Grading the James Harden Trade a Month Later

It has been over a month since Harden landed in Brooklyn. The Crossover staff reflects on the trade and grades it.
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It has been over a month since the Nets made a deal to acquire James Harden from the Rockets. The eight-time All-Star has been a bright spot for Brooklyn. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out Tuesday night, the Nets pulled off the largest halftime comeback in franchise history over the Suns. Harden had 38 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in the win.

There was much conversation on how Harden would fit in with Durant and Irving on the roster. Irving told reporters the other day that he spoke to Harden about his role on the team.

“I feel like he’s been doing a great job of just managing the point guard role. We established that maybe four days ago. I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard, and I’m going to play shooting guard.’ That was as simple as that.”

After a month since the blockbuster deal, The Crossover staff reflect on the trade and grade the deal.

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Michael Pina: B-

James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have only played 186 minutes in seven total games together. In that time they have the best offense in NBA history and are outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. Pretty good. Harden, for his part, leads the league in assists and is posting 50/40/90 splits. Decent. 

My grade isn’t an A+ because Brooklyn’s inability to get stops in the playoffs remains a concern (it’s 27th in defensive rating since Harden’s Nets debut) and, with Durant and Irving clearly productive enough by themselves to prop up a championship offense, forfeiting its best rim protector (Jarrett Allen) along with multiple first-round picks/pick swaps in an all-in attempt to win at the highest level still feels a smidge unnecessary. 

Who is guarding Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis in a seven-game series, let alone Bam Adebayo? All that said maybe defense won’t matter if no team has one that can stop Brooklyn’s three-headed offensive monster.

Rohan Nadkarni: INC.

One month is still too soon to judge the Harden trade for Brooklyn. When you go all in your team is judged by what happens in the playoffs. A finish short of a championship would not necessarily be an automatic F, but if this experiment goes bust the Nets better have a really good reason, particularly with Kevin Durant looking like his former self post–Achilles tear. While Harden deserves credit for fitting into the Nets’ offense, Brooklyn’s defensive issues make the team unique among title contenders. Much can change—including the roster itself—between now and when the real test begins.

Chris Herring: B

So far the Nets are performing almost exactly the way I thought they would if and when they swung a deal for Harden. But I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

With an offense that’s ranked first and a defense that’s ranked 27th since Harden first took the floor for Brooklyn, you know what you’re going to get when Brooklyn takes the floor. They can score on everyone but can’t stop anyone. There’s no reliable rim protection; in signing Iman Shumpert and André Roberson, they’re banking on guys who were out of the league entirely until now.

If there’s an upside, though, it’s that the East is there for the taking, anyway. The Bucks aren’t a dominant defense anymore. The Sixers, who drew praise to start the season for their overhauled offense, have gotten up fewer and fewer threes as the year’s worn on. The Celtics have taken a step back on offense with key wing players missing considerable time.

And if the Nets can get through the East, it’s noteworthy that they’re 6–0 against clubs currently in playoff position in the West.

We’re used to seeing championship teams possess some degree of balance, at least sniffing the top 10 on both sides of the ball. Brooklyn isn’t wired that way, though. The Nets are built to win shootouts night in and night out. And with this much of a scoring punch they might have what it takes to be the exception rather than the rule.

Ben Pickman: B+

Harden has fit in nicely with the Nets, exhibiting his stellar playmaking ability as both a leading scorer and passer. Through his first 15 games with Brooklyn, Harden led the Nets in passes made per game (70.1), throwing more than 20 more passes per game than Kyrie Irving. Harden’s 11.8 assists per game with the Nets would be a career-high if it held throughout the remainder of the year and his 8.4 rebounds per game would also be a career-best. 

Harden’s scoring output has dipped to 24.3 points per game with the Nets, but as his 38-point performance on Tuesday against the Suns showed, he is still more than capable of lighting up opposing defense from around the rim, behind the arc and at the free throw line. Still it’s hard for me to give the deal more than a B+ at this point as the blockbuster trade will be judged by how the Nets perform in the postseason. 

Unfair or not this team has a relatively brief title window and considering what the Nets gave up to acquire Harden, postseason success is imperative for the franchise. It’s surely going well now, but how the team gels toward the end of the regular season and in the postseason is what everyone is eager to watch.

Elizabeth Swinton: Grade: A-

Though the Big Three have played just seven games together, each player has so far proven that he is willing to sacrifice for overall success. This was a big question after the Nets traded for James Harden, but The Beard in particular is thriving for Brooklyn as the team’s leading facilitator, highlighted by league-leading 11.3 assists per game and five triple doubles in 16 games played. Though he started his tenure with a focus on playmaking over scoring, Harden has improved throughout his first month in Brooklyn to be aggressive on the offensive end while keeping his teammates involved and taking care of the ball—not to mention he has missed just one game while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been out sporadically due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

In terms of who the Nets gave up in the trade Brooklyn has missed Jarrett Allen the most—which was to be expected. The Nets’ defensive inconsistency continues to be their weak point with teams often having a feast in the paint and on the boards. Still Brooklyn has proven in recent games that it can clamp down defensively and have success in its small-ball lineup with more consistent contributions from the bench.

The Nets have had flashes of looking unbeatable thanks to the offense, but they have also looked vulnerable with an inactive defense. A lot of the team’s struggles boil down to effort. Harden’s steadying presence and leadership have so far been worth the blockbuster trade for a Nets team with improving chemistry and championship aspirations.

Michael Shapiro: A

It’s hard to give the Harden deal anything but an A thus far. The three-time scoring champion has been as good as advertised in Brooklyn, seamlessly transitioning to pseudo-point guard status as the Nets find the optimal usage for their three-headed monster.

Brooklyn is scoring an outrageous 121.4 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor. The Harden-Durant combo sports a plus-10.4 offensive rating. Harden carried Brooklyn to a comeback win over the Suns on Tuesday with both Durant and Irving sidelined. He racks up double-digit assists when his co-stars are on the floor. Harden’s offensive versatility is the true mark of his brilliance, able to fluctuate between secondary option and elite scoring dynamo.

The “there’s only one-ball” concerns regarding Brooklyn’s Big Three were misguided a month ago. They’re downright ludicrous now. It's fair to quibble with the Nets' defensive woes, a legitimate roadblock to their Finals aspirations. But it's not as though the Harden acquisition made Brooklyn a poor defensive team. Houston's former superstar is everything the Nets hoped he'd be, setting the stage for a potential championship run. 

Robin Lundberg: A

When you acquire a true superstar and one of the very best players in the game, you win a trade. Period. As far as James Harden’s fit with the Nets thus far, I believe a few things may have been underestimated when the deal was made. For one thing, Harden brings something that neither Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving does (at least to the same degree): elite playmaking. When it comes to seeing the floor and setting up others, he’s right at the top of the league with the likes of LeBron James and Chris Paul. And he has rightfully leaned into that aspect of his game in BK. 

In addition, he’s reliable. Harden has never missed significant time due to injury and is able to consistently handle a big minutes load. Therefore his presence is insurance against unexpected circumstances. And then there’s the fact that despite concerns about defense and depth, if the Big Three are out there, I expect the Nets to be playing for the championship. So yeah, the Harden deal was a good one.