NBA Trade Rumors: James Harden’s Strange Journey Continues

NBA Trade Rumors: James Harden’s Strange Journey Continues article feature image
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Pictured: James Harden. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

At some point, you have to ask yourself whether it's even worth it for James Harden to unpack anywhere he moves.

After failing to come to terms on a new deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Harden, Thursday, opted into the final year of his contract at $35.6 million, but did so with a trade demand.

If you're trying to keep track, this will be the fourth team Harden has played for in three years (Rockets, Nets, Sixers and whatever team lands him this time).

So, how did we get here?

The story of Harden's prospective free agency has been brewing for months. At the All-Star break, league insiders felt there was a strong chance he would return to Houston in free agency. That was reported on, and momentum gathered through the spring, even as the Sixers attempted an ill-fated playoff run.

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However, after the Sixers were eliminated in the second round, mixed messages started coming out. First, Harden was going to stay with the Sixers. Then, the Rockets were going to land him again.

Somewhere in there, both teams, league sources say, began to feel they were being pitted against one another in a bidding war.

That fueled a shift. Both teams started looking for shorter team deals and explored the idea of pursuing Fred VanVleet as an alternative.

That we've reached this point is a sign of many unfortunate truths collapsing at once:

The new CBA makes it imperative that if a team is going to sign a player to a big-money, long-term deal, they better be absolutely sure he's worth it.
Harden is no longer a star you instantly sign to a four-year max deal, even though he led the league in assists last season and is only five years removed from an MVP season.
Harden continues to be unsure of where he wants to be.

That last one is fascinating.

All signs suggest Harden would probably prefer to be in Houston. He was happiest in his MVP and title-contention seasons there. He was the star of the franchise and comfortable in the city and in the organization. It suited him.

Not enough has been made of the timing of events that led to his departure, which began not with the trade for Russell Westbrook, but with Tilman Fertitta taking over ownership of the team.

That being said, the Rockets really aren't in a position to acquire Harden and build around him the way he wants. It wouldn't be the prodigal son coming home to pick up where he left off.

The Rockets are in the midst of a rebuild.

They're balancing the futures of Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr.  and Amen Thompson, the No. 4 overall pick in last week's draft, with trying to return to respectability.

The Sixers' situation is more confusing.

No one really knows what the Sixers are up to, or what comes next after their Game 7 meltdown against Boston.

The Sixers find themselves in a somewhat similar position to the Trail Blazers. Both teams have stars who want them to put together championship teams around them, but are facing a league more interested in trying to pry those stars away.

It should be noted, –in the most casual and speculative lens possible — that Damian Lillard and Joel Embiid are known to have a good relationship and respect for each other. The odds of a team-up seem extremely unlikely, but there's a connection there.

Back to Harden …

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Clippers and Knicks as teams with an immediate interest in Harden. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported the Miami Heat were also a suitor.

There's already a reported concept of a three-team deal sending Paul George to New York, Harden to the Clippers, and various assets to the Sixers.

Does that satisfy the Sixers and GM Daryl Morey? Please remember how much pain Morey was willing to tolerate to get the right return (ironically, Harden) for Ben Simmons.

Also, bear in mind that by the time such deals reach various gossip circles, their moment has typically already passed.

But, it's an interesting concept given that it gives New York a second star next to Jalen Brunson, who can defend, score, and pass, and gets Kawhi Leonard the full-time, ball-handling point guard he's been after for so long.

Harden has a ton of miles on him, and pairing him with the absence-prone Leonard is another dicey proposition.

Miami is a better basketball fit, but the culture fit is tough. Is Harden willing to conform to the Heat's no-exceptions physical conditioning standards?

The Heat are a team that prides itself on its rigorous dedication to its professionalism. Harden is a man who made a trip to Vegas to party in the week before the playoffs. Harden loves basketball and shows up to play. He's repeatedly tried to play through injury. His willingness to compete can't be questioned, but his approach to the preparation can be.

There's no actionable move yet in the betting market as there are too many permutations in flux. Harden is not a solo piece of the puzzle, but one of many interlocking parts in motion. Kyrie Irving, Lillard, Harden, George, Julius Randle and the entirety of the Atlanta Hawks are all moving along the same frequencies and waiting to find harmony.

Based on this news, I'd made educated guesses on the following:

The odds of VanVleet returning to Toronto go down as the Rockets have increased motivation to outbid the Raptors.
The odds of Tobias Harris remaining in Philadelphia increase, not only to keep good players around Embiid, but the Kings' signing of Harrison Barnes to an extension acts as proof of concept.
The chances of Irving staying in Dallas seem to go down ever so slightly with more options on the table for him.
You probably shouldn't bet Embiid to win MVP at this particular moment in time.

Other than that, we'll wait to see what team talks themselves into taking a chance on Harden, a player who can look like one of the most dominant offensive engines in the league one minute, and a shell of his former self the next.

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Doug Ziefel
Jul 19, 2024 UTC