Before we get into this week’s Mailbag, a word on the (minor) social media uproar caused by this week’s bold predictions piece—one prediction (Hi, Houston) in particular.
First, understand: These are supposed to be bold predictions! Do I think James Harden is going to get traded after the season? No. Do I think it is completely out of the question? Same answer. Let me explain: The Rockets are good. They are sitting in the middle of the Western Conference playoff field with one of the best offenses in the NBA. Harden is once again an MVP candidate, continuing to make the case that he belongs among the great scorers of all-time.
But Houston’s defense is mediocre. Russell Westbrook’s three-point shooting percentage is his lowest since his sophomore season. Eric Gordon’s return offers Houston a chance to improve internally—his usually reliable three-point shot can only help a team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in three-point shooting—but if it doesn’t, the Rockets flexibility to improve via trade is limited. If Houston bows out in the first round, who knows how ownership would react?
Then there is the Warriors side of it. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson healthy next fall, D’Angelo Russell becomes a luxury. Russell is an All-Star, a 23-year old 20-plus point per game scorer who is in the first year of a four-year, max level deal. And the injury-ravaged Warriors will likely land a top-five pick next June—maybe even No. 1.
What happens if the Warriors called Houston dangling a package headlined by Russell and the top overall pick?
Houston, of course, would want more. Harden is 30 and a bona fide superstar. But what if the Warriors offered more? What if Golden State came to the table with an offer that they had to consider?
Look—the chances of a deal like this happening are extremely slim. Houston would have to want to deal Harden (there’s no evidence of that), the Warriors would have to want to go all-in on Harden (ditto) and two rivals would have to work together on a blockbuster trade.
But remember this, Houston: The hardest thing for a front office to be is proactive. The Rockets can run this team back for a few years. They will be a playoff team. They will be contenders. But a decline is inevitable. Harden and Westbrook are on the other side of 30. They have contracts that run through 2023 (both have $47 million player options for ’22-23). There is a lot of mileage on both bodies. If there is an early playoff exit and if a godfather deal is on the table—whole lot of if’s there, I know—it’s something Houston should consider.
And spare me the ‘We don’t want Harden,’ Warriors-faithful—I read a lot of that. Harden isn’t the same player Kevin Durant was when Durant linked up with Golden State in 2016. Durant is a terrific defender; Harden is not. And, yes, Harden is a high usage rate player. But he’s a brilliant passer—Harden routinely averages seven-plus assists, topped by a league-high 11.2 in ’16-17—and playmaker. He’s ball dominant in Houston because the Rockets offense is built for him to play that way. Ask anyone in Oklahoma City about Harden, however, and they will describe an unselfish player committed to doing whatever would help the team win.
The idea that he is some kind of stat stuffer more interested in numbers than winning is idiotic.
Again—it’s all unlikely to happen. That’s why it was a bold freaking prediction. But there are reasons that, for both sides, it could make sense.
On to your questions …
What’s the ceiling for the Celtics? Think Danny Ainge will make a move at the deadline? -J-F Allaire, Twitter
That the Celtics are a top-four team in the East isn’t that surprising. Remove the drama from last season, add Kemba Walker, return a full strength Gordon Hayward and you have the makings of a team that could wins some games. It’s downright shocking though that Boston has the NBA’s third best defensive rating, per NBA.com, after losing defensive stalwarts Al Horford and Aron Baynes in the offseason. Daniel Theis has been sturdy as an undersized center while Marcus Smart continues to be arguably the NBA’s top defensive perimeter player.
Still: The road to the Finals goes through Milwaukee and the Bucks are big. It says here that Boston still needs to pick up another big body to have a chance against Milwaukee. There are bigs available: Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love can be had in Cleveland, while Clint Capela is the kind of active big that could thrive in the Celtics system. Boston will move draft picks to get a big but finding salaries to send out could prove difficult. Marcus Smart (and his $12.5 million salary) often finds himself in trade talks, but Smart is key to the Celtics defensive identity. Hayward has a big contract, but despite being derailed by injuries he has played extremely well.
Boston, as always, will be proactive. But finding a deal that can be made without breaking up the core could prove difficult.
Blazers? What the hell is going on? -Greg, Twitter
Getting run off the Garden floor by the Knicks on Wednesday had to be a low point for Portland. I don’t know what to make of the Blazers. The Zach Collins injury hurt—but is an 18-minute per game player last season irreplaceable? Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Moe Harkless were solid role players and popular in the locker room—did we underestimate their value to the team?
Portland is in a nosedive, and if they want to salvage this season, the front office needs to be bold. Portland has some big expiring contracts in Hassan Whiteside ($27 million) and Kent Bazemore ($19 million), and draft capital. Kevin Love’s name is regularly connected to Portland, and Love makes some sense. He won’t help Portland’s dreadful defense but his scoring would take the burden off the Blazers overworked backcourt and his floor spacing would create more space for them to operate. It’s a risk—Love is in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract—but Portland has to do something … don’t they?
What kind of impact could Darren Collison make? Greg, Twitter
A big one. It’s not shocking to hear that Collison is looking to return to the NBA. Collison is 32 and coming off a strong season in Indiana, where he averaged a career-high six assists. He was in line for a $10 million per year contract when he abruptly retired, citing his family and faith.
ESPN reported that Collison was eyeing the two LA teams; if I’m opposing NBA teams, I’d want him nowhere near the Lakers. If he’s in shape—and that’s an unknown—Collison would immediately upgrade the point guard position. He’s a low turnover playmaker who connected on a league-high 46.8% of his three’s two seasons ago. He’s been a starter and a backup so he’s comfortable in either role. And he’s got 40 games of playoff experience on his resume. He could make a significant impact in the playoffs.
Should the Sixers explore trading Ben Simmons next summer? Maybe for Bradley Beal? - Marcus, Twitter
I don’t know about a Simmons-Beal swap, but there are some troubling signs coming out of Philadelphia. The Sixers looked great for three quarters on Christmas Day against the Bucks, but they were blitzed by Milwaukee in the fourth quarter before holding on to win. Perimeter shooting remains a problem. It seems like everyone in Philadelphia is begging Simmons to shoot, and he won’t. Al Horford is looking for a bigger role in the offense. Josh Richardson wants more accountability. Meanwhile Brett Brown’s offensive system has come under fire.
The Sixers still have the potential to be a devastating defensive team, and when the game slows down in the playoffs, that defense will become an even bigger weapon. And they have played up to the competition, racking up a 5-2 record against the top four teams in the East. But they can’t shoot 21% from three (as they did in a loss to Indiana) or shoot 40% from the floor (as they did in a loss to the Magic) and expect to be a title contender. Offensively, they have to be better.