There’s been plenty of discontent in Houston in recent years despite the Rockets’ eight straight playoff appearances. James Harden has cycled through two coaches and three co-stars in search of the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and after another disappointing playoff exit, Harden’s new wish has become clear. As the Rockets cling to relevance in the Western Conference, The Beard is eyeing a new destination, aiming to team up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Houston enters 2020–21 with the NBA’s longest active playoff streak. But the Rockets are anything but a pillar of stability through nearly a decade of the Harden era.
It’s easy to chastise Harden for his wish to move on from the Rockets. The 2017–18 MVP still has two years left on his contract, and it’s not as though he’s leading a franchise unwilling to chase a championship. Houston has bled its draft capital in search of talent to place around Harden, and ownership supported his wish to trade for Russell Westbrook last year. The franchise has been uniquely tailored to Harden for much of the last decade. He shares plenty of culpability for the team’s shortcomings both in previous seasons and entering 2020–21.
Perhaps it’s not completely unfair for Harden to eye a new situation. Fellow Western Conference star Damian Lillard has stuck with the Blazers despite the franchise’s shortcomings, but Harden is on another plane as a player. He’s a former MVP with three second-place finishes. He’s won three straight scoring titles entering 2020–21. A player of his caliber is well within his right to chase a championship, even if it means leaving the place he’s called home for nearly a decade.
The reasoning behind Harden's trade request can be debated later. What’s more pressing is the decision at hand for the Rockets. Houston enters 2020–21 at a crossroads for the franchise, armed with a new coach and new GM after Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey’s offseason departures. There’s the obvious temptation to hit the reset button after a string of disappointing playoff exits, especially considering the limited draft capital and cap space ahead. The Rockets could ship Harden for an impressive haul, find a suitor for Russell Westbrook and dive into the next era with player development ace Stephen Silas leading the roster. But such a move would ultimately be misguided. The Rockets must tread carefully in Harden trade talks. Sell too low, and the franchise could be crippled for years to come.
There are two obvious landing spots for Harden: Brooklyn and Philadelphia. There’s the urge to consider other options for the former MVP, but don’t expect there to be a deep crop of suitors seriously considered. It’s unlikely we’ll see franchises enter the Harden bidding unless they get a commitment past 2021–22. That’s unlikely to be the case for any team outside the two Eastern Conference contenders. Despite the limited market, the Rockets should be able to receive significant value for their franchise anchor. But the most rumored option is frankly untenable at the moment.
Brooklyn has been deemed the leader of the clubhouse for Harden’s services, largely at the behest of the three-time scoring champion. But as currently constituted, it’s hard to see the Nets conjuring up enough value to unite Harden with Durant and Kyrie Irving. Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are all nice players, with LeVert standing as a fringe All-Star (at least in the East). Brooklyn also has plenty of pick capital on hand, but even its kitchen-sink offer falls short of what’s required for Harden. The three youngsters and additional pick capital is likely to land Houston in a dreaded spot, likely outside the very top of the lottery but also far from playoff contention. Being stuck in the playoff fringe was Morey’s nightmare, and the urgency to alter the franchise led to Harden’s acquisition in 2012. Flipping Harden for a pool of assets would land Houston back in the dreaded zone Morey worked so hard to avoid.
So what about Philadelphia? From the Rockets’ standpoint, dealing with Morey and the 76ers is likely the most prudent path. Dealing Harden would likely net Ben Simmons and another asset or two, marking the most effective path toward a potential lightning rebuild. Sneer at Simmons’ three-phobia if you wish, but the LSU product remains one of the NBA’s top young assets. Simmons is a truly dominant transition force. He’s one of the league’s top defenders, and his jump shot isn’t as irreparably broken as his reputation suggests. If Harden is dead set on leaving Houston at the expiration of his contract, landing Simmons is a pretty terrific consolation prize.
The Harden-for-Simmons noise is frankly little more than a rumor at the moment, setting the stage for a bit of a stand-off between Houston and its franchise anchor. The Rockets have noted they are “willing to get uncomfortable” in the Harden trade talks, and frankly, that’s the path they need to take entering 2020–21. Patience is a virtue in the NBA, especially considering the issue at hand. There’s no need for the Rockets to rush if Harden is willing to take the floor on opening night.
There’s a modicum of optimism in Houston regarding the Harden situation. Houston retooled its roster in the offseason, adding dynamic forward Christian Wood in one of the offseason’s shrewdest moves. Perhaps the Rockets find their mojo with a full healthy season of Russell Westbrook, secure a top-three seed in the West and convince Harden to stay long-term. This is likely wishful thinking, but there’s no downside in running it back and gunning for the title with a pair of MVPs in the backcourt. Harden’s free agency isn’t for two more seasons. Houston might as well wring one more year of contention out of Harden before pivoting into a new era.
The Rockets are in a similar situation to that of the Pelicans with Anthony Davis in 2019. Rumblings of Davis’s departure began with two years left on his contract, and the Pelicans continued to play hardball until dealing Davis to the Lakers before last season. Perhaps the calculus would be different for a lesser player. A mere All-Star holds significantly more value with two years left on his contract compared to a single season, but for a player of Harden’s caliber, the extra year is almost immaterial.
Neither Brooklyn nor Philadelphia is diminishing its offer if Harden is still in Houston after 2020–21. The Rockets are in the driver’s seat. They must be patient with Harden and demand a true star in return. Perhaps that player is Simmons. Perhaps Brooklyn can find the right asset (hello, Bradley Beal) in a three-team deal. Regardless, the Rockets’ directive is clear. Selling low on Harden would be an abject disaster. Slow-playing this process is a necessity, even if it comes with a season of discomfort.