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James Harden deal shows Nets are all in, both for a title and as a personality experiment

James Harden made eight all-star appearances with the Houston Rockets and was named MVP for the 2017-18 season. (Carmen Mandato/AP)

The fledgling NBA season, beset by positive coronavirus tests and postponed games, received a jolt Wednesday when the Brooklyn Nets boldly acquired James Harden from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster four-team trade that promises to shake the title landscape.

In Brooklyn, Harden will team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form the league’s top “Big Three” and a potentially volatile mix of on-court styles and off-court personalities. Harden and Durant, both former MVPs and scoring champs, are reuniting after spending three seasons together on the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2009 to 2012.

To acquire Harden, the Nets parted with promising young players and a host of assets in a trade that also involved the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. The Nets will send Caris LeVert, Rodion Kurucs, first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027 to Houston. Brooklyn also will send center Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince to the Cavaliers, who will send Dante Exum and a 2022 first-round pick to the Rockets. The Rockets, meanwhile, will reroute LeVert to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo and include a second-round pick.

Jerry Brewer: The Nets got better with the James Harden trade. How much better is up to Kyrie Irving.

Harden made no secret of his displeasure in Houston, which underwent massive organizational changes during the offseason. When the Lakers eliminated the Rockets from the 2020 playoffs, Harden said that he believed Houston was “a piece away” from title contention. Instead, the Rockets parted ways with coach Mike D’Antoni, lost general manager Daryl Morey and traded Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards. Those sweeping, abrupt changes left Harden, 31, to adjust to first-time head coach Stephen Silas, first-time general manager Rafael Stone and a new backcourt partner in John Wall.

“We’re just not good enough,” Harden said Tuesday after the Rockets fell at home, 117-100, to the Los Angeles Lakers. “I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. The situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”

After eight straight playoff berths that included two trips to the Western Conference finals, the Rockets have the West’s second-worst record at 3-6 and Harden is averaging 24.8 points, his lowest average since he arrived in Houston. While Harden never issued a public trade request, he arrived at training camp late after partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas without a mask during the pandemic. The NBA fined him $50,000 for violating the league’s health and safety protocols.

The Rockets, who saw their season opener postponed after several players were sidelined by positive or inconclusive coronavirus tests and contact tracing, weathered that early turbulence. Hopes that Harden’s personal investment in the Rockets might stabilize if he played well never came to fruition.

James Harden is a winner and a loser of the Nets’ blockbuster trade

Harden’s comments Tuesday, which amounted to publicly quitting on his team, triggered angry responses from Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, and the Rockets elected to hold Harden out of Wednesday’s practice as they pursued trade talks with the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers.

Wall acknowledged Tuesday that his on-court partnership with Harden was “a little rocky” during Houston’s slow start. “When you have certain guys in the mix that don’t want to buy in as one, it’s hard to do anything special or anything good as a basketball team,” he added.

“The disrespect started way before any interview,” Cousins said Wednesday. “The approach to training camp, showing up the way he did, the antics off the court, the disrespect started way before. This isn’t something that all of a sudden happened last night. This is the nasty part of the business. It is what it is.”

The trade amounts to a major gamble for the Nets, who looked sensational in the season’s opening week before sliding to 6-6 while Irving took an extended, unexplained personal absence over the past week. Harden is earning $41.25 million this season and is under contract through at least the 2021-22 season. Taking on his contract means that Brooklyn will have more than $112 million committed to its star trio this season, a total that exceeds the league’s $109 million salary cap. Harden can become a free agent after the 2021-22 season, meaning the Nets will have two title shots before their future could hang in the balance.

Durant, Harden and Irving are in their respective primes, and they all rank among the greatest shot-creators in NBA history. However, they are all high-usage players who must prove they can share the ball and play together at a high level defensively. Irving, in particular, almost certainly will need to sacrifice touches and shots to accommodate Harden’s arrival.

Whether their personalities can mesh is another question. Durant has looked like an MVP candidate since he returned from an Achilles’ injury that kept him out last season, and he appears committed to a deep postseason run. Harden, though, reported to camp out of shape, and Irving’s ongoing absence is expected to extend as the NBA investigates a video that allegedly showed him dancing at an indoor party without a mask.

NBA’s tightened coronavirus protocols limit pregame hugs, hotel guests and going out in public

Meanwhile, Durant and Harden are longtime friends, while Durant and Irving are still in the nascent stages of their on-court partnership, which formed when they decided to team up in 2019 free agency. Keeping everyone happy will be a major test for Steve Nash, Brooklyn’s first-year coach, and for Durant, who should still be viewed as the Nets’ franchise centerpiece. Harden must show that he can recommit to team basketball after years of running the show in Houston, while Irving must reestablish himself as a reliable night-to-night contributor and an engaged defender in the playoffs.

Depth is suddenly a question too, although Brooklyn now easily possesses the most top-end talent in the East. Nets General Manager Sean Marks also must get creative in filling out his rotation after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to an ACL injury this month and trading away two key pieces in LeVert and Allen.

Nash will compensate for Allen’s departure by turning more often to center DeAndre Jordan and small-ball lineups, and he will hope that Brooklyn has enough firepower to blow opponents off the court and cover up for defensive weaknesses. The Nets shouldn’t yet be treated as equals to the Lakers, given the defending champs’ chemistry and two-way dominance this season, but they have absolutely increased their chances of reaching the Finals.

Given Harden’s ugly recent behavior, Houston did reasonably well to restock its draft asset stockpile. The current core of Wall, Oladipo and Christian Wood probably isn’t good enough to reach the playoffs, but the Rockets should play with a renewed spirit now that the organization has picked a direction and been freed from Harden’s unhappiness. If Brooklyn’s experiment backfires, Houston is set up nicely to cash in for years to come, much like the Boston Celtics did after trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets in 2013. The Rockets can use the rest of this season to evaluate Oladipo, who is working back into form after two injury-plagued seasons and should be one of 2021′s top free agents.

Rather than commit long-term dollars to Oladipo or risk losing him in free agency, the Pacers swapped him for LeVert, a 26-year-old scorer who will help cover for the injured T.J. Warren. LeVert is on a reasonable three-year, $52.5 million contract that runs through 2022-23, and he will join a promising core that includes Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner.

Cleveland wound up as the footnote of this four-team trade, but it did well to grab the 22-year-old Allen as a long-term option at center. The fourth-year big man will need a new contract this summer after failing to reach an extension agreement with the Nets, but he fits the timeline for a young Cavaliers roster that includes Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, all of whom are recent lottery picks.

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