One of the storylines of the offseason was that former MVP James Harden had requested a trade from the franchise. Since then, much has been made of Harden’s attitude, off-court antics and increased weight to start the season, with many thinking their teams would be better off without him. But here’s the truth: Regardless of Harden’s locker room presence, nearly every team in the NBA would not just improve with the future Hall of Famer, but potentially become championship contenders.
Without dispute, Harden is one of the best 10 players in the NBA, and one could argue that he’s the best isolation scorer currently in the league. Harden has averaged at least 30 points per game every year since 2017 and at least 25 every year he’s been in Houston. Harden does all of this incredibly efficiently, shooting above 61 percent true shooting every year since 2016-17. The bearded star is also an elite playmaker, averaging 7.7 assists per game over his nine seasons with the Rockets.
It’s also worth noting that Harden rarely misses games, never playing less than 62 in a season. Despite Harden being very loudly criticized for his weight and effort level coming into the year, he’s still playing at an absurd level by averaging 37 points and 11 assists through three games on 72 percent true shooting.
The question that comes with Harden is often how he would fit with other elite players around the NBA. One of the teams frequently rumored to have a significant interest in Harden is the Brooklyn Nets, but would the fit work on that roster? But the notion that high-level superstars like Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can’t share the ball and win while doing so is incorrect.
Of course, Irving played second fiddle to LeBron James in Cleveland, where they went to four NBA Finals in a row. Durant has featured in two of the most loaded rosters in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder – a team Harden was on – and the Golden State Warriors. Harden himself has succeeded around a variety of high-level NBA players throughout his career. Naturally, Harden and Chris Paul were one historically bad shooting night away from taking down the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference Finals.
Alongside Russell Westbrook last season, the pair had the third- and sixth-highest usage rates in the NBA and Harden still averaged 34.3 points and 7.5 assists per game. If Harden were to end up in Brooklyn, one of the stars would have to take a backseat as a primary scorer, but all three are more than capable of doing that for the good of an NBA Championship.
Fit is less of a concern with a team like the Philadelphia 76ers, where Harden would theoretically slide right into that lineup alongside Embiid. The question there has been if the price of admission for Harden is too high for Philadelphia to pay. It’s been widely reported that a deal for Harden to the 76ers would likely have two-time All-Star Ben Simmons headed back to the Rockets along with additional assets.
Simmons is an excellent player and an All-NBA level distributor and defender, but Harden is one of the premier talents in basketball and would immediately help the 76ers elevate their profile to championship contender. Philadelphia’s offense is sitting at a 107.7 offensive rating, good for the 17th-best in the NBA. Since 2015-16, Harden has led Houston to a top 10 offensive rating and was only outside the top five on two occasions – eighth in 2015-16 and sixth last season. A top 10 offense to go along with Philadelphia’s elite defense puts them in a title conversation that Simmons is just unable to.
Another team that had links to Harden, albeit lightly, is the Denver Nuggets. As a team with an excellent young core, the Nuggets have long rumored to be involved when a superstar player becomes available – but with Harden, it may be time to pull the trigger. The Rockets reportedly expressed interest in Michael Porter Jr. as a player they’d target in a potential Harden trade, which had many wondering why the Nuggets would make that move.
Harden’s fit with the Nuggets is a bit more questionable than that of other teams. Denver runs its offense through Nikola Jokic, using him as the team’s primary facilitator while running a lot of delay dribble handoff action from the high post, while Jokic uses his passing ability to find open cutters and shooters. People often criticize Harden for his unwillingness to participate in offense off the ball, which could be a problem for the Nuggets as off-ball movement drives their offense.
However, Harden operating the two-man game with Jokic is hard not to be intrigued by. That action would give Harden tons of opportunities both as a scorer and a facilitator. Plus, it’s not a given that Harden wouldn’t be willing to work off-ball in Denver. But the defense is another reason to be hesitant as they’ve already got the 29th-ranked defensive rating in the NBA, allowing 116.1 points per 100 possessions.
Regardless, the path to the NBA Finals for the Nuggets isn’t clear with this roster – but with Harden, it becomes more visible. Porter Jr. is a talented player, but even without injury concerns, would he ever reach the heights that Harden has as a player? The Nuggets can’t sit on their hands forever and a player like Harden changes the team’s trajectory immediately upon arrival.
Looking at just Harden’s playoff and regular season numbers in Houston, his scoring doesn’t drop off much at first glance, averaging 29.7 points per game in the regular season and 28.4 in the postseason. However, his shooting numbers take a more noticeable dive, with his 61.3 percent true shooting in the regular season dropping to 57.8 in the playoffs. His offensive box plus-minus takes a plunge as well, falling from 7.1 to 6 during the postseason. These numbers are still very good, just not at the regular season level we’ve come to expect from Harden.
If he’s surrounded by other MVP level talents like Durant, Embiid or Jokic, that could take the pressure off of him as a scorer; a luxury Harden hasn’t had in the playoffs to date. Paul was never at that level as a shot creator, Westbrook struggled mightily in the postseason and before either of them, it was just Harden running the show. There’s also Harden’s contract, which has two years remaining on it after this season, and a $47 million player option on the final year. This only gives teams one year of sure-fire team control over Harden past this year, but as the Raptors showed with Kawhi Leonard, none of that matters if you win a championship.
While adding Harden isn’t without risk, the obvious rewards could be much sweeter. Harden is one of the league’s best, and if or when he is traded, it’ll be quickly apparent how much value he adds to any NBA roster.
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