The 2020-21 NBA season has already had its share of misfortune, but Wednesday finally brought a pleasant surprise: its first superstar trade. After a cringeworthy start to the season (and some even more cringeworthy quotes), the Houston Rockets have relented and traded James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team megadeal, which also sent Caris LeVert to the Pacers and Victor Oladipo to the Rockets. Let’s break down all the ripple effects from the season’s first eye-popping move.
Winner: James Harden
Justin Verrier: Harden was right—he did do everything he could. Just not in the way he thinks. Harden used every move in the disgruntled superstar handbook, from delaying his training camp arrival to going on a very public gentleman’s club world tour to sandbagging teammates and his new head coach to showing up out of shape to then somehow remaining out of shape despite playing a professional sport. He stopped short of holding out, but the Rockets were preparing to make that decision for him before giving up altogether. The process was unseemly, but like Anthony Davis before him, Harden ultimately got what he wanted.
Before the Nets are feted as Finals favorites, let’s remember that Harden falls squarely in the be-careful-what-you-wish-for zone. Unlikely in Philly, where Harden would’ve slotted neatly into Ben Simmons’s spot in the starting lineup, there’s much to figure out in Brooklyn—including whether Kyrie Irving is ever going to show up for work again. The odds are (and the numbers suggest) this new Big Three is too talented to fail, but someone’s going to have to take a backseat, and despite all his recent gripes, Harden reportedly got everything he wanted during his nine years in Houston.
Loser: Houston Rockets
Paolo Uggetti: New Rockets GM Rafael Stone may be a Daryl Morey disciple, but right now all I can picture is a Sam Presti poster taped to his office wall in Houston. After weeks of enduring the Harden debacle and weighing offers, Stone ultimately opted for the tantalizing potential of future first-round draft picks (four of them, plus four pick swaps). Sure, Houston did get Victor Oladipo from Indiana in exchange for Caris LeVert, but it appears that Stone wanted to cash out of the Harden experience by investing in the future, not the present. That’s a departure from his predecessor’s usual line of thinking.
Once Morey bolted for Philadelphia, Stone immediately felt the weight of player empowerment pressure. Harden did not hold back, not before the season, and certainly not on Tuesday night when he said the situation was unsalvageable, called the Rockets “not good enough,” and left the podium abruptly. There was no way he could play another game in Houston, and that begs the question of whether the Rockets should have dealt Harden before the season even began.
Don’t get me wrong: Houston still got an impressive haul, but it’s difficult to peg the Rockets as winners in this. In the end, they lost a player who has been playing at an MVP level for the past four seasons. The picks are a soothing balm for the mess of the past few months, but they are still unknown quantities in the wake of losing the face of the franchise.
There’s no doubt that there will be immediate positives that come from Harden’s subtraction, not to mention a lot less stress for sleepless Stephen Silas. I mean, Harden had DeMarcus Cousins calling him out for his lack of professionalism, for crying out loud. But ultimately, Harden will leave behind a big void. The impossible job Stone has in his hands now is to somehow fill it.
Winners: Brooklyn Nets
Rob Mahoney: When you already have a team built around one of the best basketball players in existence in Kevin Durant, the only thing that really matters is today. The rest is negotiable—including, it seems, the next seven years of draft equity, which is what the Nets paid for James Harden. Jarrett Allen, for all his rim-running savvy, was never going to hold up a trade for a former MVP. Ditto for Caris LeVert, a player who is similar to Harden in function but worse in every meaningful way. Brooklyn’s standing in the Harden sweepstakes always came down to what it was willing to stomach. If the front office could live with giving up every pick and swap it had on offer, the Nets could stay in the running and potentially outbid a Sixers package built around Ben Simmons on volume alone.
Any team that traded for Harden would leave itself vulnerable. Philly almost gave up an All-NBA, multipositional anomaly before he even turned 25 to get Harden. Long-shot suitors like the Raptors or Celtics would have needed to take a sledgehammer to their existing cores just to piece together the kind of deal the Rockets might entertain. The Nets pushed most of their risk out to the future, some of it so distant that it’s impossible to make out what exactly is at stake. From where things stand in 2021, this is as much a move as a message; Harden is worth this kind of haul on his own merits, but even more to a franchise that is building a bond with Durant it hopes will last far beyond his current contract. The third star the Nets have been chasing is both a longtime friend of KD’s and contending insurance for whatever is going on with Kyrie Irving.
As for the picks? Potentially swapping with the Rockets in 2021 shouldn’t be a problem. Losing a first-round pick in 2022—when Durant, Harden, and Irving should be driving the Nets to the top of the standings, assuming they can figure out how to blend their talents—isn’t much of a concern. From then on, the Nets will go through every season knowing all too well how quickly the ground could give out beneath them. Any of Brooklyn’s three stars could opt for free agency in 2022, and in the process, change the math on this entire proposition. Irving is the perpetual wild card. Durant and Harden, though, are so profoundly talented they can shoulder the weight of a franchise without him, if it ever came to that, or alongside him in a superteam alignment with real championship heft.
Jury’s Still Out: Philadelphia 76ers
Chris Ryan: Nobody who watched Ben Simmons’s Tuesday night performance against the Heat would have been surprised if it had been his last game as a member of the Sixers. While not nearly quite dipping to the bed-soiling levels James Harden explored against the Lakers that same night, Simmons’s five-points-and-a-foul-out turn (albeit softened by his 12 assists and six boards) was the kind of game a player has when they know the next thing they have to do is pack their bags. That Simmons’s confused and listless showing happened the same night Joel Embiid decided to film his MVP sizzle reel was all the more telling. This is what it might look like if the franchise center has space to work.
What happened in the next 24 hours will take many days to unpack and clean up. For several hours on Wednesday, the Sixers seemed certain to land Harden, with just some dotting of the i’s and crossing of the t’s and withholding of the Maxeys to be completed. But the Rockets chose door no. 2 and sent Harden to Brooklyn. Now Sixers shot-callers Daryl Morey and Elton Brand will have to plot a course forward. The question is: Did they dangle Simmons so far out in the trade waters that there’s no reeling him back in?
This goes one of two ways. Either Philly does some serious damage control, decries the trade talk as gossip, and states that “Ben is our guy,” and then Simmons actually believes it. Or they go out and trade Simmons for someone like Bradley Beal. (And when I say “someone like Bradley Beal,” I mean Bradley Beal). This is the downside of going to the casino with Dealer Daryl: You can check out, but you can never leave.
Winner: Caris LeVert
Uggetti: Imagine doing your job well for two years and never being able to escape the looming reality that you could be traded at any minute? You can probably name more than a dozen NBA players who have lived that out, if not more, and yet it seems like few have dealt with as much uncertainty as LeVert the past two seasons. His name has been dangled in every possible Nets trade and last season, and his own teammate Kyrie Irving more or less implied he (and the rest of the Nets) weren’t good enough to get the job done.
Now LeVert can finally take a deep breath. Not before one last curveball, though. Instead of landing in Houston in the Harden trade, LeVert was rerouted to Indiana where the fit and potential couldn’t be more blog-boy perfect. In Indy, LeVert should continue leaping his way toward stardom and the system the Pacers provide should bring out the best in him. Playing alongside Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis should get him only the best of looks, and unlike Jarrett Allen—who landed on a team that is rebuilding—LeVert will still be on a playoff team, and perhaps a more dangerous one because of him.
Winner: DeAndre Jordan
Zach Kram: DeAndre Jordan began the season as Brooklyn’s starting center, more for his contract and friendship with the team’s stars than a talent advantage over Jarrett Allen. Then Allen started one game against Utah and tallied 19 points and 18 boards—and stayed in that position every game since. A simple statistical comparison makes it abundantly clear which center gave the Nets better production:
DeAndre Jordan vs. Jarrett Allen This Season
|Statistic||DeAndre Jordan||Jarrett Allen||Advantage?|
|Statistic||DeAndre Jordan||Jarrett Allen||Advantage?|
|Points per Game||4.1||11.2||Allen|
|Rebounds per Game||6.5||10.4||Allen|
|Team’s Net Rating||-1.4||+10.5||Allen|
Now Jordan is the starter by default; second-year center Nicolas Claxton, who has missed the entire season so far with a knee injury and has never started an NBA game, is the only other traditional big on the roster. Congratulations to Jordan for winning back his job; being a great friend really does pay.
Winners: Indiana Pacers
Matt Dollinger: The irony was not lost on me when the Pacers traded the guy who infamously said “Can I come play with y’all?” to a 3-6 team in the state of Texas (and in a state of chaos). Those words temporarily torpedoed Oladipo’s trade stock, but they were also likely the final straw for Pacers president Kevin Pritchard, who saw history repeating itself with one of the players he acquired for the last superstar who begged out of town. Rather than let the situation drag out, Pritchard waited only long enough for Oladipo’s value to rise back above water so he could trade him to a rebuilding team where “y’all” is the most spoken word in the vernacular.
No matter how this season went, Oladipo wasn’t long for Indiana. Too much had been said by him (and family members) to keep the former Hoosier and his hometown team together, especially with his contract expiring this summer. Pritchard realized this, as he correctly realized the situation with Paul George had grown untenable, and once again made a move before everyone was expecting one.
Last time he landed two All-Stars for the price of one in Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This time, he yields Caris LeVert, a young player with All-Star potential, and an already-signed contract that guarantees he would do so in a Pacers uniform. It’s not easy being a small-market team in the player empowerment era, but the Pacers made the necessary proactive move to remain competitive. Pritchard has already gotten more than he’s paid for with Oladipo, Sabonis, and Malcolm Brogdon. LeVert could prove to be the next savvy move.
Loser-Adjacent: Victor Oladipo
Mahoney: Oladipo pining for a trade only to be sent from one of the best teams in the East to the regrouping Rockets feels like a basketball fable. The lesson: When a player like Harden requests a trade, he’ll more or less get what he wants; when a player like Oladipo pushes for one, he’ll have to settle for whatever he can get. Competitively speaking, this is a demotion. Houston should be reasonably competitive after reorienting its roster, but the heart of an undersized team remains. The Rockets will surely be relieved to see Oladipo after Harden’s high-usage pouting reached new extremes this week, but a vibe upgrade can only take a team that just lost its franchise player so far.
The silver lining for Oladipo comes in the void Harden leaves behind. Harden wasn’t just a superstar, but a one-man hierarchy. In his absence, a creator like Oladipo should have all the room he needs to flex his game—especially valuable for a former All-Star looking to reestablish himself in a contract year. Oladipo will find worthwhile collaborators in John Wall and head coach Stephen Silas, pick-and-roll partners in Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins, and a team that needs his ball-handling in order to properly function. His contributions might not matter as much as they would have on a sure playoff team in the Pacers, but a good showing this season could still be enough to get him paid. (Whether the tax-minded Rockets will be interested in doing so remains to be seen.)
Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder’s Draft Stash
Kram: As if the Thunder didn’t have enough draft capital piled up over the next seven years! Even though they weren’t involved in Wednesday’s trade, they should benefit from it. As a result of the 2019 Chris Paul–for–Russell Westbrook swap, the Thunder own the right to swap either their first-round pick or the Heat’s first pick (which they also own) in the 2021 draft for Houston’s, as long as the Rockets’ pick doesn’t land in the top four.
The Rockets will undoubtedly be worse without Harden, who is good enough to drag a mediocre team to the playoffs by himself, but they also shouldn’t be so terrible—with a talented trio in Oladipo, John Wall, and Christian Wood—that they trigger top-four protection. In other words, Oklahoma City just improved its odds of gaining another lottery pick for what looks like a stacked 2021 draft class. At least Sam Presti can reap the rewards of one Harden trade.