Examining Raptors’ trade options for Harden: Should they go all in?

ESPN Houston Radio Host John Granato joins Jesse Fuchs to talk about the “James Harden to Toronto” rumours he tweeted about on Sunday.

It’s a broken-record statement: Every move the Toronto Raptors made this past off-season was carefully curated towards maintaining fiscal flexibility for the summer of 2021, in which the class of free agents looked to be higher profile than that of 2020’s.

But now that Giannis Antetokounmpo has re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, Rudy Gobert with the Utah Jazz, and LeBron James and Paul George with their respective Los Angeles franchises, that once superstar-filled class has been significantly whittled down (Kawhi Leonard remains the biggest name, though George’s extension would seem to signal his eventual return).

And while players like Victor Oladipo are certainly intriguing, the Raptors may prefer to pivot towards scoping out distressed assets, of which the Houston RocketsJames Harden is absolutely the most valuable.

But dealing for Harden is no simple act. The goal of any trade is to bring in more, or comparable valuable than what is being sent out, and that’s impossible for Houston with a superstar of his stature. Consider the precedent-setting haul the Bucks doled out this off-season in exchange for Jrue Holiday, then factor in Harden being a former MVP who is still in his prime with three years (two guaranteed) left on his deal — a rarity in these situations. Compounding matters further is Rockets owner Tillman Feritta, whose reluctance to enter the luxury tax is well-documented, making the matching of salaries complex given Houston currently being hard-capped.

Despite all of that, Harden wants out. The Rockets would prefer to avoid a Vince Carter situation, where a disaffected star's value depreciates with a season of uninspired performances. And all signs currently point to a split.

Should Toronto find itself in serious discussions for Harden, there are a few possible deals (with some being more viable than others) to make things work.

Trade Scenarios

Beginning with the most pragmatic option, the Raptors could send a package centred around Pascal Siakam that includes Norman Powell, Terence Davis, and draft compensation for Harden and P.J. Tucker.

This would satisfy Houston’s self-proclaimed desire for a young star (Siakam isn’t super young at 26, but he's still on the cusp of his prime) as well as land them a high-level role player in Powell and young asset in Davis, along with picks.

Toronto would not only receive Harden, but the acquisition of Tucker (who has made it clear he would prefer to move on from Houston) would help alleviate the need at forward that would become only more apparent with Siakam’s departure. They would also no longer have to manage Powell's upcoming player option (worth $11.6 million if he exercises it), nor the moral implications of keeping Davis, who was recently arrested and charged for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend at a New York hotel.

A second option would be the same deal, but with slotting in Kyle Lowry in place of Siakam to send to Houston. This would be more of a frugal direction, since Lowry’s present contract is expiring, and combined with getting off of Harden’s salary early, this would quickly open up cap space in the near future and ensure an avoidance of the luxury tax.

Of course, any potential deal centred around Lowry for Toronto is one that should be carefully evaluated, considering his all-time importance to the franchise and connection to the fanbase. If he were to be sent out (especially if he were displeased with the move a la DeMar DeRozan), it would be an undeniably difficult pill to swallow for many.

Initially, the Rockets voiced that they were prepared to enter the season with Harden and let things play out, and while they will still go into 2020-21 with him should nothing surface that satisfies their wants in a trade, they have now reportedly shifted their stance towards getting something done as soon as possible.

If a deal is to happen sooner rather than later, the Raptors will have to include one of either Siakam or Lowry in any given trade to make the money work. Their other moderate-to-high salaried players have all recently been signed, and due to league rules, cannot be dealt for up to three months.

This does mean, of course, more options unfold if Harden is still on the Rockets as the trade deadline (now set for March 25) approaches.

Toronto could then create a package with Fred VanVleet as the primary piece rather than Siakam or Lowry, for example. Or they could offer a medley of role players and lower-end bench guys, though that would seem to be the most unappealing selection.

It must also be noted here that any package Toronto can offer will very likely not be the best one available to Houston, should they wait long enough. That, obviously, makes it rather unlikely that the Raptors will end up making a deal for Harden, though it of course doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.

Pros of a Harden trade

In the event that the Raptors are in a position to realistically land Harden (no matter what the deal looks like), doing so makes sense. Aside from the overt reasons as to why a team should want to add a top-10 player to its roster, Harden would seem to be a good fit.

Depending on the trade, the Raptors would still be able to surround Harden with four plus-defenders, mitigating his defensive limitations (which are often overblown; he’s an average perimeter defender when engaged and underrated when asked to check players in the post) and therefore harming the overall defence less than one might believe.

Offensively, Harden is a transcendent talent, one of if not the top scorer of his generation, and would instantly bolster a Raptors offence that ranked 14th (111.1) in offensive rating last season. A large reason Toronto was so mediocre on that end of the floor was its inefficiency in the half-court, caused by a lack of individual creators. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors ranked 16th in half-court offence, mustering just 111 points per possession.

The Rockets, on the other hand, ranked seventh in half-court offence, generating 112.9 points per possession. While Harden wasn’t the only component of that offence, he certainly was the driving force of it, averaging a 35.6 usage percentage and 45 per cent frequency rate in isolation plays (this ranked first in the league by far; Russell Westbrook was second with a 25 per cent frequency rate), which saw him in the 91st percentile.

There were only two players in the entire league last season who were able to manage a usage percentage of at least 30 and a true shooting percentage of at least 60 (remaining hyper-efficient on such a high-volume workload is absurdly tough), and they were reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and Harden.

While it’s not always easy incorporating a superstar player into a new club, and while a coach like Nick Nurse prefers his teams to play an egalitarian style of basketball, exceptions are understandably made for prodigious talents like Harden.

Toronto already did this once, acquiring Kawhi Leonard and working his often isolation-heavy game into the team’s offence. There were grumbles about that style of play at times throughout the 2018-19 season, but it ultimately resulted in a championship, and made the sacrifices worth it.

The bottom line here is this: A player like Harden brings a team like Toronto closer to winning a title than it is right now. If that’s the goal, and recognizing that it’s unknowable how long it may take the team to otherwise obtain a player of Harden’s calibre, it would not be astonishing for a transaction to take place should such a rare opportunity present itself.

Cons of a Harden trade

Though his basketball fit may not come with any concerns worthy of hesitation as it pertains to the idea of pulling the trigger on a deal, it’s Harden’s grandiose personality that could give a franchise more than a moment’s pause.

Most (if not all) superstar players in the NBA receive a certain level of special treatment — it’s merely a ramification of the league’s ecosystem. But Harden has reportedly seldom if ever faced resistance from the Rockets on anything (until now as they try to figure out how best to move on from him) and, as such, may find it difficult to assimilate to a franchise whose culture has not been built heliocentrically.

Under Ujiri, the Raptors have spent years cultivating the precise type of milieu it takes to become a perennial playoff-or-better team, a feat that even a decade ago felt next to impossible. Now, after invaluable contributions from the likes of Dwane Casey, DeRozan, Lowry, Bobby Webster, Nurse, and Leonard (as well as the rise of Raptors 905), Toronto is viewed league-wide as one of the upper echelon organizations.

If Harden were to be dealt to Toronto, then, a bit of a rocky start off the floor wouldn’t be surprising. However, the Raptors are confident in themselves and their ability to sell anyone, especially superstars, on not only their roster, but their organization and the city they represent as a whole. They felt positively about their ability to do so with Leonard in 2018-19, and though he eventually left for reasons not purely related to basketball, it’s clear that he was sold while a part of the team, playing through injury and giving his all to help Toronto secure its first championship.

With Harden having three years remaining on his current deal (and his history as an ironman), the Raptors would at least have a longer time with him than the lone season they got with Leonard.

Still, that doesn’t entirely eliminate the concerns brought on from Harden’s tenure in Houston, particular those related to his former co-star teammates, all of whom — from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Westbrook — became disgruntled and eventually either departed or were traded.

Perhaps the most perturbing element of a Harden deal, though, is what his next contract will look like. At the moment, he’s entering the second season of a four-year, $170 million extension (one that escalates each year) that will see him earn a total of $228 million by the time his contract is up, and he’s considered worth every penny.

Assuming he exercises his player option, Harden will be 33 years old by the time he’s able to be a free agent again and will certainly be looking to capitalize on his elite talent possibly for the final time. Whether or not he’s still worth a hefty price at that point will depend on a myriad of things.

Locking up a cap sheet long-term for a player at that age, no matter who they are, is always a risk, and it’s one that the Raptors would have to consider in any trade discussions as they weigh their personal outlook on the present against that of the future.

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