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The Rockets May Need to Trade James Harden—but Why Now?

Houston suddenly has too many problems to count. While it may be wise to trade Russell Westbrook before the season, the Rockets would be foolish to do the same with their other MVP.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Houston fans, you are in my thoughts. First you have to cope with the nightmare of the Texans trading away DeAndre Hopkins in the middle of his prime. And now James Harden has a wandering eye for Brooklyn? And Russell Westbrook wants out too? No matter how the next stage goes for the Rockets, one thing is clear today: The pressure is on for the revamped power structure, led by new general manager Rafael Stone and head coach Stephen Silas, to nail every decision ahead of them or else Harden will soon follow Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni out of town.

Trading Harden before next season would somehow be even more foolish than Bill O’Brien dealing Hopkins last spring. Trading an MVP candidate in the prime of their career almost never goes well—in basketball or any other sport. It would be especially regrettable considering Harden has two more seasons on his contract with a player option for the 2022-23 season. Houston has the time and leverage to hold off on making a deal.

With Harden under contract for at least two more years, the Rockets should slow-play this decision and see how Harden feels in a few months after he gets to see how things work with a new coach, a new system, and new teammates. But the next steps from Stone and Silas will shape the rest of Harden’s chapter in Rockets history. Maybe it’ll include more memorable but unfulfilling playoff runs. Maybe there will be one or two wasted years. Perhaps it’ll be the start of an era that leads to greater playoff success with a system that better balances analytics-driven tactics and pure basketball: more midrange shots late in the shot clock, more ball movement, and more rotation players taller than 6-foot-6.

But Harden’s chapter in Houston definitely shouldn’t end this offseason, though this is one of the most pivotal moments of his story. After trading two first-round draft picks and two pick swaps in the Westbrook deal last offseason, Houston’s asset cupboard is empty. And now the player they traded everything for wants out, too. What a dilemma. Harden wanted to break up with CP3 to play with his ex-Thunder teammate, which is the whole reason Morey made the trade. Trading Westbrook would likely heighten Harden’s desire to play elsewhere, but if that’s what Russ wants, the Rockets have an opportunity to make a deal that increases their long-term odds of keeping Harden.

However, multiple league sources say interest in Westbrook is minimal. Last week, I reported that the Clippers and Knicks are interested in trading for him. But interest doesn’t mean anything more than just that. Most teams don’t need a starting point guard. And every team is scared off by Westbrook’s bloated contract (worth $44.2 million annually for the next three seasons), injury history, and polarizing playing style. At his best, he’s a fantastic playmaker who pushes pace in ways that few players can. But there isn’t a long line of teams scurrying to trade for an expensive, ball-dominant 32-year-old.

Since it was reported that Westbrook wants out, the Hornets have emerged as the most likely team to land him. Front office sources tell me Michael Jordan wants the 2016-17 MVP, which is unsurprising and understandable. Westbrook would put eyes on televisions and fans in the seats (once they’re able to safely return). Charlotte would win more games, too. But those same sources add that the Hornets won’t put the no. 3 pick in Wednesday’s draft on the table for Westbrook, so the organization is clearly not overly zealous to make a deal.

But not including the no. 3 pick isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. The Hornets have plenty of options to tempt the Rockets. They also have the 32nd pick in Wednesday’s draft—which is loaded with role players, not top talent—as well as all of their future first-round picks, which hold value if the Hornets don’t win as many games as they hope. They also have some young players who could appeal to the Rockets, such as P.J. Washington (a big who can pass, shoot, and switch screens), Miles Bridges (a versatile, athletic wing with untapped offensive potential), and Devonte’ Graham (an energetic guard who plays tough defense, makes smart passes, and could see his scoring efficiency leap playing next to Harden). Charlotte would need to give up about $25 million in salary to land Westbrook, which would mean including the expiring contracts of Nicolas Batum or Cody Zeller, or Terry Rozier, who has two years remaining. Regardless of the package, Houston would get some ready-made talent in return, with the potential for the young players to grow.

That said, it likely wouldn’t make Harden feel better about Houston’s future if Westbrook is traded for some picks and players who couldn’t even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Nor would Charlotte’s assets make up for the loss of all the future first-round picks the Rockets gave up for Westbrook. The Rockets should try and do better. It’s difficult to find a new home for Westbrook, but it’s likely necessary in order to build a team around Harden that could keep him from leaving.

A lot of that will have to do with Silas, the respected 47-year-old whom the Rockets hired from the Mavericks to be their new head coach. With Dallas, Silas helped design the high-powered offense that propelled Luka Doncic to one of the greatest starts to a career in NBA history. Harden obviously never had trouble scoring points under D’Antoni, but Dallas did a lot of smart things with Luka that could translate. The Mavs used more cutting and movement than the Rockets ever did with D’Antoni. Head coach Rick Carlisle called various sets to have Luka move off-ball using screens and handoffs to get into a pick-and-roll. Houston’s offense has been more stationary. If Silas can adapt Dallas’s style in Houston, it could lead to more offensive variety, which could appeal to Harden if he gives the new regime a chance.

One league source in Harden’s orbit told me during the 2018-19 season that Harden expressed a desire for Houston to incorporate more ball movement on offense. This came as a shock considering he was in the middle of outpacing his MVP-season statistics from the year before, but I wasn’t sure whether to believe it. But months later, Steph Curry was recorded at NBA All-Star Weekend telling Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer that Harden wanted to stop playing “hero ball” in favor of a system that emphasizes “beautiful basketball,” a clip that went viral again last week following reports Brooklyn could pursue Harden to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

After the Rockets lost Game 5 to the Lakers this postseason, I asked Harden if he wants to play off the ball more like he did earlier in his career. “Any position that a coach wants me on the floor, I’m able to do it or I can learn how to do it. I’m at the point of my career where there’s nothing I haven’t really seen or I’m not really able to do,” Harden responded. “To answer your question: Yes, I’m willing to do whatever it takes, especially to win.” Media-savvy answer? Maybe. Honesty? Perhaps.

It might sound crazy coming from the NBA’s most ball-dominant star, who has led the league in scoring the last three years, but consider this: Harden has played that way before. He was one of the league’s most dynamic off-ball players during his youthful years with Oklahoma City and his first two seasons with Houston. The footwork he uses to create space for stepback jumpers is the same he once used to manipulate defenders off-ball to muster space for catch-and-shoots, lobs, or layups. Why not blend the old Harden with the new?

That is, unless an offer is so overwhelming that Houston can’t say no. But at this point, that deal doesn’t exist. ESPN has reported Brooklyn is “rising” to the top of Harden’s wish list as a potential trade destination. That’s nice, and the teams on Harden’s “list” do matter to an extent, since not being on it could deter a team from trading for him. But what can the Nets actually offer? They have all of their future first-round draft picks, plus the 19th pick in this year’s draft, and a long list of youngish players with some appeal such as Jarrett Allen (22), Caris LeVert (26), Taurean Prince (26), and Spencer Dinwiddie (27). If they dumped a bunch of their picks (like the Clippers did to get Paul George) and some talented players, that could be enough in the end, but only if Harden is clearly a goner and nobody’s offering anything better, which is unlikely.

Morey, who’s now running the Sixers, could decide to split up Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and offer one up for Harden (if he hasn’t already). Virtually any team with young players and a lot of draft picks, such as the Pelicans, could offer more than the Nets. The Thunder could, ironically, offer more than anyone because of the hauls they got for Westbrook and George. Some of these teams might not be on Harden’s “list” today, but the league landscape changes so dramatically they could be added in the near future, expanding the pool of potential teams.

The player empowerment era has convinced many NBA fans to believe a team must listen to every demand from an unhappy superstar, but business doesn’t work that way. The Rockets should be patient, but they need to make the right choices with acquisitions and with the system they build. Or else, they’ll likely come to a point when they have no choice but to trade Harden. Right now, Harden knows there are better basketball situations out there for him. Can the Rockets convince him that the best path ahead is actually in Houston?

Adding Harden to Durant and Irving in Brooklyn would make for a circus, but it’d be a championship-caliber circus. More suitors will emerge in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, the Rockets need to make massive changes to be a realistic contender. And Harden knows it. The Rockets have time, but that time is running out.