Breaking Down the Harden Deal

How do you wrap your head around this recent James Harden trade?  This epically large trade was as follows:

Nets get: James Harden from Rockets, 2024 second-round pick from Cavs

Rockets get: Caris Levert, Rodions Kurucs, three first-round picks (2022, 2024, and 2026) from Nets, and four options to swap first round-pick with the Nets; Dante Exum and 2022 first-round pick (Milwaukee’s) from Cavaliers

Cavaliers get: Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, and rights to Aleksandar Vezenkov from Nets

That really is a lot to unpack.  Let’s breakdown the trade and its aftermath for the teams involved FAQ style…

Should the Nets have “gone for it”?

The Nets’ mindset was correct.  They have a limited window to compete for a title while Kevin Durant is still in his prime and the current core did not look like a serious title contender.  Yes, the Nets were a top-four team in the East and there was a chance this could gel but struggles against Charlotte and Memphis were not good signs.  In spite of this, before the Harden trade, the Nets’ playoff probability had already increased since the start of the season to last week, from an average of 95% to 97.8%, as of January 5th.

The goal here is to load up with the best possible team to try for a title in these next two years.  The real issue is whether Harden was the right fit for that moonshot.  The Nets have been very good offensively (5th in the NBA) and their weaknesses are elsewhere (12th in defensive rating and last in offensive rebounds allowed).  Harden, as great as he is, doesn’t necessarily address the clearest areas for improvement.

On the other hand, this is James Freaking Harden.  He is an unstoppable offensive player and will make the team better.  The other looming factor is Kyrie Irving.  It’s not clear why exactly he left the team recently and when he will be back.  If Kyrie is not in the long-term plan, Harden makes a lot of sense but it does lead to more questions namely:

If Irving is coming back (which is expected), how the hell are the Nets going to get proper value from three high usage players? 

Durant has a career 30.2 usage (31.5 this year) and Kyrie is 29.3 for his career (30.4 this year).  Harden has had a 33.3 usage rate on Houston (though it was down to 29.3 as he moped his way through this season).  The obvious answer is their touches will go down a bit.  Let’s see how usage and effectiveness were affected in a few other “super team” scenarios:

1996-97 Rockets: The Hakeem Olajuwon/Clyde Drexler Rockets famously brought in Charles Barkley for a slew of players.  Barkley’s usage dropped from 27.5 to 23.2 but his BPM was identical.  In other words, he fit in well but agreed to curtail his offensive game a little (on the other side, his rebound and assist rates spiked).  Meanwhile, Hakeem’s usage dropped slightly (31.9 to 30.4) but was essentially the same player.  Drexler rate stats were the same and he was also essentially the same player.  It was a good team but their lack of depth (particularly at point guard) did them in against Utah in the playoffs.

2014-15 Cavaliers: When LeBron James came back to Cleveland, the aforementioned Kyrie was there and had a 28.2 usage without LBJ. James came and brought in Kevin Love from the Wolves.  They were a good team and made the Finals but here’s how they fit together from a usage perspective:

-Kyrie, 26.2 (-2.0 from prior season)

-Love, 21.7 (-7.1 from prior season)

-James 32.3 (+1.3 from prior season)

In the coming years, Kyrie and Love did get more shots but LBJ was the clear boss.  In terms of effectiveness, only Love took a big hit in stat numbers.

2016-17 Warriors:  The last example involves KD fitting in with the Warriors.  GS needed Durant to mesh with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (who was much less of a star than any of the names above).  Curry looked like the best player in the NBA during the 2015-16 regular season (11.9 BPM, 32.6 usage) but he took a small step back for KD.  Curry’s stats were great but not quite the same (6.9 BPM on 30.1 usage).  Durant sacrificed a little bit too (usage dropped from 30.6 to 27.8, BPM from 9.9 to 8.9).  Finally, Klay’s usage stayed about the same and, like Drexler, was essentially the same player.

I skipped a few other potential super teams (2003-04 Lakers, 2007-08 Celtics, and 2010-11 Heat) but what we’ve seen is that, in all these prior cases, one of the big three stars has to take a stat hit to fit in.  Barkley transformed his game to effective power forward/second option. Kevin Love (and Chris Bosh in Miami) also gave up shots.  In GS, Curry and Durant both compromised a bit for the overall good (Thompson, a catch-and-shoot guy was not affected by the move).

The big difference in Brooklyn is that Kyrie and Harden are valuable because they create shots and possessions.  None of the other scenarios above involved two ball-dominant guards meshing together.  To use an older example, I don’t see Kyrie playing the Earl Monroe role to Harden’s Clyde Frazier.  It is possible that the Nets figure this out but it does not intuitively fit. In other words, the Nets will still be good but this could get awkward and doesn’t definitely make them the best team in the east.

Why did the Nets give up so many draft picks?

Frankly, I’m not sure.  The three picks have indeterminate value but to throw in the three draft swaps seems excessive.  The only way that makes sense is if Philly (or someone else) drove up the asking price in a bidding war.  If the Nets win a title (or make a Finals or two) the price will have been worth it but one would have to think they could’ve gotten better future draft pick protection.  It is possible that the three-to-six picks don’t turn into a ton of value but the future theoretical exposure here is quite large.

The Nets other parts…

In addition to having to figure out how Irving and Harden fit with each other, the Nets lost some depth with Levert and Allen.  Levert’s loss should be offset by the fact that one of KD, Kyrie, or Harden will be playing at almost all times.  Allen’s loss hurt a bit more because he was a pretty good center (better than DeAndre Jordan).  The Nets will have to get creative with undersized centers.  The other hope is that the Nets’ player development wing, which has done a great job generating players (when they last gave away all their picks to the Celtics) might do the same with Reggie Perry, Bruce Brown, and/or others.

The Rockets’ End

That was a fairly impressive haul for a trade made under duress.  Of course, they still have to hit on the picks.  We recently wrote about how the Warriors turned three first-rounders they got for Chris Webber into Todd Fuller, Antwan Jamison, and Larry Hughes.  GS didn’t totally miss on the picks either.  They did okay on two of them (but taking Fuller over Kobe and Nash was an epic fail).  It’s relatively nice outcome for the Rockets but it is tempered by the fact good players have to be available in the draft, and they have to draft well.  Not everyone hits it out of the park like Danny Ainge did with his Nets picks.