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James Harden trade sweepstakes: Examining which contenders could grow desperate for deal after slow starts

Trade negotiations are defined by leverage. It doesn’t matter what a player is actually worth, only what a team is willing to pay to acquire that player. The Oklahoma City Thunder got a king’s ransom for Paul George because they knew the Clippers would’ve had to pay it in order to secure Kawhi Leonard. When the Spurs traded Leonard, though, they got almost nothing because the league knew he was a rental. 

The Houston Rockets had seemingly lost their leverage in James Harden negotiations entering the season. The entire basketball world knew that they weren’t interested in Brooklyn’s offer, and no satisfactory boogeyman replaced the Nets in their minds. The Miami Heat pulled out of negotiations. The Philadelphia 76ers publicly declared their best trade asset, Ben Simmons, unavailable. Talks with other teams have reportedly not gone far. The simplest explanation for why Houston hasn’t traded Harden yet is that it has been unable to generate enough leverage to get a worthwhile package back for him. 

But leverage is fluid, and the beginning of the season has a way of generating it. Teams lose games. They get desperate. They talk themselves into a single trade being the only way of saving their season and their future. We’re less than two weeks into the season. Nobody is exactly desperate, yet, but everyone has now seen their roster on the floor a reasonable number of times. Trends are beginning to form. We’re still weeks away from slow starts turning into the sort of disasters that tend to create panic trades, but with a handful of games in the books, it’s worth checking in on some of the teams believed to be involved in the Harden sweepstakes and assessing just how desperate they might get based on their first few games. 

Cool as a cucumber: Philadelphia 76ers

Things are fine and dandy in Philadelphia right now. Led by the NBA‘s No. 1 defense, the 76ers are the only one-loss team remaining in the NBA and sit atop our latest Power Rankings. Their offense isn’t quite as dominant at No. 16, but if early-season trends hold, their schedule might have something to do with that. Five of their first six opponents currently have above-average defenses, and three are in the top 10 defensively. There’s a chicken and egg argument to that, though, as it’s entirely possible that with such a small sample, a bad Philadelphia offense is boosting those rankings. 

But the peripheral numbers are mostly positive. The 76ers are ninth in the NBA in 3-point percentage, eighth in assists and eighth in offensive rebounding rate. They could stand to draw more fouls and take more 3s, but the outline of an above-average offense is taking shape here. With the No. 1 defense, that’s all Philly would need to credibly contend, especially if its clutch success holds up. The 10-minute sample is admittedly tiny, but for what it’s worth, the 76ers are scoring 126.7 points per 100 possessions in the clutch. The whole point of acquiring Harden is improving that number. 

We’ll need to see far more basketball before we know how sustainable those numbers are, but right now, the 76ers have no reason to rush. Things are working out just fine as it is. Simmons is one of the drivers of that No. 1 defense, and swapping him out for Harden would likely hurt it as much as it helped the offense. Nothing can be ruled out, and Daryl Morey is probably the executive most likely to ignore a small sample in the name of short-term upside (especially if he can use his newfound leverage to extract something else out of Houston), but right now? For once, things are calm in Philadelphia. There’s not an ounce of desperation yet. 

Maybe desperate, but for different things: Denver Nuggets, Brooklyn Nets

If you told the Nets before the season that they’d have a worse record than the Knicks on Jan. 4, yes, they’d probably assume that something went horribly wrong. Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL might qualify, but for the most part, things have largely gone as scheduled for the Nets so far. Lineups featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are obliterating opponents by 18.5 points per 100 possessions, and those are the lineups that will matter most come playoff time. They’re ranked ninth in offense despite some horribly unrealistic shooting luck. If you think the Nets are actually going to finish the season ranked 25th in 3-point percentage, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn you should trade for instead of Harden. 

The Nuggets’ offense has been even better. They’re ranked fourth despite missing Michael Porter Jr. for the last two games. They’re a bizarre overtime sequence away from .500, and they started somewhat slowly last season as well. The issue here is defense. The Nuggets are ranked No. 29, and there isn’t an obvious solution for fixing it on the roster. Brooklyn’s defensive issues aren’t quite as pronounced, but better offenses have exposed it. The Nets were ranked first defensively entering Dec. 30. Then they played Atlanta twice and the Wizards. Now they’re No. 12. 

Both teams have gotten exactly what they’ve wanted out of their offenses, suggesting that a Harden trade wouldn’t fix what’s actually wrong with them. If either is going to make a major trade this season, doing so for a defensive upgrade would seemingly make sense just given how much room both teams have for improvement there. At a certain point, both offenses would experience diminishing returns. How much better could they actually get? 

Feeling the heat: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat do not panic. It’s not in their DNA. This is a team that strolled into an Orlando bubble that mentally broke several of its competitors, shrugged, and started a side hustle selling overpriced coffee (oh, and they made the Finals, too). They’ll make a trade when they’re good and ready. A 2-3 start, in itself, means nothing to them. Jimmy Butler’s health is a built-in excuse. 

But the reality that most of their players are playing worse than they did in Orlando is undeniable. Goran Dragic is 34. Asking him to play at an All-Star level again based on 25 games at Disney was never fair. Maybe Duncan Robinson is just the 12th-best shooter in the world instead of the second-best. Andre Iguodala once played on the same team as Chris Webber. He’s ancient. 

Those were somewhat predictable outcomes. The more discouraging one has been Tyler Herro’s lukewarm start to the season. The entire argument against trading for Harden rests on Herro’s future stardom. Through five games as a full-time starter (and Miami’s leader in shot attempts), he’s been … fine. He’ll probably get better as his shooting steadies. But nobody is looking at 15.8 points per game on 57.7 percent true shooting as guaranteed stardom. He’s 20. He’s going to improve. He might even take that leap this season. But how long does Herro have to look like a starter instead of a star for Houston to start treating him like one? If Herro plays at this pace for two more months, would the Rockets even consider him as a viable centerpiece? 

Butler’s health is going to fix some of these issues, and so will inevitable shooting regression but there are more problems here than the Heat would like to admit. Butler or no, this roster shouldn’t be ranked No. 28 in offense or No. 26 in net rating. They’re turning the ball over more than any other team in basketball and they’re getting killed on the glass. They’re old in places and young in others. 

And that’s the core issue at play in their Harden pursuit. LeBron James and Anthony Davis just showed them that they lack the star power to win a championship as presently constructed. If another star isn’t going to develop internally in time to change that now, and they seemingly lack the long-term upside of other future contenders, then doesn’t it make sense to pick a direction and stick to it? Doesn’t Harden solve their short-term problems at a cost that no longer seems unbearable for their future? 

The Heat would probably still say no. They trust their ability to land stars on their own time, and likely view Herro and Robinson as essential elements of doing so as either recruiting tools or trade chips. The Heat might look like they’re trapped between timelines, but this is the Heat we’re talking about. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. If they make a Harden trade, it will be on their terms, and if they don’t, it will be because they think they can do better with another move. If their slow start continues, though, they’ll need to do something

Has the clock finally struck midnight on the Raptors? It certainly looks like it. Years of turning pumpkins into point guards whenever they’ve lost a major piece have taken their toll, and the collapse makes more sense through the prism of their 2019 championship roster. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — four of their eight best players — are all gone. Toronto overperforms almost every year, but at a certain point, attrition becomes overwhelming. The 2019-20 Raptors avoided it by getting peak performances out of almost every rotation player. 

But two of the seven players that actually played regularly in the postseason are gone. Kyle Lowry’s age is finally starting to show as a ball-handler. He’s down to 0.64 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, good for only the 13th percentile leaguewide. OG Anunoby has seemingly forgotten how to shoot. So has Pascal Siakam, who still hasn’t shaken free of the slump that doomed Toronto’s postseason run in Orlando. The Raptors are ranked No. 29 in offense. Shooting regression will help them. They can at least point to a solid net rating as proof that things aren’t as bad as they seem. But close losses are more encouraging for some teams than others. Toronto losing its 14 clutch minutes so far by 12 total points is more of a continuation of last season’s problems. The Raptors don’t have a closer. Right now, they don’t have an above-average generator of half-court offense. 

Harden is the league’s best generator of half-court offense, and with each passing game, Toronto’s package becomes less appealing. Siakam is older than Caris LeVert, and the production gap between the two is shrinking. How much of the offensive gains would be lost in replacing Siakam with Harden defensively on Toronto’s end? Is this season even worth saving? 

That’s the fundamental question at play here. The Raptors could have credibly considered themselves one James Harden away from championship contention entering this season. But given Lowry’s age (turns 35 in March), the fit issues, the defensive cost and their lack of depth, is that still even true? If anything, the Raptors might have zoomed past desperation into the serenity of acceptance. Maybe this is just going to be a lost season. Maybe the strain of playing in Tampa Bay limits their ambition. Maybe Masai Ujiri needs time to reshape his roster around the current core and he’ll have near-max cap space to do it with this offseason.

But what has become clear in this slow start is that, for the moment, the Raptors are rudderless. They no longer have a contention-worthy roster or a chance to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo. There isn’t a clear path to any other franchise player in free agency either. They aren’t good enough to win right now, but their young talent is running out of room to grow. The last time the Raptors were in this situation, they swung for the fences on Kawhi and won a championship. Maybe Harden is the solution now. Maybe he isn’t. 

But the era of automatic Toronto contention appears to be over. The Raptors will get better. They’ll probably even top out as pretty good. But for years, Toronto’s infrastructure was enough to guarantee competitiveness. The Raptors hit the over on their projected win total nine years in a row. But years of duct-taping the back end of the roster have finally taken their toll, and a core that was built to support an existing star is struggling without one to revolve around now. If any team could be described as desperate so early in the season, it would probably be the Raptors. 

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