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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Nets Acquire Harden in Four Team Deal

Insulting your teammates, sulking, and not playing hard works--at least if you are James Harden, who sleepwalked through the past several games while publicly proclaiming that his team is just not good enough, which must have made his teammates (including five-time All-Star John Wall) feel wonderful. Harden achieved his goal: he made the situation in Houston so untenable that the Rockets traded Harden to one of his preferred destinations, Brooklyn. Harden is thus able to flee Houston despite having three years left on a contract worth nearly $133 million. Some would call this an example of "player empowerment," while others would--correctly--say that this is an example of an employee getting away with a massive breach of contract: the Rockets agreed to pay Harden more than $100 million to be an elite basketball player for them, but Harden decided that he no longer wanted to fulfill his part of that deal, and as an end result the Rockets are deprived of his services while Harden will receive the full contract value from his new, preferred employer.

Here are the details of the deal:

The Brooklyn Nets acquired James Harden, and a 2022 second round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Houston acquired Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dante Exum, Brooklyn forward Rodions Kurucs, three of Brooklyn's first round picks (2022, 2024, 2026), four first round pick swaps from Brooklyn (2021, 2023, 2025, 2027), and a 2022 first round pick from Cleveland..

Cleveland acquired Brooklyn center Jarrett Allen and Brooklyn forward Taurean Prince.

It has been reported--but not yet officially confirmed by the NBA or the teams--that Indiana will be the fourth team in this deal, sending Victor Oladipo and a second round pick to Houston and receiving Brooklyn guard Caris LeVert plus a 2023 second round pick from Houston in return.

The Cavaliers upgraded their roster immediately. It is far from certain that the draft picks that they gave up would have yielded players who are more productive than Allen and Prince. The Cavaliers were not a contender prior to this trade and they are not a contender now, but this is a good deal for Cleveland. 

Assuming that the Pacers participate in this deal as reported then they will have gotten rid of a disgruntled and injury-prone Oladipo in exchange for LeVert, who has All-Star level talent. This is a good deal for Indiana as well.

The Rockets were never going to win a championship with Harden as their best player, so if the franchise's goal is to win a title then any deal that ships out Harden in exchange for even a modicum of talent plus draft picks is without question a good deal--and the Rockets did much better than that: if Wall and Oladipo can both stay healthy then the Rockets could be a playoff team that also has stockpiled a lot of draft assets that can be used to rebuild, or can be packaged to acquire veteran talent. 

Of course, most of the attention regarding this deal will focus on Brooklyn. Assuming that Kyrie Irving rejoins the team at some point, the Nets now have a "Big Three" consisting of two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, 2016 NBA champion Irving, and three-time scoring champion Harden. It will be interesting to see if Harden or Irving emerges as the second option, but there can be no doubt that Durant is easily the team's best player and first option on offense. It is important to remember that Oklahoma City traded Harden to Houston in 2012 primarily because Harden was unwilling to accept being the third option behind Durant and Russell Westbrook--and it is also important to remember that Harden failed to mesh well with every single All-Star the Rockets subsequently acquired to play alongside him, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to (briefly this season) John Wall. Now, Harden will have to put his substantial ego in check and accept that Durant is the primary option on offense. 

Harden is talented enough to be the second or third option on a championship team, but the question has always been whether or not he has the mentality to accept such a role. Harden is a proven playoff choker whose high variance game is not conducive to sustained postseason success, and in his final days in Houston he quit despite the fact that the franchise catered to his every whim throughout his tenure with the team. Chokers do not tend to become winners, and quitters tend to quit when the going gets tough. Harden brings a lot of baggage to Brooklyn, and he has a lot to prove if he wants to be remembered as anything other than a talented but selfish high scoring loser.

Irving was a very effective second option behind LeBron James on a championship team, but Irving also chafed at times regarding that role so it will be fascinating watching him wrestle with Harden to be the second option behind Durant. It is difficult to picture the Nets' chemistry being great--unless Harden and Irving change patterns of behavior that they have displayed throughout their careers--and it is easy to picture it being disastrously bad. 

Another potential issue is whether or not the Nets are willing/able to play championship caliber defense. Durant is capable of being a good defender, as he showed while leading Golden State to back to back titles, but both Harden and Irving are subpar defensive players. The Nets' will also miss Allen's paint presence. Even if the Nets' three stars agree regarding the offensive pecking order and produce a highly efficient scoring attack they probably cannot score enough points against an elite team in a seven game playoff series to make up for how many points they will allow. 

First year Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, who won two regular season MVPs but no championships during his playing career, faces the daunting task of figuring out how to make this work. One of his assistant coaches, Mike D'Antoni (Nash's head coach during Nash's MVP seasons in Phoenix), is well acquainted with Harden's shortcomings and quirks--D'Antoni had the full Harden experience as Houston's head coach from 2016-20. D'Antoni also coached the Lakers to a 40-32 record in 2012-13 (he took over from Mike Brown when the team was 5-5), and his brief tenure in L.A. was most notable for (1) benching Pau Gasol (the second best player on the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship teams), (2) playing an aging Kobe Bryant so many minutes that Bryant's Achilles ruptured from the stress of carrying the team to a playoff berth, and (3) getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the fourth largest margin of defeat in NBA postseason history in a performance so awful and inept that Hubie Brown declared during game four, "You can use all the excuses you want but the defensive game plan was zero here tonight--the execution of it, whatever it was." 

The popular, easy pick is to call the Nets the favorites in the East, but it is way too early to say that. All that can be said now is that the Nets have enough talent to win the East; how well that talent will function together to produce team success is far from clear. In 2013, the Nets mortgaged their future to obtain Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; that experiment did not turn out well, and it will be fascinating to see if the Nets receive a greater return on their mortgaged future this time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 PM



At Friday, January 15, 2021 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Regarding the new Big 3 in Brooklyn. Come to think of it. This Nets team actually reminds me of the 1969 Lakers with the original big 3 in Chamberlain, West and Baylor.

For the following reasons.

1. They both have average coaches in Nash and Butch van Breda Kolff.
2. A scoring machine with a very sensitive personality and ego in Chamberlain and Durant.
3. A high scoring guard that always fell short in the playoffs in West and Harden.
4. Baylor hated Chamberlain for taking up his prime real estate on the block and take away his touches. Kyrie may hate Harden for dribbling away the shotclock and take away his touches.
5. All of them are attempting to dethrone a 36 year old rival champion: Bill Russell and LeBron James.

At Friday, January 15, 2021 1:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is an interesting comparison for some of the reasons that you mentioned, but I think that at a deeper level the comparison is not fully apt, for these reasons:

1) While I agree that Butch van Breda Kolff was not a great NBA coach--to put it mildly--the jury is still out on what kind of NBA coach Nash is.

2) Perhaps it is true that Chamberlain and Durant share some personality traits in terms of being "sensitive" but the media environment and general societal climate of the 2020s is so different from that of the 1960s that it is difficult to make meaningful broad generalizations in that regard.

3) I disagree with this reason, because at the very least the way that you phrased it is so general as to be meaningless. West consistently performed at a high--and often record-setting--level in the playoffs. He won the first Finals MVP (1969) despite playing for the losing team, and he remains the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP. In contrast, Harden is a proven playoff choker. Also, it is worth noting that West did finally win a title, a major distinction when comparing him to Harden. Maybe Harden will win a title with the Nets, but if he does he will not likely be the first option on offense (West was the first option--or at least 1A to Goodrich's 1B--for the Lakers' 1972 championship team).

4) Chamberlain and Baylor are so much greater than Harden and Irving that any comparison is a bit frivolous but to the narrow extent that Harden and Irving may bicker over their roles there is some validity here when comparing to the tensions that may have existed with Chamberlain and Baylor.

5) Russell helmed the greatest dynasty in North American team sports history, winning 11 titles in 13 years. LeBron has scattered four titles over 17 seasons (including this just-started season), and he has lost in the Finals six times.

At Sunday, January 17, 2021 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


I appreciate your insight as always. I want to add something I do believe is relevant. Tilman Fertita should be mentioned in some way. He is largely responsible for both allowing his entire franchise to coddle its superstar and for putting his personal finances above building/maintaining a winning team. His cost-cutting edicts severely hampered the team. And while I 100% agree with you that Harden (as he currently plays) is not a franchise cornerstone capable of winning a championship as the alpha, nor is Morey the genius many claim, nor is D'Antoni a championship caliber coach -- it was Fertita who broke up the Chris Paul/Harden pairing, it was Fertita who consistently pushed Morey to get under the luxury tax, and it was Fertita who fired Mike D'Antoni. For a good recap of all of the cost-cutting personnel moves Fertita made happen, check out this article. https://www.radio.com/sportsradio610/sports/houston-rockets/rockets-are-hampered-by-fertittas-refusal-to-spend

I'm, not in love with Mike D or Morey, but, while the Lakers and Warriors and Celtics and even the small market Bucks were willing to pay the luxury tax, the Rockets never were. If Harden had conducted himself like a professional, I'd have actually backed his desire to leave. Instead, he acted like a spoiled brat and not only put his entire team, coaches, and Rockets staffers at risk, but other teams that played them (even with the stringent testing protocol the NBA conducts), and whoever else was at those parties he attended maskless.

Kobe Bryant...even years after he justified himself by winning two more championships, continued to be murdered for wanting to the leave the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker Lakers. And, while he did demand a trade, and he did throw Bynum under the bus (though, to be fair, Bynum was nowhere near Jason Kidd...ever), he still went out and played his ass off every night. And, Harden has been surrounded with a heckuva lot more talent than Bryant was in 05-06.

Harden chose to re-up with the Rockets because he was allowed to do whatever he wanted (based on the Athletic's reporting) and because they gave him $38-40 million a season. He has no excuse for quitting on his team and for his ugly breakup, to say nothing of him being a bad human being with his nonchalance for a virus that has killed nearly 400,000 Americans...I hope karma is real and he and the me-centric Irving wind up never winning anything of signficance.

That said, Fertita should not escape unscathed either. Bad ownership is bad ownership, and I think it's important that owners are held accountable as well.

At Monday, January 18, 2021 2:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Fertita consistently catered to every whim of Morey and Harden. Perhaps he should not have done that, but that is a different discussion--the point is that Fertita does not appear to be an owner who meddles but rather one who lets the basketball people make decisions. Again, I would not choose Morey and Harden to make basketball decisions for me, but that is not your argument against Fertita.

I disagree with the notion that the primary reason that the Rockets did not win a title during the Morey/Harden era is that Fertita was not willing to spend enough money. Fertita paid max dollars to Harden. He brought in Paul and paid max dollars to Paul. When Harden could not get along with Paul (a recurring theme in Harden's career), Fertita signed off on acquiring Westbrook and paying max dollars to Westbrook. When Harden could not get along with Westbrook, Fertita signed off on acquiring Wall and paying max dollars to Wall. Maybe Houston should have overpaid to keep Ariza, maybe not, but such decisions on the margins do not make a decisive difference when Harden repeatedly chokes in big games. A player like Ariza cannot make up for Harden's annual playoff disappearing acts.

Morey proved to be quite adept at managing the cap, and at finding bargain-priced players to fill out the rotation. Morey's failure is his inability to properly evaluate Harden and other All-Star caliber players, and his lack of understanding of the importance of (1) defense and (2) team chemistry when building a championship team.

Bottom line: when the first, main ingredient in the championship recipe is supposed to be James Harden, it does not matter much what the other ingredients are, because there is no way that you are baking a championship cake that way. Maybe the Rockets would have benefited a little if Fertita had been more willing to go over the cap to sign role players, but that is not the headline story of the Morey/Harden era.


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