The NBA drama never stops.
After months of knowing James Harden wanted a trade out of Houston but talks around the league moving at a glacial pace, the climate changed quickly in the last few days. Maybe it was Kyrie Irving being away from Brooklyn, maybe it was Harden’s postgame slamming of the Rockets, but this deal came together in just a couple of days.
It morphed into a blockbuster four-team trade — with the Pacers and Cavaliers jumping in — that breaks down this way:
• Brooklyn gets James Harden
• Houston gets Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, and Rodions Kurucs; unprotected Brooklyn Nets first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026; the 2022 Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick (via Cleveland); and unprotected Nets pick swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027.
• Indiana gets Caris LeVert and a 2023 second-round pick from Houston.
• Cleveland gets Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince.
Who won and who lost in the Harden trade? Let’s break it down.
Winner: James Harden
Harden got what he wanted. From the start, he wanted out of Houston and to play on a contender with his friend and former teammate Kevin Durant. That wish came true.
Will Harden be happy in Brooklyn? How long will it take to play himself into shape? Will he just blend in around Williamsburg with the other bearded hipsters? There’s a lot of questions to answer, but Harden wins because he got what he wanted.
Now we’ll see what he does with it.
Winner: the Brooklyn Nets offense
Talent wins out in the NBA.
We can debate the fit of three isolation heavy players in Harden, Irving, and Durant — this is where you can insert your “there’s only one basketball” joke. We can debate whether Harden is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to win a championship (Durant and Irving have both done that, even if neither seemed particularly happy about it).
But Brooklyn now has three elite offensive players, plus they have a sharpshooter in Joe Harris to help space the floor. They have three stars that may do the most damage in isolation but who can play off the ball. They should be able to have at least one of the game’s great scorers on the court for all 48 minutes.
Mike D’Antoni — a Nets assistant coach — believes elite talent figures out how to play together, how to make it work. If that’s true, Brooklyn will have the best offense in the NBA. And that makes them a threat to win it all.
Loser: Brooklyn Nets defense
The Brooklyn Nets defense isn’t good right now — it’s been 23rd in the league over the past eight games (stats via Cleaning the Glass) — and they just sent out their best defender and rim protector in Allen. Brooklyn is already a bottom 10 defensive rebounding team, and they just shipped out their best rebounder in Allen.
DeAndre Jordan, when healthy enough to play, is not making up that difference.
Effort can cover some of these defensive issues in the regular season. Durant is a good defender; Irving showed more effort on that end of the floor this season (until he went MIA). But there are not many good defenders, not a lot of depth anymore on this roster (especially after Spencer Dinwiddie‘s injury).
Even if Brooklyn’s offense comes together with its three superstars, will the defense be good enough to win the East (let alone beat the Lakers or whoever comes out of the West)? I’m not convinced it is. If the Nets defense isn’t good enough, they just gave up a lot of draft picks to get marginally better.
Loser: Steve Nash
Nash the player was a relatively ego-less superstar.
These Nets? Harden has had a franchise wrapped around his little finger in Houston for eight years, then just forced his way out the door. The Nets aren’t totally sure where Kyrie Irving is or when he is coming back. Durant has run hot and cold with coaches, teammates, front offices, and fans over the years.
Do you want the job of getting all of them to pull the rope in the same direction?
Winner: The other Rockets’ players
“The disrespect started way before any interview,” Cousins said [referring to what Harden said about the Rockets after their latest loss to the Lakers. “Just the approach to training camp, showing up the way he did, his antics off the court, the disrespect started way before. This isn’t something that all of a sudden happened last night.
“It’s a way about having business. He can feel however he wants to feel about the organization, whatever his past situation is. The other 14 guys in the locker room have done nothing to him. For us to be on the receiving end of some of the disrespectful comments and the antics, it is completely unfair to us. We showed up to work. It’s completely unfair to the rest of the guys in the locker room.”
John Wall added:
“When you have certain guys in the mix who don’t want to buy in, all as one, it’s going to be hard to do anything special, to do anything good as a basketball team… We can’t dwell down on it because it’s only been nine games. Come on man, you want to jump off a cliff after nine games?”
The rest of the Rockets will tell Harden not to let the door hit his a** on the way out the door.
Winner: Houston Rockets with the draft picks
Houston wanted a cargo ship full of draft picks in a Harden trade, and they got them. This is a haul worthy of trading away an MVP. Brooklyn wants to win now and pushed nearly every tradable asset into the pile to make this deal happen.
The 2022 picks — both the Brooklyn and Milwaukee first rounders — are likely late in the first round. But by 2024, we will see if this trade worked out for Brooklyn, if this trio aged well (and all of them decided to stay in Brooklyn) because if they didn’t, those last couple of picks could be very good ones.
By the summer of 2026, Durant will be 37 and Harden will be 35. If they are with the Nets still, how good will they be? Those picks down the line could be great ones for Houston.
Loser: Houston Rockets with the players they picked up
Houston was never high on Caris LeVert and it showed — rather than bring him in, the Rockets found a third team to take him on.
LeVert just averaged 31 points and nine rebounds a game in the three games both Durant and Irving missed in the past week. He’s no Harden — he’s not efficient like you need a No. 1 option to be — but he is a volume scorer who can get buckets, play an important role on a team, and is under contract for two more seasons after this one at a reasonable number ($36.3 million total for those seasons).
Oladipo is a former All-NBA player but has not returned to that form since his ruptured quadriceps tendon, he’s not scoring a lot more points and is barely more efficient than LeVert (Oladipo is not finishing well at the rim this season), plus he is a couple of years older. In addition, Oladipo is a free agent next offseason and is looking for a big contract. Houston can just let him walk, but why not just keep LeVert?
Houston could have gotten more in shipping out Jarrett Allen as part of this deal. Dante Exum is a good rotation player and defender when healthy, but he’s not moving the needle.
Winner: The Indiana Pacers
The Pacers land a solid scoring wing — not an efficient guy, more of a volume scorer, but he can get you buckets — who is under a very reasonable contract for two more seasons after this one.
Straight up right now the Pacers may have gotten the better player, and they control his rights for longer. Whether this is a big win depends on how far you believe Oladipo can ultimately bounce back, how close he can get to his All-NBA self. But the Pacers did well and landed someone who can plug and play next to Malcolm Brogdon right now.