The Rockets finally traded James Harden on Wednesday afternoon, securing a whopping eight future first-round draft picks and swaps from the Nets in a four-team deal that also includes the Pacers and Cavaliers. The trade sends Jarrett Allen from Brooklyn to Cleveland, and reroutes Caris LeVert from the Nets to the Pacers via Houston, with [exhale] Victor Oladipo going to the Rockets.
Clearly, this is the type of megadeal that will require some time to properly evaluate—the Nets mortgaged every piece of their future, and how the Rockets will use those draft picks is impossible to predict—but it’s a fascinating move in all aspects. Let’s grade the deal as best we can.
Receive: James Harden, 2022 Cavaliers second-round pick
The real price an organization pays by making the requisite sacrifices to assemble a superteam is, truthfully, impossible to assess in the heat of the moment. But there’s certainly some irony in the fact that Nets general manager Sean Marks—widely credited for rescuing the franchise after a failed 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that sent the Nets into limbo for half a decade—was the one to repeat the cycle, shedding Brooklyn’s rights to its next seven drafts, as well as two valuable, homegrown players, for James Harden. It’s a stroke of aggressive management we’ve seen time and again in recent years, but it’s no less jarring to think about just how much a team surrenders for the right to, hopefully, contend in the now. Brooklyn’s star trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving makes it the Eastern Conference’s premier franchise. But in the end, valuing the seismic decision the Nets took to create that opportunity comes down to aesthetics and personal preference. Do you believe?
If you think Durant, Harden and Irving form an unstoppable trio, then Brooklyn deserves a round of applause for getting it done. They have two, maybe three of the five best pure scorers in the NBA. The Eastern Conference is winnable. All three are on similar career timelines. Nobody will enjoy trying to defend them, not alone, not together. On the flip side, consider that there’s only one basketball. We’ve barely seen Durant and Irving play together. Stylistically, Harden is an inimitable force, but he’s also the biggest possible wrench you can ever throw into an established offense. Coach Steve Nash (and by extension, top assistant Mike D’Antoni, who reunites with Harden), have some imagining to do. We don’t know whether these three guys fit. Harden and Durant are wholly different players from their time in Oklahoma City. There’s some cosmic justice in their reunion. There will also almost certainly be challenges for the Nets to handle.
The grade we’re giving the Nets reflects just how far-reaching the risk and uncertainty now runs. This could certainly be a special team. But the fit is not seamless, and Brooklyn sacrificed not only the future, but the pieces of a relatively solid rotation. Irving, Durant, and the other guys may have already been enough to win the East. Regardless of Irving's currently being AWOL, we’ll never know. DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris will round out the Nets’ best lineups. They will need to get something out of Landry Shamet, Jeff Green and Bruce Brown. Brooklyn has three open roster spots, the midlevel exception, as well as a possible disabled player exception created by Spencer Dinwiddie’s season-ending injury with which to flesh out their rotation. But whether this team will truly works comes down to their three stars.
On the intrigue, excitement and fun scales, this trade is a win. But that package is a lot to give up for a short- and long-term future that feels quite this uncertain. To his credit, Durant learned to fit in with the Warriors, and while it was never perfect, Golden State got the job done. But Irving and Harden are singular personalities, to put it gently, and the Nets aren’t replicating the low-maintenance culture the Warriors built any time soon. Harden is under contract through 2022 and holds a $47 million team option for 2022–23—the fact he wanted to come to Brooklyn and has an existing relationship with Durant helps to feasibly prop open the Nets’ title window for a few seasons at minimum, as both players move toward their mid-30s.
Contractually, Durant and Irving are on the exact same timeline as Harden, with player options for 2022–23. The Nets should in theory get three opportunities to win with that trio, at minimum. By then, we’ll know if it fits. The odds all three of them leave—particularly in an attractive, player-friendly market—seem somewhat unlikely. As long as Brooklyn avoids a nightmare scenario where they bottom out and send lottery picks to Houston until the end of time, the absence of first-round selections can be managed. Marks knows that approach well, of course. Picks can always be procured—just not the sexy ones.
Then again, superstars move more often than you think in this league. As Durant, Irving and Harden have all shown us before, it’s often by their own impetus. The Nets are now at the mercy of their potentially fickle chemistry. The risk is major, and the stakes are high in Brooklyn. Then again, if it works, forget you ever read this.
Receive: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn’s 2022, 2024 and 2026 unprotected first-round picks, unprotected pick swaps with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027, Milwaukee’s 2022 first-round pick (via Cleveland), Indiana future second-round pick
It certainly seemed like the Harden saga dragged on forever, and to nobody’s benefit, but in the end, it’s hard to critique the way Houston played their hand. The Rockets were never going to get full value for one of the five best players in the NBA—nobody ever does—but control the Nets’ next seven drafts, netting another first from the Cavs, and turning LeVert into a healthy Oladipo is an impressive return. It’s unclear just how serious the 76ers were in these talks (reports indicated the Rockets would have been interested in a deal including Ben Simmons and breakout rookie Tyrese Maxey), but Philly ultimately would or could not match Brooklyn’s final offer. The collection of draft assets helps to undo the damage incurred by an aggressive but failed trade for Russell Westbrook, and the price falls in line with New Orleans’s respective hauls from the Lakers and Bucks in the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades. First-time GM Rafael Stone secured the type of package he needed to save face and ensure a viable future for the organization.
It’s hard to overanalyze all the picks Houston is receiving here—they’re all unprotected, and Brooklyn was all in. Draft picks tend to be more valuable in concept than in practice, but the sheer volume of them, as well as the swap optionality, gives the Rockets the maximum amount of value. If you can’t land a roughly equivalent talent in a deal like this, grabbing every last draft asset is the next-best thing. No matter where those picks end up landing or how they’re used, which will hinge largely on the Nets’ success and the ability to retain their new trio of stars, it gives the Rockets a ton of future flexibility in trades, and the ability to add additional young talent.
Houston placed little value on draft picks in the Daryl Morey era, preferring to mine the undrafted market for value and use the back end of the roster on veteran reclamation projects, a strategy that was mostly successful—but due primarily to the presence of Harden, an efficient offense unto himself. We’ll see how Stone chooses to approach the draft in the long run, but the Rockets’ decision to move Robert Covington for Portland’s 2020 first-rounder, then trade out of the 2020 draft to shed salary (used to help sign Christian Wood) suggests we shouldn’t expect a full philosophical shift.
Houston took on some additional risk with the decision to flip LeVert for Oladipo, but you have to assume either that Rockets will have interest in re-signing him this summer or that the move was made with an eye on maximizing financial flexibility Houston otherwise lacked. The Rockets at least have an opportunity to make a decision on the 28-year-old Oladipo, an All-Star in 2018 and 2019 who has gradually worked his way back from rupturing his quadriceps nearly two years ago. This trade also takes the Rockets out of the luxury tax and hard cap.
No Harden deal would ever have been easy to stomach for Houston, but securing a trade package like this even as he forced their hand speaks not only to Harden’s incredible talent, but a savvy job by the Rockets’ front office. It certainly helps that John Wall looks healthy and has comfortably assumed leadership upon arrival, a trade that’s been a short-term win, as Houston secured a 2023 first-rounder from Washington and moved on from Russell Westbrook. The Rockets are just 3–6, but the book is far from written on this season. Losing Harden will make them worse, but moving on from this protracted saga might be a minor help as far as wins and losses go.
Receive: Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince
For helping to facilitate salary, the Cavaliers land their center of the future in Allen, who was off to a great start as an emerging starter in Brooklyn. Still just 22 years old, he neatly fits the timeline Cleveland’s young guard duo of Collin Sexton (22) and Darius Garland (20), both of whom have made positive strides this season. The Cavs sent Milwaukee’s unprotected 2022 first-round pick to the Rockets in exchange, a pick that should end up somewhere the 20s given the Bucks’ status atop the East. It’s relatively small change for a young, starting-caliber big (Cleveland acquired that pick in December 2018, in a deal that sent George Hill to Milwaukee).
Of course, this creates a strange, short-term logjam in the frontcourt, as Cleveland currently has veterans Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and JaVale McGee under contract. But the Cavs certainly improve their roster for the future here: Allen will be a restricted free agent this summer, and should be easily re-signable as Drummond’s contract comes off the books. But in the interest of freeing up minutes, you have to think there might be a corresponding move to come here. Love is currently injured and owed a lot of long-term money, and Nance has spent time at small forward and is more versatile than the others. Drummond and McGee, both true centers, could draw interest from teams moving forward. Drummond’s salary number is harder to move, but McGee could interest playoff teams on his cheaper expiring deal, and has played relatively well this season as a backup.
Coming into the season, there was some sense around the NBA that Koby Altman could be on the hot seat without some degree of organizational progress. Between the cheap Allen acquisition and the improvement of Garland and Sexton, things now seem to be pointing up to some extent.
Receive: Caris LeVert, Houston's 2023 second-round pick
This was good business by the Pacers, who acquired a starting-caliber player with upside and an immediate replacement for Oladipo, who is on an expiring contract and had grown disgruntled in Indiana. LeVert, 26, is under contract through 2023, and this move also gets the Pacers out of the luxury tax. Oladipo trade speculation had been swirling for some time. This was a very sensible decision for Indiana, and the Pacers ended up with a younger, slightly lesser talent on a better deal.
LeVert should finally slide into a full-time starting role with the Pacers, and his slightly ball-dominant approach should fit fine alongside the versatile, underrated Malcolm Brogdon and rapidly improving Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers’ playoff push shouldn’t be impacted, and moving on from Oladipo could ostensibly have some positive impact off the floor. LeVert is a career 43% shooter from the field and has been injury-prone, but he’s a versatile, big wing who’s proved reliable when available. He’s not going to be the piece that pushes Indiana over the top, but Brogdon and Sabonis have both taken their play to another level thus far. He may not need to be.