The Rockets’ James Harden trade changed how teams rebuild
The James Harden trade was the NBA equivalent of the Velvet Underground & Nico. If you’re not up to date on your father’s music (or grandfather’s music at this point), the Velvet Underground & Nico was the debut album from the Velvet Underground. Upon its release, it was a commercial failure and ignored by critics, but has since become regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. Brian Eno, another person your grandparents or parents will know, said of the album selling 30,000 copies in its first five years, a figure that has since been debunked, "Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!"
The media ridiculed the James Harden trade. They had traded a superstar caliber player, and all they had to show for it was a bunch of unprotected picks and swaps when real NBA players had been available. While the fans and critics were left wanting, those in the NBA saw the trade in a much more favorable light.
The Rockets turbo charged their rebuild on two fronts. Not only would they have a steady stream of external picks, but they had made their own picks all the more valuable in a single move. NBA decision makers saw the wisdom of getting as little current NBA talent back for a star and opting for unprotected picks.
If the Rockets had taken the widely rumored Sixers package that would have landed them Ben Simmons, they would have been a far better team in the short term, but what would their long-term outlook be? Would they have both Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr? I doubt it, and so do NBA general managers.
The Rockets' rebuild blueprint has been followed by both the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs. They too had star players and opted for hauls heavy on unprotected picks and swaps and light on actual NBA difference makers. The Rockets' strategy was a bold step forward for tanking. Anything new is risky, but in the two years following the trade, it appears that the rest of the league believes it is the bold new way forward. Genius is rarely appreciated in the moment, but in retrospect, it’s as clear as day. The James Harden trade didn’t just usher in a new day for the Rockets, it ushered in a new era for the NBA.