Thursday, December 7 2023

The NBA offseason is usually good for a stunner or two, and boy, did the Philadelphia 76ers deliver on Thursday. After months of speculation about whether James Harden would choose the 76ers or his former team, the Houston Rockets, it turns out that he will play for neither of them next season. Harden will opt into his contract and the 76ers will look to trade him, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. While Harden could have opted out and signed with the Rockets, it looks as though Houston has its heart set on Fred VanVleet as its big backcourt addition this offseason.

So where is Harden going? It seems as though he has his heart set on a contender, and there are quite a few of them that could use a primary ball-handler. We’re still in the early stages of the trade process, but for now, here are five possible destinations for the 2018 MVP.

The Clippers have seemingly spent eons looking for a true point guard. They nixed a Malcolm Brogdon deal over health concerns. They signed Russell Westbrook and John Wall last year. Rajon Rondo tried his luck with the Clippers. They’ve been linked to just about every big name point guard to hit the market since signing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Harden is the most appealing possibility thus far.

He matches the glacial pace at which Leonard and George prefer to play. He’s the NBA’s assists leader and would be joining a team that just ranked 28th in the NBA in potential assists. Los Angeles could cover for him defensively. Leonard, an all-time playoff assassin when healthy*, could cover for his postseason deficiencies. Harden is among the NBA’s most durable stars and could help carry the Clippers through the regular season.

The Clippers have slowly regained access to a decent amount of draft capital after surrendering a mountain of it for Paul George. They can offer first-round picks in 2028 and 2030. They have no shortage of tradable salaries. The expiring deals of Marcus Morris, Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum are obvious fits, though the Clippers would likely prefer to keep at least one for their rotation next season. Philadelphia would surely ask for ascending guard Terance Mann, even if he shares a similar skill set with Tyrese Maxey. The Clippers have resisted Mann offers for three years. Could Harden change their mind? If the answer is no, we could have a lengthy negotiation. If the answer is yes, there’s a very good chance Harden moves to Los Angeles.

While we’re on the topic: let’s address that other Los Angeles team. For now, the Lakers don’t appear to be a serious bidder. They might’ve made sense in the past. Rob Pelinka was once Harden’s agent, after all. But roughly an hour before news of Harden’s fate was made public, the Lakers waived Mo Bamba and declined to pick up the team option of Malik Beasley. That would have been their easiest path to matching salary. This is a tampering league. The Lakers didn’t make that decision blindly. They just seem to have other plans.

*(History suggests he and George probably won’t be healthy, and yes, that deserves an asterisk).

Miami appears to have its heart set on Damian Lillard for now. That’s the proper choice in a vacuum. Lillard is a better player. His game fits more easily within Miami’s egalitarian offense. The Heat seemingly didn’t pursue Harden seriously upon either of his last two trade requests. Why would that change now?

It would probably take a specific set of circumstances. Portland would have to have a successful enough free agency period to convince Miami Lillard isn’t available. Negotiations would have to drag on a bit here. Harden would have to convince the Heat he could conform to their legendarily strict conditioning rules, especially in one of the NBA’s best markets for nightlife. The price, already surely lower than Lillard’s would be, would have to be reasonable. That might mean allowing Miami to keep Tyler Herro, or accepting a smaller package of picks than the three Miami can dangle.

Miami’s desperate need for another shot-creator is well-documented, and just as Leonard’s playoff chops pair well with Harden’s regular-season durability, the same applies to a partnership with Jimmy Butler. Bam Adebayo is an ideal big man for Harden, capable of catching lobs or running the more complex two-man game he developed with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia fans have already had to watch one of their former stars succeed in Florida. Watching Harden join Butler and Adebayo for a Finals run would sting even more, but there is an undeniable fit here. 

The Knicks were one of the first teams linked to Harden. The logic apparently boils down to their perceived desperation to land a star, and according to SNY’s Ian Begley, their interest is not uniform across the organization. Based on the postseasons they just had, it’s possible, if not probable, that Jalen Brunson is a better point guard than Harden is today. A partnership doesn’t make much sense. Brunson came to New York to serve as a primary ball-handler. Asking him to watch Harden dribble is a misuse of his skill set.

But if the Knicks do decide to go this route? They have the assets to do it. In addition to all of their own first-round picks moving forward, the Knicks own future selections from Dallas, Washington, Detroit and Milwaukee that could be dangled in negotiations. Harden’s price might be low enough at this point that the Knicks could trade for him without sacrificing the assets they would need to add a bigger, younger star down the line.

The real question here is who the Knicks would use as matching salary. Derrick Rose’s option wasn’t picked up, so that’s $15 million the Knicks no longer have access to. Evan Fournier on an expiring contract is a start, but after that, everyone is fairly valuable. Would the Knicks include RJ Barrett or Julius Randle in such a move? They might have to just to make a deal work financially.

If Harden wants a super team, this is it. The Celtics can match Harden’s salary almost exactly by trading Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon and Payton Pritchard. They control all of their own future draft capital, minus one pick swap owed to San Antonio. They could still technically bring back Grant Williams, as they have his Bird Rights in free agency. 

All told, that means there is a very feasible path to Boston having a starting five of James Harden, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams and Kristaps Porzingis with Derrick White and Grant Williams coming off of the bench. All it would cost would be a whole lot of tax dollars. The Celtics would still have to fill out their roster with minimum salaries after this, and their frontcourt still has plenty of injury risks, but on paper, this is one of the few teams Harden could get to that would immediately be favored in a seven-game series against the defending champion Nuggets.

Would Philadelphia trade Harden to its fiercest rival? There’s an argument in favor of doing so purely to weaken them down the line. Harden is 34. By the time Philadelphia manages to reload its roster and is ready to win again, Harden’s prime (or whatever is still left of it) will likely be over. Daryl Morey tends not to focus on such things. He’ll make the best deal on the table regardless. The bigger question is whether or not Boston is willing to pay what it takes, both in terms of draft picks and, more importantly, dollars, to put together this roster. Harden is the sort of traditional playmaker Boston has lacked for years. He could be the missing piece of their championship puzzle.

And here’s our other super team possibility. The odds here are even more remote. The small-market Bucks are even less equipped to pay a major luxury tax bill (though they did get a bit of a cash infusion when Jimmy Haslam bought a stake in the team this offseason). They’d also have to address Harden’s controversial 2020 comments about Giannis Antetokounmpo. “I wish I was 7-feet, and could run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I have to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that every day.” Harden said at the time. There’s bad blood here.

But the Bucks have the matching salary in Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis, Marjon Beauchamp and Pat Connaughton. They have one tradable first-round pick (2029) and can offer swap rights on two others (2028 and 2030), and Beauchamp is probably worth a first-rounder himself. If the price is low enough, there’s a viable deal here, and despite all of the depth it would cost Milwaukee, it’s worth noting that the Bucks were essentially willing to go into the 2020-21 season with their entire cap devoted to only five players when they nearly traded for Bogdan Bogdanovic. This would be a similar principle, albeit with a far better ball-handler.

Harden is the half-court shot-creator Milwaukee has lacked for its entire run of contention. The Bucks won a championship in 2021 with Khris Middleton in that role, but durability has been a concern for him lately, and he’s technically about to become a free agent. Even if the Bucks re-sign him (which is likely), they’re going to need someone else who can generate offense late in games. A five-man lineup of Harden, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez is about as balanced as any unit in all of basketball. That’s three elite defensive players with five very good offensive players. The Bucks would probably be the Eastern Conference favorites with this group even with the understanding that the rest of their roster would likely be built around minimum salaries.



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