January 14, 2021

Winners and Losers of the James Harden 4-Team Trade

It finally happened.

The Rockets finally traded disgruntled superstar James Harden to the Nets in a blockbuster four-team deal that impacted the entire league. 

With a deal this massive, there are bound to be plenty of winners and losers. Let's start with our biggest winner. 

Winner: Indiana Pacers

Before we discuss the impact of the player Indiana received, let’s talk about the Pacers’ situation before they made this move. With a 7-4 record and an impressive No. 4 overall in net rating, the Pacers' biggest issue was that they employed a star in Victor Oladipo whose days were numbered in Nap Town. Oladipo clearly has his sights set on a big payday when he hits free agency in the offseason.

Herb Simon has always been one of the cheapest owners in the league, as the Pacers have not paid the luxury tax since the 2005-06 season. With Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner taking up big money, it was pretty obvious that the Pacers would not want to back up the Brinks truck for Oladipo.

And when the opportunity arose to acquire Caris LeVert, a 26-year old wing on a very reasonable $52 million contract over the next three seasons, the Pacers had no choice but to make the move. LeVert has had to take a backseat in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s arrival, but he still displayed his star-like qualities when afforded the chance. In the three games he played without both Durant and Irving this season, LeVert averaged 31 points, 5.3 boards and nine dimes. 

LeVert proved he was ready for a bigger role after he shined in the NBA bubble last season. 

Loser: Steve Nash

This probably wasn’t exactly what Nash had in mind when he accepted the Nets job. It must have been hard enough being a rookie coach while trying to integrate two supremely talented scorers in Durant and Irving, with the latter already taking his first leave of absence from the team.

By trading away LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, Brooklyn is now perilously thin and possibly redundant in the ball-handling category. The Nets had a much more defined structure before the Harden trade, with Durant and Irving as the alphas and LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie (before his unfortunate injury) handling secondary facilitating duties.

Now? Nash has three ball-dominant (emphasis on dominant) stars who are all used to having the rock the majority of a game. It’s probably a problem half the league would love to have, but not much surrounds their new Big Three, other than veteran sniper Joe Harris and aging center DeAndre Jordan.

Will Harden’s presence make up for the clear talent disparity in Allen and Jordan? When the 22-year old Allen was on the court, Brooklyn blitzed opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions thanks to his vertical paint defense and rim-running ability, both skills that the 32-year old Jordan used to be a pro at. This season, the Nets are essentially playing opponents even when Jordan is on the floor, compared to beating enemy squads by over six points per 100 possessions when the big man rests.

Ultimately, Brooklyn had a pretty damn good squad that was well balanced and deep, and now they’ve blown it all up for Harden. Yes, he’s James freaking Harden, but that’s still a risk when considering their team wasn’t exactly in desperate need of help before making the move.

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers

In the words of wily veteran Larry Nance Jr, Sexland is now surrounded by trees, with Sexland referring to the Cavs’ explosive young backcourt of Colin Sexton and Darius Garland, and the trees being the new big man on the block, Jarrett Allen.

What General Manager Coby Altman just did should be in the handbook for every executive in the league. In no way were the Cavs an essential part of this deal. All they had to do was send a protected future first-round pick and Dante Exum in exchange for one of the most promising young centers in the game. It’s clear Altman knows what he’s doing.

Sure, there will be folks clamoring that the amount of centers on the Cavs rivals the Pistons’ stash, but those are premature notions. Current Cavs big men are as follows:

  • 28-year old Andre Drummond who is a free agent this offseason and is likely expecting a boatload of cash
  • 32-year old Kevin Love who the team has tried to trade multiple times
  • 32-year old journeyman big JaVale McGee
  • 28-year old Larry Nance Jr, who has grown into a quality role player

That doesn’t exactly scream “Everything is fine, we’re set here for the next decade!”

Allen may be part of a crowded frontcourt now, but he’s already become their long-term answer at the position if they elect to re-sign him in free agency. His age also lines well with the Cavs' timeline with Sexton (22), Garland (20), Isaac Okoro (19) and Kevin Porter Jr. (20).

Loser: Houston Rockets

According to multiple reports, and despite 76ers head honcho Daryl Morey categorically denying it, Ben Simmons was likely on the table in a trade for Harden. If that's true, it’s quite shocking the Rockets elected to go with Brooklyn’s offer of four total first-rounders and four pick swaps, as well as Caris LeVert, who they decided to immediately swap for Victor Oladipo.

On the surface, that looks like a respectable return for one of the game’s greatest players, but dig a little deeper and there is a pretty good chance Houston just dealt Harden and didn’t receive a single guaranteed commodity in return.

For example, out of the four picks received, one of them is from the Cavs, so you may be thinking that’s a great asset. Wrong. The pick actually is actually from the Bucks, one of the best squads in the league. 

Then there are the three future Brooklyn firsts, which could obviously not be worth much because the Nets just traded for James Harden to pair with Durant and Irving, which gives them three of the most lethal scorers in the league. If that team stays together, those picks won’t be anything special.

There’s a chance the Nets implode and the Rockets have a Danny Ainge-like treasure trove of assets on their hand, sure, but that’s a big “if.”

Finally, instead of keeping a quality, two-way player in LeVert, Houston traded him to Indiana for Oladipo, who is two years older and set to become an unrestricted free agent. 

But does that really matter when it’s far from a guarantee he’ll want to stay in Houston? There are already rumors, courtesy of The Ringer, that Oladipo’s preferred final destination is still the Heat

That means there is a distinct possibility that all the Rockets will have to show for Harden are some late first-round picks and role players.

Winner: Stephen Silas

Poor Stephen Silas finally got a head coaching opportunity after years in the league grinding as an assistant, and he walked into this mess. Not only did the new coach have to adjust to becoming a new head coach in the NBA, but he also had to deal with a superstar openly expressing his desire to leave. 

Now, the Rockets can have a fresh start. There’s still ample talent on this roster with John Wall, Oladipo, Christian Wood, DeMarcus Cousins, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon.

Now Silas can mold the team in his own vision and see what happens without having to deal with the pressure of a disgruntled superstar.

Photo: Getty Images