Hold Your Horses On Harden Trade Until Sixers Pony Up
Rule No. 1 of dealmaking is to never force a decision out of weakness. So maybe the Nets need to take a step back before making a rash trade of superstar James Harden.
It’s out in the open that Philadelphia General Manager Daryl Morey has an enduring affection for The Beard from their time together in Houston and would love nothing more than to take him off Brooklyn’s hands. Simultaneously, Morey needs to offload All-Star guard Ben Simmons, who has refused to play this season citing “mental illness,” to open up the salary cap space needed to acquire Harden prior to the February 10 trade deadline.
You’d think the Nets would have the upper hand in terms of leverage here, but that’s not how it appears to be playing out, if you believe multiple reports indicating that Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks is suddenly listening to offers for a player for whom he emptied the asset cupboard a year ago in the trade with the Rockets.
That’s because the Nets are in absolute freefall, losers of seven straight and 14 of their last 20 games after getting blown out in Utah on Friday, 125-102. Harden, who received his tenth All-Star berth on Thursday, was a late scratch due to a balky left hamstring (no, not the one that hobbled him at the end of last season and into the playoffs), joining three other starters--Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and LaMarcus Aldridge--on the team’s injured list.
Brooklyn then responded to Wednesday’ 112-101 defeat in Sacramento, the team’s low point of the season, in my opinion, with an effort that screamed, “I don’t want to be here!” Kyrie Irving (more on him below), the lone member of the Nets’ Big 3 to suit up in Utah, shot 6-for-20 and was minus-29 in 31 ineffectual minutes. Now he knows how Harden felt during all the Nets’ home games where Irving was required to sit out because he has refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Many folks are assuming that Harden’s absence from Brooklyn’s bench in Utah was related to his desire for an exit. I have no knowledge whether that’s true, though the YES broadcast did note that Harden was in Vivint Arena getting treatment. For three hours, though?
It doesn’t matter. Harden’s feelings are irrelevant at this point. Marks has a responsibility to hold out for an appropriate package. Harden may not be the force he was prior to last season’s injury and his defense is a major liability, but he’s still an offensive Grand Master, second in the league with 10.2 assists per game. When the team gets healthy and all these non-shooters head back to the Nets’ bench, I’m confident you’ll see his scoring efficiencies rise as the paint gets unclogged.
There’s no reason for the Nets to settle here. A Philadelphia Inquirer article insinuated that the Sixers’ most enticing players—guards Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry plus wing Matisse Thybulle—are believed to be untouchable, even for Harden. So, how about Georges Niang? Is he on the table? Can the Nets get a FAX machine thrown in?
What are we doing here? I understand that Harden is a pending free agent, but Morey would have to clear out both Simmons and Tobias Harris before he could have the cap space to sign Harden outright in the offseason (and that’s if Harden really, really is willing to give up as much as $70 million in compensation to jump ship), something that won’t be easy to do with few teams expected to have such room. Morey would then need Brooklyn’s help to execute a sign-and-trade.
Ten days ago, I put forth what I felt was a fair trade proposal (If Harden Is Indeed Disenchanted In Brooklyn, Can The Nets Find A Workable Solution? (substack.com) between Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Atlanta (because I needed a team that was reportedly interested in Simmons, who I don’t want to see end up here). The Nets would get Maxey and wing Danny Green from Philly plus forward John Collins and two first-round picks from Atlanta; the Hawks would get Simmons; and the Sixers would end up with Harden and the disgruntled Paul Millsap.
If Morey won’t pony up for that, Marks should tell him to stick his offer up the Liberty Bell. I’d rather see the Nets allow Harden to rest up while they lose another seven straight games through the All-Star break and then see what they’ve got when KD returns to action before giving up on this season.
This is all Irving’s fault.
I was warned by several people on the day of the “clean sweep” in the 2019 offseason that saw Brooklyn secure the signatures of Irving, Durant, and center DeAndre Jordan in free agency, perhaps the most glorious moment in this franchise’s NBA history save for its two Eastern Conference championship clinchers after the dawn of the century. Those folks guaranteed that Irving would act as a saboteur as much as he would as perhaps the game’s most skilled player of all time.
I still think it had to be done because Durant wouldn’t have come here without Irving. They wanted to play together, they wanted to play in New York City, and the Knicks were a hot mess. Boom, they were Brooklyn bound, presumably in pursuit of multiple NBA championships.
Unfortunately, it looks like my friends were more prescient. In his short time here, Irving has gone out of his way to not play basketball, and I’m not referring to all his injuries. He’s entitled to his world view, no matter how cockeyed it may sometimes seem to many of us, but he also has an obligation to honor his commitment.
This season’s excuse, of course, is the vaccine as mandated by the City. I’ve written extensively on that topic (feel free to go through the archives), but the point here is that Irving’s status—banned through December and then granted clearance to play road games only since—has destroyed the team’s fabric. What team can develop chemistry with separate rosters for home and road games?
I’m convinced that this Harden trade talk sideshow doesn’t happen if Irving had gotten vaccinated like over 97% of his comrades on the court (even Simmons recently got the jab, per reports). Harden, who originally chose Brooklyn over Philadelphia because he felt they were closer to winning that elusive title and, now 32, he could share the load with two of the league’s best players, has already expressed his unhappiness with how this season is going, though he will never mention Irving by name. On the court, though, he looks worn out from carrying the heavy burden Irving left behind.
The Nets went all in on their Big 3 and now it could very well unravel in the next week. My friends are in “I told you so” mode. Credit them for seeing this coming a mile away.