James Harden isn’t just telling the Rockets he wants to be traded. He is shouting it from a rooftop while holding a flashing neon sign.
The three-time NBA scoring champion made it clear to the Rockets’ front office last month that he would prefer to play elsewhere. He has only driven that point home further in the last week by partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas, flouting the league’s COVID-19 protocols and missing the start of training camp.
Harden is now in Houston and was tested for COVID-19 at the Toyota Center on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but his initial absence was certainly a setback for new coach Stephen Silas and Harden’s teammates, who have limited time to build chemistry ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. The Rockets will play their first preseason game on Friday, a contest Harden will likely miss because of his late arrival.
Stephen Silas says there isn’t a “clear plan” on when James Harden will be cleared to practice because NBA hasn’t determined what COVID protocol is for him. (Harden partying without a mask complicated matters.)
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 9, 2020
With a Harden holdout off the table, “The Beard” is on track to wear a Rockets jersey when Houston takes the floor for its regular season opener on Dec. 23. Still, trade rumors will continue to hang over the franchise.
So why did the Harden-Rockets relationship fall apart? And what comes next for both sides?
Why James Harden wants a trade out of Houston
Harden’s desire to leave the Rockets is all about putting himself in position to compete for a championship. Houston reportedly presented Harden with a two-year, $103 million extension last month, but he turned down that deal and turned his focused toward joining the Nets. (He has since indicated he would be open to joining the 76ers or other contenders.)
Harden believes his window to chase championships in Houston has ended, and constructing a super team with the Nets represents his best pathway to a title, sources said. Harden can become a free agent in 2022 if he opts out of the final year of his contract — and sources said Brooklyn represents a two-year play to win a title before deciding on the next steps in his career.
The Athletic’s Kelly Iko noted Harden had approached the front office multiple times in previous years and told those in power to either build a championship roster around him or trade him. Former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was able to deliver multiple times, giving Harden All-Star sidekicks like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. The 2018 Rockets nearly took down the mighty Warriors to reach the NBA Finals, but Paul’s hamstring injury and a historically bad shooting performance in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals doomed their title chances.
Houston did its best to retool again this past offseason by sending out Westbrook in exchange for John Wall as well as adding promising big man Christian Wood. It seems those acquisitions didn’t do much to alter Harden’s feelings about the state of the franchise.
Regardless of how Harden feels, though, he may not get his wish anytime soon because, unlike previous stars who requested trades, he doesn’t have a ton of leverage.
Why the Rockets are reluctant to trade James Harden for now
While it would be ideal for the Rockets if a Harden suitor blew them away with an offer, those assets simply aren’t on the table at the moment.
Houston reportedly wants “a package that includes a young franchise cornerstone and a bundle of first-round picks and/or talented players on rookie contracts,” according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Wojnarowski. That’s a hefty asking price, but NBA history has shown trading a player of Harden’s caliber and not receiving a fair return can cripple a team for years. It’s an understandable stance considering the Bucks recently gave up multiple players, picks and pick swaps for Jrue Holiday, who is not nearly on the same level as Harden.
The Rockets are also not under intense pressure to trade an impending free agent. Harden’s contract runs through the next two seasons with a $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season, so the threat of him walking for nothing isn’t part of the equation. They are not in a rush to push Harden out the door, and they haven’t eliminated the possibility of Harden changing his mind.
“The Rockets are clinging to the hope, ‘Hey, we can be competitive this year. If we’re competitive and we’re winning, maybe James will get back on board.’ They are just clinging to this hope, and I mean, how many times have you seen a superstar demand a trade very publicly and things ended up working out?” MacMahon said on “The Lowe Post” podcast.
“I will give you Kobe Bryant when they pulled the Pau Gasol trade and won championships. I am having a hard time thinking of another situation like that. But again, that’s the Rockets clinging to this hope.”
For now, Harden remains a member of the Rockets, and the team expects to once again compete for a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference.
“One of the reasons that I was so excited to get this job is we’re not in a rebuilding situation,” Silas said. “Ownership and [Rockets GM] Rafael [Stone] have done a great job of putting a really good team together. Adding John Wall, adding [DeMarcus] Cousins, adding Wood and now adding James to that is still very exciting.”
Potential James Harden trade destinations
Despite Houston’s public optimism, a Harden trade may be inevitable. Here are a few teams that could jump into the Harden sweepstakes:
Brooklyn Nets: The most obvious landing spot because it’s at the top of Harden’s list. However, salary-matching problems could complicate a trade between the Nets and Rockets, and Brooklyn’s package wouldn’t include a “young franchise cornerstone” unless Houston loves Caris LeVert’s upside.
Philadelphia 76ers: With Morey serving as the Sixers’ president of basketball operations, there is an obvious connection to Harden. Plus, Ben Simmons checks the “cornerstone” box given his age and talent. But Morey has been adamant about keeping Simmons and Joel Embiid together, and Sixers coach Doc Rivers is happy with his current team.
Doc Rivers on Harden to #Sixers trade rumors: “We like our team. The team we just watched out there [in practice] is pretty special. None of those trade rumors are coming from us.”
— Michael K-B (@therealmikekb) December 8, 2020
Boston Celtics: Would Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge actually pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal? Boston could build an enticing package around Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. The question here is whether the Celtics are interested in Harden or content with their core.
Denver Nuggets: This trade would essentially come down to the availability of Michael Porter Jr. Denver could figure out the salaries, but Houston shouldn’t entertain an offer that doesn’t include Porter.
New Orleans Pelicans: Seeing how Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson work together is hardly a bad option. The Pelicans don’t need to force anything. It’s worth making the call, though, because New Orleans has the draft picks to at least force Houston to pick up the phone.