James Harden stepped on the court — in Rockets gear, with his Rockets’ teammates — for the first time this season on Monday. He practiced with his team, having cleared the league’s coronavirus protocols and had six consecutive negative tests. He is expected to play Tuesday night in the Rockets preseason game against the Spurs.
Harden may want to get used to this because — as much as he wants a trade — he likely will be wearing this gear and playing with these teammates most of the season. And maybe after the trade deadline, too.
Harden still wants a trade out of Houston, but his clumsy approach to forcing it left the Rockets with leverage and the ability to be patient — Harden has two fully guaranteed years on his contract, there is no pressure. The fact Harden has shown up in Houston, is practicing, and says he will be “professional and engaged” means he’s not willing to go full scorched earth — Jimmy Butler in Minnesota — to get his way.
Harden’s request is continually compared to Anthony Davis forcing his way out of New Orleans, but there are some key differences. First, Davis had a year-and-a-half left on his contract when the talk went public and got serious, and that timeline put some pressure on the Pelicans. With two full years remaining for Harden (plus a $47 million option year), Houston can wait out the market a little.
More importantly, there was a clear suitor for Davis in the Lakers — they wanted him, he wanted to go to Los Angeles. The question ultimately was the price. Harden — at age 31, with a lot of miles on the tires and being up for a massive contract extension in two years — does not have another team desperate to trade for him. Not yet, anyway.
Let’s look at the four teams where Harden reportedly wants to be traded:
• Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn’s offer of Caris LeVert/Spencer Dinwiddie/Jarrett Allen and some picks does not meet the “we want to still compete” unrealistic expectations of owner Tilman Fertitta and the Rockets. Houston reportedly wants Kyrie Irving in a trade; Brooklyn is not playing along. The sides are not even on the same page, a source told NBC Sports.
• Philadelphia 76ers. A lot of fans seemed to think “Daryl Morey wants Harden” and would throw Ben Simmons in a trade to get the deal done yesterday. Not true. For one thing, the Rockets reportedly want Simmons plus three first-round picks, which more than the 76ers will pay. Plus, Philly revamped its roster and added shooting (Seth Curry, Danny Green) to go around Simmons and Joel Embiid to try and make that work. Ownership there is invested in seeing their home-grown duo succeed. According to multiple reports, the 76ers are not changing course and have not come close to putting Simmons in a trade offer.
• Miami Heat. The Rockets are not getting Jimmy Butler or the just-re-signed Bam Adebayo, but a deal built around Tyler Herro and other young players, some picks, and Kelly Olynyk (for salary) reportedly might be available. That doesn’t seem to move the needle in Houston. Miami will talk, but so long as they think they have a shot at a sign-and-trade for Giannis Antetokounmpo next offseason, the Heat may be hesitant.
• Milwaukee Bucks. There is no deal to be made here. Milwaukee is a surprisingly old team that does not have the young players Houston wants back, plus the Bucks are hard-capped, making any trade difficult to pull off.
Harden and the Rockets need the trade landscape to change.
Maybe Antetokounmpo signs his supermax extension and Miami starts to look at its other options (Bradley Beal would be on that list, too, should Washington make him available). Maybe things don’t mesh well between Simmons and Embiid in Philadelphia, or Durant and Irving in Brooklyn, and that team decides it needs to make a radical change. Maybe a team nobody is considering pops up and decides to bid on Harden (Houston is under no obligation to trade Harden where he wants to go, if another team wants to take on that risk and has the best offer, the Rockets should jump at it).
What the Harden trade request has in common with the Davis trade may be timing: A lot of noise at the trade deadline but the deal gets done the following offseason. Meaning Harden is stuck in a loveless marriage for this season.
Right now, the only team that wants Harden is Houston — John Wall is trying to win him over. Wall looked sharp in a couple of preseason games (it’s preseason, take with plenty of salt) and said multiple times his goal is to win Harden over.
“I feel like the way I play, at times when James is tired… I could be a guy to take pressure off of him,” Wall said after the Rockets’ second preseason game Sunday. “And that opens the lane even more for me when I get to run pick-and-rolls because, with a guy like that, that can score on all levels, they might not want to help on the weakside. Now, I got a guy, maybe Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, Danuel House or DeMarcus Cousins, or Christian Wood that gets open shots.
“The first two games of the preseason, we’ve been getting a lot of open shots. That’s with us moving the ball or me getting downhill. Just imagine, add another guy, James Harden, we all know what he’s capable of.”
Wall can make his pitch starting today at practice, and likely for the foreseeable future as there is no trade demand for Harden right now.
It also very likely will not be enough — Harden wants out and will get traded. Where and when are the questions that will follow the Rockets like a dark cloud all season.