Houston Rockets reason #3 to love the James Harden trade: The Rockets’ own picks.
The NBA is a superstar’s league. The two most used formulas for championship contention aren’t entirely complicated: a top-five player, two more top 20 players, and role players who compliment them. Alternatively, a top-five player, two more top 10 players, and a weaker cast of role players. Either way, there is a common denominator amongst the vast majority of NBA history’s championship contenders: a top-five player.
James Harden is a top-five player in the NBA. Nobody who was reportedly available in exchange for him was, and none of them are particularly likely to ever get there, with apologies to the soon-to-be ex-Sixers Ben Simmons and his imaginary jump shot.
If the Denver Nuggets had made a harder push for Harden then maybe Michael Porter Jr would have a chance, but his history of back injuries at such a young age is deeply concerning, and even then, as talented as he undeniably is, the top-five is tall cotton. We have not seen enough from Porter Jr to conclude that he’s likely to reach that kind of peak. Anyway, it’s a moot point: The Nuggets apparently refused to include him in a package to acquire James Harden.
After Porter Jr, the options got considerably less attractive. Caris LeVert has been a high volume, low-efficiency gunner with his own litany of injury concerns to this point in his career. Furthermore, at 27, he’s not necessarily an ideal player to rebuild around. Any Rockets fan watching the Eastern Conference semifinals this season had a hard time repressing an (expletive) eating grin as Ben Simmons bricked free throw after free throw, passed up open dunks to find teammates for almost-open layups, and basically played his team out of the series.
Lindberg and Bill Simmons alike feel that the Rockets should have taken the Ben Simmons package. There’s a compelling argument on either side. However, with an annual salary of $35 million dollars a year that runs through the 2025 season, there is absolutely room for disagreement. With Philadelphia rumored to be shopping Simmons, it's fair to wonder whether a player with such distinct and impactful limitations is a wise investment at that price point.
Tyler Herro regressed in these playoffs too, and the Heat (hilariously) didn’t seem to want to include him in trade discussions for Harden either. The Rockets may have dodged an overconfident, Instagram model dating bullet on that one.
caliberAll of these guys are solid, above average, starting calibre NBA players. That’s kind of the problem. Had Stone opted to add any of these players to the Rockets’ roster in exchange for Harden, they could have added 5 to 10 wins to their 2020-21 season. In other words, instead of currently being entrenched in a Green/Mobley debate that has enlivened the fan base, Rockets fans would be talking about potential draft steals with the 18th pick while their conference rivals, the Thunder, sit in a position to draft Scottie Barnes and Moses Moody.
Tanking has turned into a dirty word in many NBA circles, but bottoming out for a single season in which two former MVP candidates demanded trades from your team, in pursuit of a player who has the potential to shape your franchise well beyond 2030, is simply smart. Rockets fans are excited and for good reason. It’s hard to be confident they’d feel the same excitement about Ben Simmons or Tyler Herro as they do about Jalen Green or Evan Mobley.
Imagine this: you’re in a relationship with the woman of your dreams. She breaks up with you (complete with a Prada bag full of honey buns as a parting gift). Should you rebound into the next available relationship with someone you’re moderately interested in? Or, should you hold off for the next woman of your dreams?
In some ways, the Harden trade wasn’t about what the Rockets got. It was about what they didn’t get.