories. The Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers might see themselves at the top of the contender list, but there are teams around them that have been dancing on the Harden periphery. The Portland Trail Blazers reportedly are monitoring, and so are the Nuggets, who have interest in getting involved in a deal even if they don’t end up with Harden, sources said.
Denver is more likely to be the third team in a trade for Harden, not make a move to get him themselves (the Nuggets are not taking the ball out of the hands of Nikola Jokic).
One hot bit of speculation is the Raptors. Toronto has started 1-3 with a sputtering offense scoring less than a point per possession this season. It also is a team that was targeting Antetokounmpo, but now he is off the table. Mo Dakhil makes a case for the Raptors in a must-read story at Bleacher Report.
Even though it has been just four games, Toronto’s offense has fallen off dramatically. Per Synergy, it’s down to 0.86 PPP in the half court and 0.92 in transition, and the team ranks last in offensive rating (97.8) and free-throws attempts per game (13.7)…
Few players can generate as much offense as the 31-year-old [Harden]. In his first game of the 2020-21 season, not in the best shape and with little practice, he dropped 44 points and 17 assists in an overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Then he followed it up with a 34-point, eight-assist, six-rebound night against the Denver Nuggets.
Harden had 33 points on New Year’s Eve in the Rockets’ first win of the season. He remains instant offense.
The Raptors’ trade package would start with Paskal Siakam and involve some players such as Norman Powell, plus draft picks.
Toronto is reaching a decision point: Break this team up completely and start a rebuild around Siakam and OG Anunoby, or make a bold move to bring in a star and chase another ring with Kyle Lowry at the point. We know from the Kawhi Leonard trade, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is not afraid to be bold (but will he make the same decision if he doesn’t have a contract for next year?)
Philadephia remains the frontrunner to trade for Harden in a package centered around Ben Simmons. However, the Sixers have started the season 4-1, and while their offense has been bottom 10 in the league so far this young season, as long as Philly is winning there is less pressure to make a major move. They can wait to see how their roster plays out. Brooklyn was where Harden wanted to go, but with Kevin Durant looking like his old self and the Nets have looked like a contender at points, they are going to let things play out.
Which is where every team is right now — even the Knicks want to see their roster for 10-20 games before making a move (and that move is not Harden… although never say never if James Dolan is your owner).
Harden and the Rockets enter 2021 in the same holding pattern they have been in for a month, waiting for the market to come to them to get a deal done. Right now, there is no trade close to boiling over on the front burner, no other team is stepping up to meet the Rockets’ demands. Houston knows it has some time, and it knows there will be some disillusioned front offices/owners in the coming weeks and months who will think big.
So the Rockets wait. As does Harden — and the rest of us.