The NBA world stopped and gasped Wednesday when the Houston Rockets agreed to trade James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team blockbuster that landed them Victor Oladipo, four first-round draft picks and four pick swaps. Harden will join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on one of the East’s top contenders, while the Rockets prepare to enter a retooling cycle after eight straight postseason appearances.
To acquire Harden, the Nets brought in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers to construct a return package loaded with draft assets. The Nets agreed to send Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs, first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027 to Houston. Brooklyn will also send center Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince to the Cavaliers, who will send Dante Exum and a 2022 first-round pick to the Rockets, as well as a second-round pick to the Nets. The Rockets will then receive Oladipo from the Pacers for LeVert and a second-round pick.
Here’s a quick rundown of the winners and losers from this head-spinning, seven-player trade.
Winner: James Harden
Harden, 31, got to have his cake and eat it too, landing at his desired destination on a big-market contender loaded with superstar talent. Despite having nearly two years left on his contract, he successfully forced Houston’s hand with a long list of bad behavior. Clearly frustrated and upset by what he termed the Rockets’ “crazy” situation, Harden will now compete for a championship immediately, live and work in a major media market and reunite with Durant, his close friend and former teammate.
The three-time scoring champ looks like a clean fit in Brooklyn’s freewheeling offense thanks in part to Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni, who was Harden’s coach for four years in Houston. Harden should feast on the weaker competition in the Eastern Conference, especially if the change of scenery motivates him to get into peak condition. Brooklyn’s three stars are all in their primes, and they could form the most efficient offense in NBA history if they click on all cylinders.
Loser: James Harden
While Harden achieved his major short-term goals, the saga surrounding his exit from Houston is liable to do longer-term damage. Already a polarizing player because of his reputation for foul-hunting, flopping and coming up short in the playoffs, Harden deserves heat for conducting himself in an unprofessional manner coming into the season and quitting on his Rockets teammates after nine games. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins both expressed their dismay with Harden this week, and fans are sure to remember his antics, which included: clubbing without a mask, showing up to training camp late, giving spotty effort and declaring at a Tuesday news conference that Houston’s situation “can’t be fixed.”
Harden isn’t the first superstar to force his way out in recent years: Jimmy Butler elbowed his way off the Minnesota Timberwolves and Anthony Davis left the New Orleans Pelicans hanging. But Harden was more disruptive and shameless than Butler or Davis, and some fans will no doubt accuse him of ring chasing after coming up short in Houston. What’s more, Durant will get the lion’s share of the credit if the Nets win the title, just as Stephen Curry did in Golden State when Durant joined the Warriors in 2016. Maybe Harden will embrace being the villain, but he’s stepping into a situation where his haters will far outnumber his supporters and where validation will be hard to come by.
Winners: Rockets GM Rafael Stone and Coach Stephen Silas
Stone and Silas, both in their rookie years in their respective positions, stepped into a nightmare scenario. Harden was bound to be livid once general manager Daryl Morey departed, D’Antoni wasn’t re-signed and Russell Westbrook was traded, and dealing with an upset superstar is one of the toughest jobs in the league. Stone did well to build a deep package of assets despite the trying circumstances, and Silas deserves kudos for his composure in the face of Harden’s misbehavior. The Rockets needed a fresh start, and they will be a happier, more functional and more successful team without Harden than with the version of Harden who showed up this season.
Loser: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
While Stone did a nice job of digging out of the sand trap, don’t forget that it was Fertitta who put the franchise there in the first place. Since the tough-talking Fertitta bought the Rockets in 2017, the organization has transformed from a steady winner under former owner Leslie Alexander into a dysfunctional mess. During Fertitta’s brief tenure, the Rockets have said goodbye to Harden, Chris Paul, Westbrook, Clint Capela, Morey, D’Antoni, Timberwolves team president Gersson Rosas and Kings General Manager Monte McNair, among other key figures. Additional trades are sure to come by the deadline. Unfortunately for Houston’s fans, Fertitta’s pandemic-related money woes could come to define the franchise’s next chapter.
The Rockets were a sensational 65-win team in 2017-18, and they will be hard-pressed to make a playoff run this year with a roster headlined by Wall, Oladipo and Christian Wood. As the Rockets look to rebuild, Wood, an intriguing center who was a relative unknown until a 2020 breakout, is the only piece that has significant long-term value. It might take 20 years or more for the Rockets to land another player of Harden’s caliber or to field a team as good as the 2018 group.
Winner: Kevin Durant
The Nets aren’t clear winners; they assumed a massive amount of risk by trading away so many unprotected first-round picks and pick swaps. If injuries strike or if their stars eye greener pastures, they could be in for a decade of hurt. Durant, though, is a big winner. Irving has been an unreliable co-star so far this season, alternating between fantastic scoring outbursts and confusing sideshows. The Nets looked like a title contender with Durant and Irving both clicking, but they fell to 7-6 when Irving decided to step away for an undetermined amount of time because of “personal reasons.”
For all his faults, Harden can be counted on to score points in bunches, lead elite offenses and contribute to winning teams. Durant and Harden give Brooklyn a pair of MVPs and scoring champions who can get buckets on any defense in the league. Harden’s arrival helps ensure that Durant gets a true title shot this season, which should be Brooklyn’s top organizational priority.
Loser: Kyrie Irving
NBA history has shown that someone must sacrifice in Big Three scenarios. Here, that will be Irving, who should see his touches and shots dip after Harden’s arrival. Irving spent the opening week of the season talking up his “7-11” partnership with Durant — referring to their jersey numbers — but now he will be the third fiddle. There should be plenty of opportunities for him to attack in isolation when defenses load up on Durant and Harden, but he is no longer Brooklyn’s co-star. How he handles the demotion remains to be seen.
Irving’s considerable leverage over the Nets also has weakened. This season, he skipped media day, left Coach Steve Nash confused by abruptly stepping away from the team and then prompted an NBA investigation when he allegedly attended a party without a mask. Before the Harden trade, the Nets didn’t have much choice except to let Irving be Irving. Now, they can afford to take a harder line because they can win games without him. Irving, whether he realizes it or not, has become far more expendable.
Winners: Disgruntled players
The days when players had to wait until the final year of their contract to ask out are long gone. Remember, Harden is making $40.8 million this season and $43.8 million next season, and he even holds a $46.9 million option for 2022-23. That’s more than $131 million of future salary, but in the end all it bought the Rockets was a bunch of draft picks and two months of bad press.
From Butler to Davis to Harden, the track record of players successfully forcing trades continues to grow. Most stars won’t be willing to risk their reputations as much as Harden did, but his approach opens the door for future high-level players to request trades even if they have multiple years remaining on their contracts. In effect, such players can tell their teams: Do you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?
Losers: Competitive balance
While a Finals showdown between the Lakers and Nets would probably draw strong television ratings, the NBA continues to see stars aggregating in a select number of markets. Commissioner Adam Silver has spent his entire tenure preaching the virtues of competitive balance, and yet the league’s strongest weapon to tie stars to their incumbent teams — the supermax contract — wasn’t enough incentive to keep Harden committed to Houston. Now that Harden, Westbrook and Wall have all successfully angled to be traded while on supermax contracts, future stars can sign long-term contracts without fear of being trapped in a situation that isn’t to their liking.
Winners: Indiana Pacers
Oladipo’s clock was ticking in Indiana after offseason reports that he wanted out. The two sides failed to reach an extension, and the Pacers didn’t seem inclined to pay top dollar to retain him in free agency after two injury-plagued seasons. Swapping Oladipo for LeVert, who is younger and under contract at a reasonable number through 2022-23, was a no-brainer.
Loser: Joel Embiid
There’s a strong case to be made that the Philadelphia 76ers, who were linked to Harden in rumors involving Ben Simmons, did the right thing by opting out of the bidding war with Brooklyn. That said, Embiid is off to an incredible start this season, and his chances of making a deep playoff run would be far better if he were playing with Harden rather than Simmons. Philadelphia’s offensive efficiency continues to lag despite offseason moves aimed at improved spacing, and Harden could have single-handedly fixed those problems. The 76ers’ defense has performed well, but it will struggle to handle the Nets’ perimeter threats if the two teams face off in the playoffs.