There is so much NBA history swirling around the Brooklyn Nets’ potential pursuit of James Harden. A team with Kevin Durant and an All-Star, shoot-first point guard might face a choice between depth and a third star. Sound familiar?
The Nets just spent a half-decade watching the Boston Celtics build a contender with Brooklyn’s own draft picks — the downside of a win-now gamble that busts. Do they have the appetite for another?
Harden is 31; Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett turned 36 and 37, respectively, during their first season in Brooklyn. But Harden can enter free agency in two years, at age 33, and will likely request and command a long-term max contract that could age badly. Throwing everything at Harden now would build enormous pressure to win one of the next two championships.
And it might take damn near everything. Harden is a perennial MVP candidate with two guaranteed seasons — and a $47 million player option for 2022-23 — remaining on his deal. A reasonable endgame might look like this: Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, some small filler, the No. 19 pick in Wednesday’s draft, and Brooklyn’s 2022 and 2024 first-round picks with little-to-no protection — plus pick swaps in 2021 and 2023.
The Nets might fight to keep Allen, and replace him in the proposal with Taurean Prince. Houston could balk, or demand even more draft equity. (In addition to being a less valuable player than Allen, Prince earns about $8.5 million more than Allen this season — a pitfall, given the Rockets would probably like to trim their salary in any Harden deal.)
If these trade talks happen, the Rockets should and probably would try to push Brooklyn’s draft obligations out to 2025 and beyond — when Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Durant will be past their primes. That would present real long-term risk for the Nets.
Forking over any mother lode that leans (in draft assets) to 2025 and beyond is not a 100% no-brainer for Brooklyn, even before you address the challenges of fitting three ball-dominant stars and constructing a competent defense — assuming Allen, the team’s best young defender, has to go in any Harden deal.
If you think it’s a no-brainer, consider these two questions from Brooklyn’s perspective:
• Would you rather trade a lot less for Jrue Holiday? Holiday is 30, and eligible now for his own big extension. That contract would be for way less than Harden’s, and would not carry into Holiday’s mid-30s. But it would still be a big commitment.
• Would you rather wait a few months and see if you could trade about the same mother lode for Bradley Beal — still just 27, only one year older than LeVert?
Waiting brings risk, too. Should the Denver Nuggets have interest in Beal, they hold one trade chip — Michael Porter Jr. — that might trump anything the Nets or anyone else can offer as a centerpiece. As teams fall short or exceed expectations, more suitors will emerge for Harden.
There is always a chance cooler heads prevail in Houston once camp opens. It’s easy to forget now, but the Rockets were very good last season. They had a chance to go up 2-0 in the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers before collapsing in very Rockets-y fashion. Russell Westbrook was recovering from both the coronavirus and a quad injury. The trade market for him is quiet so far, sources across the league say. Unless the bridges are totally burned, running it back is not an on-its-face awful idea.
About two weeks after the Lakers completed their postseason humiliation of the Rockets, the general manager of another team and I spitballed this question: Based on our collective intel, what true blue-chip young player could the Rockets get if they made Harden available now?
We crossed off Jayson Tatum fast. There didn’t seem much point in the Minnesota Timberwolves moving Karl-Anthony Towns for Harden. With the Miami Heat rampaging toward the Finals, we surmised they would not include Bam Adebayo — already a cultural touchstone — for a 31-year-old who overlaps in role at least somewhat with Jimmy Butler and does not exactly seem like the archetypal #HeatCulture player.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker is barely 24, earning about $10 million less than Harden on a deal that runs through 2023-24. Given Booker’s emergence as a legit star on the feel-good team of the bubble, a shakeup of that magnitude seemed unlikely. He was out.
Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell came next, and they are interesting names: younger and really good, but unlikely to reach Harden’s level of perennial top-3 MVP finishes. Both the Nuggets and Utah Jazz have holdover stars who seem superficially good fits with Harden in Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert. You could make a theoretical case for going all-in.
But those cases remained mostly theoretical. Denver and Utah are non-glamour markets. They place a premium on retaining their own players. At 6 p.m. on Friday, the Jazz can offer Mitchell a five-year extension that runs through 2025-26. Murray is 23 (!) and already under contract with Denver through 2023-24 on a deal that pays him about $10 million less annually than Harden. He has frankly looked more at ease than Harden in the biggest postseason moments. Murray has uncanny chemistry with Jokic. Would Harden allow Jokic’s game to sing the way Murray does, or render the greatest passing big man ever a distant secondary option?
We crossed both off. We batted around a few younger players who fall one tier below these guys — Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis (never mind the Harden/Luka Doncic overlap), Zach LaVine, De’Aaron Fox.
That left only two guys who really fit the description: Pascal Siakam and Ben Simmons. (And this was before Daryl Morey moved from Harden’s old team to the Philadelphia 76ers.)
Siakam is 26, and quaked under the burden of being at least the co-No. 1 option in the playoffs in Orlando. He was a deserving All-NBA selection, but I’m not sure he moves the needle enough for Houston. (If the Toronto Raptors think they have a shot at Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency next summer, acquiring Harden seems fraught — even if the Raptors could trade Harden down the line.) Brown might have at least equal trade value.
Simmons is 24. Surround him with shooting, and let him fly. You can sell that. With so many picks and swaps out the door to Oklahoma City, via the Westbrook/Chris Paul deal, the Rockets have incentive to remain competitive. If Philadelphia ever arrives at its own moment of truth, Simmons should interest Houston more than Brooklyn’s potential offer — unless the Rockets can push the bulk of Brooklyn’s incoming picks to 2024 and beyond, and maybe even then.
Some wild-card suitors will emerge. The Wolves, with former Rockets assistant GM Gersson Rosas at the helm, could offer D’Angelo Russell and the No. 1 pick in this draft. Boston could build any number of trades around Brown, Marcus Smart, and several picks. (To be clear, these things do not appear in play at this moment; I’m purely speculating.)
The Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls have strong theoretical trade packages, though remember: Any team trading for Harden has to keep enough on hand to field a good team around Harden. That would be tough for Sacramento and Chicago, and the Bulls’ new front office doesn’t need to act with such urgency. Bad teams aren’t going to upend themselves and risk having Harden walk out in two years.
One rebuilding team hoarding extra picks — the Oklahoma City Thunder — bailed out of the Harden experience eight years ago.
The Clippers could dangle Paul George — Harden and Kawhi Leonard would fit pretty well — but they have no draft picks to attach, and George can enter free agency after this season. An intriguing potential sleeper team: Would the New Orleans Pelicans dare re-sign Brandon Ingram and then trade him (in early March, when rules allow, per our expert Bobby Marks) to Houston — pairing Harden with Zion Williamson? And would the mere inkling of that make them lean toward keeping Holiday — removing another potential Brooklyn target?
The Nets could wait and miss out on everyone. Another star will become disgruntled somewhere, sometime, but the clock is ticking on the value of Brooklyn’s potential trade package. LeVert is polarizing among executives, and about to start a three-year, $52 million deal. Allen’s cheap rookie contract expires after this season. Dinwiddie can enter free agency then, too. He’s really good, but he’ll be 28 by then and has never made an All-Star team.
Gutting the roster for a third star always feels precarious. Your depth takes a huge hit. Lots of teams have won titles with the Big 2 model. The Lakers just did. But not all Big 2s are the same. The Lakers have the league’s best player, LeBron James, and another first-team All-NBA guy, Anthony Davis. That is very similar to the Shaq-Kobe and Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen models that laid waste to the league over their respective eras.
Irving is not quite at that level. He has been injury prone. Durant is coming off one of the most devastating injuries in sports. By all accounts, he looks incredible in workouts and pickup games, but those settings are very different than Game 55 of the regular season or Game 90-whatever of your extended regular-season-plus-postseason run.
Acquiring a third star is the ultimate insurance against an injury to one of the first two. That is one of the big-picture takeaways of the original Harden trade. The Thunder remained an inner-circle title favorite after dealing Harden, but saw one run (2013) undone when Westbrook suffered a knee injury in the first round. (An injury to Serge Ibaka the next season hurt them in the conference finals.)
Provided the Nets re-sign Joe Harris — and I’d be shocked if they didn’t, despite interest from several teams — and keep Prince, the Nets could form a workable rotation around their three stars. A quality veteran or two will come for the minimum. If Joe Tsai is willing to break the bank, the Nets could use their taxpayer midlevel exception and exercise their $5 million team option on Garrett Temple.
(Remember: Every team will get a big reduction on its tax bill this season under the renegotiated bargaining agreement.) Brooklyn’s trade Monday for Bruce Brown adds a stout defender who hit 42% of his corner 3s last season and showed enough off-the-dribble oomph to make some secondary plays. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot looked ready last season to be a regular, low-minutes reserve on a good team.
Jokes about the Big 3 Nets requiring more than one ball aside, I’m a little more optimistic than that about the fit on offense. Harden needs to play normal basketball again — to move off the ball when he doesn’t have it, run more pick-and-rolls, play within a team concept — but he can still seize lead ballhandling duties. Durant has always been willing to toggle between running the show and flying off pindown screens away from the ball. As he ages, Durant figures to become even more impactful as a pick-and-pop threat.
The challenge is Irving, who would be the team’s third-best player and third-best on-ball option by a decent margin. Steve Nash can only do so much with staggering minutes to placate whatever need Irving might have to get into his bag. The diminishing returns are real. Someone has to be Kevin Love or Chris Bosh.
But Irving is a killer spot-up shooter, and he’ll have 24 points in the third quarter before you realize what he’s up to.
This could obviously go bust. Brooklyn has the potential for major drama without Harden. Add him, and can they really keep everyone happy?
We should be skeptical but open-minded. All three of these guys have something to prove. Durant is well aware of how fans and experts discount his two titles with the Golden State Warriors. Irving made one of the biggest shots in basketball history to help the Cleveland Cavaliers win the 2016 title, but that was and will always be LeBron’s team. Harden’s history of big-game meltdowns grows every year.
And if things go badly, the Nets could pivot and trade Irving — recouping some lost draft equity. That sounds preposterous, obviously. Durant and Irving were a package deal. Maybe it’s a permanent no-go. But the plot twists never stop in the NBA.
If Harden becomes determined to go to Brooklyn, the Nets should haggle on the quality and timing outgoing picks if not the sheer number of them. Limit them to 2024 and earlier. Get out of one of those in-between pick swaps, and fight to attach at least top-3 protection to the 2024-plus pick — some failsafe to avoid what befell the organization after that Boston trade in 2013.
Win one or two of those battles, and you pull the trigger and go for it. If Houston refuses to budge, the Nets can get greedy and wait. Holiday is really good. If Durant is what he was and Irving is what he purports to be, Holiday should be enough to vault them toward the top of the contenders list. The Nuggets (and several other teams) may be able to outbid Brooklyn depending on what draft assets everyone puts in play, and what the Pelicans think of everyone on Denver’s roster outside Jokic, Murray, and Porter. The Beal situation in Washington could go haywire. The Nuggets aren’t trading for both Holiday and Beal, if they trade for either. Maybe Victor Oladipo rediscovers 90% of his All-NBA form and the Indiana Pacers get worried he won’t re-sign there.
Waiting carries some risk. You might come up empty. But Harden has the power to cool trade interest from everyone but Brooklyn.
There is no easy answer to any of this — no endgame that wouldn’t have executives on both teams losing sleep and feeling nauseous. But the Nets are well-positioned to be aggressive with Harden and at least a teensy bit protective of their future.