The Whiteboard: Biggest winners and losers of the James Harden trade

Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images /

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On Tuesday night, James Harden told the world he had done everything he could for the Houston Rockets but that he thought the situation couldn’t be fixed. On Wednesday, the Rockets granted the face of their franchise his wish, shipping him to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team blockbuster deal.

The James Harden trade expanded as it went: Harden will go to Brooklyn; the Indiana Pacers will snag Caris LeVert and a 2023 second-round draft pick from Houston; the Cleveland Cavaliers maneuvered their way into Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince; and the Rockets will receive Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, three unprotected first-round picks from Brooklyn (2022, 2024, 2026), four pick swaps (2021, 2023, 2025, 2027) and Cleveland’s 2022 first-rounder via the Milwaukee Bucks.

Got all that? Good. Now let’s sift through the biggest winners and losers of the Harden trade.

Winner: James Harden

It wasn’t honorable, professional or pretty, but no one can deny James Harden got what he wanted. The Nets were the original team he asked to be traded to, and even after his wish list expanded, he ultimately got the Kevin Durant reunion he desired.

How it works from here is anyone’s guess; Harden has largely looked overweight, out of shape and mentally checked out so far this season, with his scoring numbers (24.8 points per game), field goal attempts (16.9 per game) and 3-point percentage (34.7 percent) down from last season. With such a big personality now joining two other massive personalities in Kevin Durant and the still-absent Kyrie Irving, there’s a good possibility this all implodes under a first-time head coach.

However, as cringeworthy as it was watching Harden act like a COVIDiot, show up late to training camp and generally do everything to force his way out of Houston but pick up the phone and start negotiating deals himself, he’s back on a title contender, with his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, and has players around him who can cover his biggest weakness of not being able to hit clutch shots in playoff games. Despite how “bad” he’s looked, he’s still posting 10.4 assists per game, and perhaps a change of scenery is what he needs to snap out of this funk. He won.

Loser: Nets reporters and beat writers

My God. As if KD’s prickly and sometimes downright combative demeanor toward reporters wasn’t enough, the Nets also have Kyrie Irving, perhaps the most controversial figure in the league right now (fair or not), who is currently missing from the team due to unknown personal reasons.

We’re not going to make any irresponsible assumptions about why Irving has been absent, but he has plenty of reasons for not trusting the media and was a contentious interviewee long before he was unfairly labeled a “disruptor” over the summer. Add Harden’s odd personality to the mix and that’s a recipe for some very strange, uncomfortable and potentially hostile media sessions.

Best of luck to you, Nets reporters.

Winner: Caris LeVert

Caris LeVert is more than a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, spot starter or very distant member of a Big 3 behind KD and Kyrie. Now on a very good Indiana team, he’ll get to prove it as a long-term fill-in for Oladipo.

LeVert has been having a fine season in Brooklyn, averaging 18.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 27.8 minutes per game, mostly coming off the bench. Now he’ll be a starter whose game can finally be unleashed without having to defer to two established superstars who also need the rock in their hands.

The Pacers are still Domantas Sabonis’ team, and T.J. Warren’s return down the line may complicate matters, but for now, LeVert should be a seamless addition. More importantly, he has a real long-term future in Indiana, and it looks much brighter than it felt in Brooklyn.

Loser: Victor Oladipo

Poor Dipo. The guy was finally healthy again, had shaken off all the rust and was putting up 20.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game on 36.2 percent shooting from deep … and he gets dumped to a Rockets team that may not even have him in their long-term plans.

Houston doesn’t have anything much better going on in its short-term outlook; as much as a core of John Wall, Oladipo, Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins sounds nice, the Rockets were 3-6 with Harden, and Dipo is a definitive downgrade from the Beard. Their haul of picks indicates a full-scale rebuild is coming, and teams are already calling about P.J. Tucker.

With only one year on his contract, Oladipo is now in a totally new and depressing situation where he’ll have to prove himself to any and all potential free-agency suitors. Maybe he flourishes as one of the few great players still in Houston, but it’s a lot harder to get noticed when you’re toiling away for a team that now figures to be near the bottom of the barrel out West.

Winner: Houston Rockets

It may not feel like it right now, because losing a perennial MVP candidate of James Harden’s caliber sucks no matter what. The Beard is arguably the greatest Rocket to ever play aside from Hakeem Olajuwon, and it’s incredibly disappointing a once-promising era ended in such ugly fashion, with Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and now Harden leaving empty-handed without a title. The nature of Harden forcing his way out is a bitter final nail in the coffin.

However, the trade itself is a victory for general manager Rafael Stone, who had virtually no leverage heading into the season with Harden’s public trade demands, slightly gained some back when the Beard said he would try to build something special, and then lost it all again as soon as the Rockets star made his upsetting comments Tuesday night.

Even so, Stone managed to wrangle Oladipo (expiring contract), Exum (expiring), Kurucs (incredibly cheap team option) and a mountain of draft assets. Maybe Dipo doesn’t wind up being a fixture in Houston, which would be disappointing since he’s the biggest name in Clutch City’s return package, but even if he doesn’t, having three unprotected first-rounders, four pick swaps and an additional first-rounder is about as good as the Rockets could’ve realistically expected with such little leverage. Throw in extra cap space with Harden and Russell Westbrook’s gargantuan contracts off the books and the door is open for some intriguing free-agency scenarios.

First-round picks are generally overrated in these kinds of discussions, because the chances of those picks yielding a player as good as James Harden are quite low. But this is how rebuilding works in the NBA when superstars force their way out, and while a trade involving Ben Simmons would’ve been better, at least the Rockets will have plenty of stabs at securing their next face of the franchise through the draft.

Loser: Jarrett Allen

Jarrett Allen went from playing for a title contender in Brooklyn and looking ready to supplant DeAndre Jordan to joining a Cavs roster that already has Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and JaVale McGee in the frontcourt.

Cleveland probably isn’t done making moves, but the Cavs certainly aren’t making any noise in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Take a moment to join me in a moment of silence for Jarrett Allen.

Winner: Indiana Pacers

Dipo was having a resurgent season in Indy, but with only one year left on his contract and the Pacers not interested in ponying up to keep him around for the long haul, LeVert is a younger and (annually) cheaper replacement who is under contract for two seasons beyond this one. Oladipo has been the better scorer, rebounder and 3-point shooter early in this season; LeVert has been the better facilitator and more efficient from the field overall.

But their numbers are incredibly comparable, and they’re both among the best wing defenders in the league. This will not only allow Indiana to continue competing at a high level right away, but also raises the ceiling for the team’s long-term trajectory if LeVert is able to fit into that same role and blossom in it.

Loser: Philadelphia 76ers(?)

Only time will tell if holding onto Ben Simmons and Tyrese Maxey was worth it when a league MVP still in his prime was available.

The Sixers didn’t need to make a move. They’ve been one of the top teams in the East this season, and Simmons and Maxey both have incredibly bright futures in this league. If they win a title with that dynamic duo of Simmons and Joel Embiid, this decision will be vindicated.

But if they never do, and even if they simply fall short of a respectable playoff run this season, people are going to point to this moment as the massive what-if that it already feels like.

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