Trade talk surrounding Houston Rockets star James Harden seems to be intensifying in recent days.
A month ago, the prospect of Houston dealing away its most popular player seemed ludicrous. Now, it is being floated as a legitimate possibility.
The change of course is a natural reaction to the Rockets’ collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Harden and Co. weren’t necessarily expected to win the series, but they were expected to keep it competitive. After Game 1, that didn’t end up happening.
This week, Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report spoke to an NBA executive who suggested that trading Harden was a feasible option.
“Everything should be on the table, including moving Harden,” he said.
NBC Sports NBA insider Tom Haberstroh said something similar.
“I wouldn’t put it past [Daryl Morey] to consider moving James Harden,” he said.
Then there was John Hollinger of The Athletic and the former Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Hanging over all of this is Harden’s future,” he wrote.
“Nobody is talking about this yet, but Harden can become a free agent at the end of 2021-22. Paired with an aging, asset-free roster and an owner unwilling to spend on better help, when does he start looking at greener pastures?
“And if the Rockets are stuck with a dim future roster-wise, isn’t cashing in their Harden stock about the only way out?”
These Suns players gotta be more careful. https://t.co/DJLSnzOPTM
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 18, 2020
The Rockets have a lot of money tied up in Harden. He is owed $41.3 million in 2020-21, $44.3 million in 2021-22 and has a player-option worth $47.4 million in 2022-23.
Houston has the 10th highest payroll in the league and two of the NBA’s four most expensive players in Harden and Russell Westbrook.
By 2022-23, the Rockets will be paying just Harden, Westbrook and Eric Gordon $114 million combined. That is a lot of money for a team that isn’t winning any championships.
Complicating matter furthers is head coach Mike D’Antoni’s departure.
Harden and D’Antoni, for all their struggles when it came to winning a title, made an excellent duo.
Their rapport was unmatched, and there is a very serious case to be made that Harden would not have developed into the player that he ultimately became if not for D’Antoni’s help.
How will Harden feel about the next head coach, who will be less inclined to run offenses that amplify his numbers while ignoring his lack of movement when he doesn’t have the ball?
She makes a reasonable point. https://t.co/oAFUDD5vcL
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 17, 2020
Jeff Van Gundy has frequently been cited as a possible contender for the vacant Houston job.
At least one NBA executive believes there is absolutely no way Harden plays for him.
“James [Harden] ain’t playing for [Van Gundy],” the exec told Bleacher Report. “It’s a player’s league … [Van Gundy] is going to want to practice every day.”
Which brings up the obvious question: how much say will Harden have in the hiring process of the next head coach? If he gets to dictate terms, then obviously his future with the Rockets is secure.
This is a problem. https://t.co/7yhgCdRPIP
— Game 7 (@game7__) September 16, 2020
However, if Houston goes out and hires someone like Van Gundy, suddenly that is thrown into question.
Regardless of what happened in the playoffs, Harden still had a tremendous 2019-20 campaign. He finished the regular season averaging 34.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per outing. He also shot 44 percent from the field, 35.5 percent from three and 86.5 percent from the free throw line.
At age 31, Harden still has many more years of high production left. But Houston’s options when it comes to getting better under the realities of their cap situation are limited.
Obviously they could try to trade Westbrook, but there are less potential suitors for him than for Harden.
The odds of Houston legitimately shipping out Harden at this stage are slim, but the fact that the conversation is even taking place is telling. Again, a month ago it would not have even been a thought that anyone would entertain.
This is going to be an interesting offseason for the Rockets. What they do here will shape the franchise many years to come.