Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Superstar trade scenarios are prone to overthought. So much attention is paid to what acquiring NBA teams would be giving up and the future opportunity cost to which that amounts.
James Harden‘s long, drawn-out, unavoidable exit from the Houston Rockets is no different.
First-round picks not yet conveyed are being romanticized. Ditto for certain prospects. There might also be such a thing as giving up too many non-stars.
Most of the time, this logic fails to resonate. Picks and prospects are conceptual. Superstars like Harden are actual. Teams should acquire a top-five player, still in his prime, and figure out the rest later.
Yet in the Brooklyn Nets’ case, it isn’t so simple.
Though they are among Harden’s preferred landing spots, if not the preferred landing spot, they aren’t working from a position of clear-cut need. Where other teams might view Harden as their line to contention or missing piece, the Nets may not need him. If anything, they might need an entirely different type of player.
This is not an overreaction to Brooklyn’s 125-99 drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on opening night. The case for the Nets to pair Harden with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving writes itself. Just as strong, though, is the case for them to stay away.
Why Brooklyn Should Trade for Harden
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He’s James friggin’ Harden. This isn’t difficult.
Superstars rule the NBA, and failing a stark drop-off, Harden remains one of the five best players alive, a 50-win season exteriorized. His capacity to lift up entire regular seasons on his own makes the context of his joining two more stars that much more tantalizing.
Partnerships with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook didn’t end on the rosiest terms, but peak Harden has never played beside two equals at once. Deference is easier, and implied, if he’s actively looking to sync up with Durant and Irving.
And to that end, Durant specifically represents another first for peak Harden: a potential superior. Every big name in Houston arrived ceding status to him. Harden would be the one latching onto what’s already in place this time, and if Durant makes a full recovery from his ruptured right Achilles, there should be no functional power struggle.
More than that, time has a way of providing perspective. Harden has navigated a maze of Rockets iterations, only to see them fall short. Kyrie no longer seems concerned with playing a certain way, and Harden could feasibly be in the same boat:
This idea that Harden can’t, or won’t, change his ball-dominant style is without concrete grounds. He burns through more isolation possessions than entire teams because that’s how Houston decided to play. There is a difference between being incapable of making adjustments and never being tasked with implementing them in the first place.
At the same time, Harden’s system-unto-himself impact is part of his appeal. Durant has looked great since making his return from his ruptured right Achilles (22 points in 25 minutes Tuesday night), but he’s still returning from a ruptured right Achilles. Every stage of this reacclimatization won’t be without issue. At the very least, he will see plenty of scheduled rest.
Kyrie, meanwhile, isn’t a billboard for good health himself. The right shoulder injury that ended his 2019-20 campaign isn’t chronic, but he can basically be penciled in for 15 or so absences every year until proven otherwise.
Depth can never supplant stardom. It can complement, it can augment, but it cannot mimic. The only substitute for superstardom is another superstar. And Harden is built to carry the Nets in ways the combination of Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert never will.
Why Brooklyn Shouldn’t Trade for Harden
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
If any team has the impetus to sit out—or at minimum play down—the Harden sweepstakes, it is one that already pairs two could-be top-15, maybe top-10 players. Doubt has punctured the KD-Kyrie duo largely because of injuries, but their range of outcomes includes that superstar equity.
Durant more so than Irving was considered the swing development given the gravity of the injury from which he’s working back. Two exhibition games and one regular-season outing is hardly a meaningful sample size, but he looks much closer to himself than not. The expectation shouldn’t be that he’ll get worse with more reps under his belt over time.
In the event the Nets get both Durant and Irving (26 points on 10-of-16 shooting Tuesday night) at the height of their powers, consolidating depth into more star power becomes much less essential. LeVert and Dinwiddie may pale in comparison to Harden, but they can preserve Brooklyn’s floor if its stars don’t create an availability void.
Sure, both players force the Nets to navigate some overlap. LeVert has converted more than 33.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes only once in his four years (2017-18). Like Dinwiddie, he is used to working with the ball in hands.
But integrating Harden wouldn’t be any easier. He owns three of the highest single-season usage rates in NBA history and has spent the past few years pushing the boundaries of one-on-one basketball.
While Harden may spare the Nets from heartache when Durant and/or Irving isn’t on the floor, he is a far more complicated fit in tandem with them. Brooklyn can more drastically stagger the minutes of Dinwiddie and LeVert by virtue of bringing the latter off the bench. It wouldn’t have that option with Harden.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
This says nothing about the actual costs of acquiring Harden. The Nets won’t have the best package on the table if the Philadelphia 76ers are willing to dangle Ben Simmons. They probably won’t even have the top offer if Philly backs out of negotiations. Betting against their future via distant first-rounders may be a good move, but the Rockets reportedly want a cornerstone-type prospect. LeVert is the closest that the Nets come, and his bandwidth for improvement is narrower than not at the age of 26.
It begs the question: How much must Brooklyn surrender to make an offer that holds up against other non-Sixers overtures?
Dinwiddie, LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs is the natural starting point, if only to make the money work. Taurean Prince can be subbed in, but he’s sparing them from giving up Kurucs or maybe Allen, not Dinwiddie or LeVert.
Negotiations become a matter of first-round picks and swaps from here. Two apiece feels like the minimum—and that’s a lot, especially if the commitments are leaking into 2027. Durant, Harden and Irving all have player options after the 2021-22 season. Little about their future would be written in stone beyond then.
Perhaps the Nets inevitably decide the rest of Harden’s prime is worth that long-term risk. He certainly is in a vacuum, and that might even apply to their team. Beating a Warriors team that looked caps-lock terrible on opening night doesn’t preclude the Nets from having the conversation—and make no mistake, it is a conversation.
It just isn’t a no-brainer. Because if Durant’s first three outings are telltale of anything, it’s that these Nets are worth further exploration as currently constructed.