Director of research and analysis Jeremy Berman breaks down the motivations behind the recent 4-team trade that saw James Harden go to the Brooklyn Nets.
After weeks, months even, of ruckus out of Houston (and Las Vegas and Atlanta), James Harden finally had his trade request granted by the Rockets. Harden was sent to the Brooklyn Nets to team up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the latest rendition of a big three in the NBA. Here’s a summary of what each of the four teams involved in the deal sent out and received:
Brooklyn Nets -
Out: 2021 1st Round Pick Swap w/HOU, 2022 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2023 1st Round Pick Swap w/HOU, 2024 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2025 1st Round Pick Swap w/HOU, 2026 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2027 1st Round Pick Swap w/HOU
In: James Harden
Houston Rockets -
Out: James Harden
In: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, 2021 1st Round Pick Swap w/BKN, 2022 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2022 Milwaukee Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2023 1st Round Pick Swap w/BKN, 2024 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2025 1st Round Pick Swap w/BKN, 2026 Brooklyn Unprotected 1st Round Pick, 2027 1st Round Pick Swap w/BKN
Cleveland Cavaliers -
Out: Dante Exum, 2022 Milwaukee Unprotected 1st Round Pick
In: Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince
Indiana Pacers -
Out: Victor Oladipo
In: Caris LeVert
Brooklyn Nets Perspective
As earlier mentioned, the Nets have their big three. The pressure to win a championship, or multiple championships, has arguably never been higher with the assets the Nets gave up to obtain Harden. Oftentimes in a trade involving a star player with a large salary, ancillary pieces end up arriving in the deal alongside the star to make the math work. This time, however, the Nets' sole return was the former NBA MVP, James Harden.
The Nets are hoping not to relive the previous decade. After making a megadeal in 2013 for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and depleting their future assets, the results were one winning season followed by four straight seasons under .500. The organization had a first-hand experience with the feeling of not being good, while simultaneously not being able to seriously improve your team. However, the Nets now have a new owner, new front office leaders, a new coach, and an entirely new crop of players. They hope the next seven years look drastically different than the last seven.
Sean Marks has now collected three of the top players in the world, which is something every general manager strives to do, and we’ve seen that model work out. It’s a move you have to make because the opportunity to collect a group of players this talented on the same team is extremely rare. However, now the pressure is heightened, and anything that goes wrong will only be magnified in the media.
How will a first-year coach, while a basketball savant, handle dealing with the variety of his players’ personalities? Will Kyrie Irving mesh with Durant and Harden? Will the Nets’ key players stay healthy? After all, Durant is 32 and coming off of a devastating achilles injury. Harden is 31 and currently in some questionable shape. We don’t know when Irving will see the court again, as he has an extensive injury himself. We also can’t forget that Joe Harris is about to be 30, Deandre Jordan is 32, and Spencer Dinwiddie just tore his ACL.
Taking a look at the cap sheet, Durant, Harden, and Irving all have deals that last this year and next, with player options in the 22-23 season. This means the Nets are only guaranteed two shots at a championship with this core.
With the haul the Nets had to give up for Harden, and a roster teetering on the edge of a major depth problem, the Nets winning a championship is no sure thing. Still, it’s a move a general manager has to make, but not winning a championship with this group would likely be a failure in the organization’s eyes.
Cap notes for the Nets:
As it currently stands, the Nets only have nine full-time, healthy players, although Chris Chiozza and Reggie Perry are on two-way contracts.
The Nets will be paying a hefty luxury tax bill that will likely grow as they fill out the back-end of their roster. Fortunately, they are helped by the league’s adjustments to a projected drop in league revenue.
Houston Rockets Perspective
Harden got his wish, and while no one really expected the Rockets to be a conference finalist this year, it’s even less likely now. The Rockets had to deal yet another disgruntled superstar, but seem to have been able to leverage the market for an insane haul of picks to jump-start their inevitable rebuild. While the Nets and Bucks picks they received will almost surely be in the 20s over the next two seasons, the Nets roster will very likely look extremely different starting in 2024. The vision for the Rockets is now on a much longer timeline, and the uncertainty that comes with the Nets’ 1sts in 2024-2027 could prove crucial to drafting the next generation of talent.
Further, the Rockets dropped all the way out of the luxury tax, and now have much cleaner books going forward. If anything, this deal lightens the load on the owner’s pockets after Tilman Fertitta’s recent $150m super yacht purchase.
Cap-wise, the flexibility gained from forwarding Caris LeVert from the Nets to the Pacers for Victor Oladipo will help clear the books. However, a closer look at the Rockets’ cap sheet shows that John Wall and Christian Wood’s contracts run through 2022-23 (the same timeframe as Caris LeVert), and Eric Gordon has a likely non-guaranteed year in 2023-24.
The counterargument to holding onto Levert is that he’s already 26 years old and only on a three-year deal. The Rockets will almost surely not be championship contenders at the time LeVert’s contract is up. If a big draw for the Rockets is fielding a team that is as cheap as possible going forward despite owing John Wall over $130m in the next three years, then mission accomplished.
Cleveland Cavaliers Perspective
The Cavaliers came out of this deal looking great. While they are now overloaded at center, this year is not the priority for this young squad. Javale McGee and Andre Drummond will come off the books next season, leaving Larry Nance, Jr., Kevin Love, and the newly acquired Jarrett Allen as the primary bigs.
Allen is a restricted free agent next year, and the Cavaliers will surely have to pony up for him based on what he’s shown as a double-double threat and fearless shot-blocker every night. Even at a likely $12m-$16m per year cost, it’s tough to imagine a world where Allen is not as valuable as Milwaukee’s likely bottom-five 1st Round Pick in 2022. Acquiring Taurean Prince as a serviceable forward/wing for the next two seasons is not a bad get either.
At the cost of Dante Exum, who’s almost always hurt, and a very late 1st, the Cavaliers have added to their solid, young core. If the coaching staff can get the pieces to fit together, the future is setting up nicely in Cleveland.
Indiana Pacers Perspective
The Pacers came out great here. Since the Pacers are not the en vogue free agent destination, drafting well and trading for locked-in talent is very important.
There have been conflicting reports on whether Oladipo wanted to stay in Indiana or not. Either way, the Pacers were going to end up pretty deep in the tax in order to give Oladipo a deal he’d be happy with. With this trade, they secure a talented guard that fits in with the personality of the organization and keeps their talent level relatively similar.
It’s important to keep everything in perspective. While the Nets have taken on significant risk in losing control of every one of their 1st Round Picks through 2027, they have gathered the talent to become the favorite in the East. The Cavs and Pacers may not have given up much for what I view as great value plays, but neither is close to the level of the Nets talent-wise. The Rockets saved a ton of money and set themselves up with a treasure chest of future picks. All in all, taking the differing team contexts into account, it’s not hard to understand the argument for each team making the moves they did.