Behind the Rumor: How James Harden's Return to Houston Could Affect the Nets

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James Harden was mischievous and nice to 76ers fans at Christmas. Yep, he led the Philadelphians to their eighth straight win over the Knicks with a 29-point, 13-assist effort to kick off ABC’s NBA coverage. But an hour before that, in what certainly looked like an orchestrated move, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the 33-year-old superstar might want to return to Houston in the off-season. He has a player option this summer on his bargain deal with the 76ers.

Nets fans can laugh if they want at the news that Harden might once again try to force his way out of a team, as he did when he moved from Brooklyn to Houston in 2021, then from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 2022. But The fallout from a Harden-Houston reunion has multiple ramifications for Brooklynites, all related to the trades that brought him to the Nets and then kicked him out.

The biggest one is related to the 2021 trade that Sean Marks planned to get it in the first place. In case you forgot, here’s how this deal worked:

In the trade, the Nets sent center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince to Cleveland, and guard Caris LeVert and forward Rodions Kurucs, in addition to three first-round picks (2022, 2024 and 2026) and four first-round trades ( 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027) for Houston. The Rockets also received point guard Dante Exum and a 2022 first-round draft pick from Cleveland (via Milwaukee), and Brooklyn acquired a 2024 second-round draft pick from the Cavaliers to complete the deal.

Exchanges are the thing. As long as the Rockets pick is better, i.e. higher, in 2025 and 2027 than the Nets, Brooklyn keeps its picks, the trade is “defunct” as they say. But if the Nets go into a tailspin and their firsts are better in those two drafts, they’ll be sent to Houston and Brooklyn will end up with the Rockets’ pick. (The Nets didn’t have to trade picks in 2021, and there’s virtually no chance of that happening in next year’s draft.)

So if Houston, armed with Harden and a solid young core, turns out to be a better team than Brooklyn has ever been, that will increase the chances of trades with the Nets. (Now imagine Houston winning the lottery, taking Victor Wembanyama and signing Harden! It could happen. The Rockets currently have the second-worst record in the NBA.)

This is a branch. Here’s the other one: The 76ers without Harden disappear. The Nets earned two firsts in the February trade for Harden. In case you forget the details of that deal, here they are again:

The Nets sent James Harden and Paul Millsap to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond. They also got the Sixers’ unprotected 2022 first-round pick deferred until 2023, plus a 1-8 protected 2027 first-round pick. If protections prevent the Nets from acquiring the 2028 pick, it will move to 2028 protected from 1 to 8 again. The pick turns into two seconds and $2 million in 2029.

The Nets also generated a major trade exception which, along with their first of 2023, they used to acquire Royce O’Neale from Utah. This choice will likely be late first. It is currently 26th.

Would losing Harden (for nothing, because the Rockets would have plenty of room to sign him right away) hurt the Sixers in the long run, leading to other ramifications? Maybe, though when Philly has to give up that pick in 2027, a lot of people will be much older.

Of course, all of these ramifications depend on where the Nets are going forward. Kevin Durant, playing at a high level now, is under contract until 2026, Simmons, looking more like his former self, is under contract until 2025. Kyrie Irving? That’s the big question. His contract ends at the end of June. The Nets could re-sign him then… or now, for that matter. Will they? Does he want to stay?

Indeed, Houston’s strategy in demanding these future trades involved the hope that Brooklyn would be in a rebuilding mode by the end of this decade and the trades would become valuable. If that’s the case, it can get ugly. The Nets don’t want to see a scenario like what happened in 2017, when they lost to Jayson Tatum because of the pick trade included in the ill-fated trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.

All of these scenarios are hypothetical in nature. Quite go happens and there’s a fair amount of speculation that Harden, via his sources, just wants the 76ers to think about a longer extension in the off-season or he wants something else: like a change in head coaches. As Woj reported, his relationship with Doc Rivers alongside the one Harden has with Joel Embiid is “a work in progress”.

Meanwhile, for Nets history buffs, there’s this fun fact provided by Jake Fischer of Yahoo! Sports…

When Nets officials learned of Harden’s waning commitment to their franchise, his alleged interest in returning to the Rockets was on Brooklyn’s radar as much as the looming threat from Philadelphia.

While Harden was frustrated with Kyrie Irving’s part-time status in Brooklyn and a knee injury to Kevin Durant in January left him carrying the offensive burden for the Nets, sources said Harden also craved the familiarity of Houston, where he’s settled. became a central mogul of the region’s popular culture and entertainment industry.

So Marks moved on to get him something instead of making him walk last summer and signing with the Rockets.

How likely is a Harden move to affect the Nets’ future? Less than that would mean for the 76ers and Rockets. That’s for sure, but it’s always fun to speculate. Than continue.