Raptors 'a strong candidate' to make trade for James Harden

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (Nell Redmond/AP)

It's no secret that the Toronto Raptors' season hasn't gone according to plan so far.

Heading into its New Year's Eve game against the New York Knicks, the team sat 0-3, its worst start in 15 years. Given the condensed nature of this pandemic-shortened season, a slow start could derail a whole campaign.

Pair that with the team's recent blockbuster trade history, and a disgruntled Houston Rockets superstar being on the market, and it's no surprise NBA insiders have linked Toronto to James Harden. The latest to do so was ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

"The Raptors are almost in the same spot that they were two years ago [when they made the Leonard trade]," Windhorst said during an appearance on The Lowe Post podcast. "They have good players. They're a good team. There's probably seven teams in the Eastern Conference who could get the whiteboard out and convince themselves that they're getting to the Conference Finals.

"...I actually think the Raptors are a strong candidate to do this again. Whether or not they could execute it, whether or not they could bring themselves to do it [we'll see]."

A factor that may deter the Raptors from pulling the trigger on a Harden trade, Windhorst mused, was the contractual situation of Toronto's president of basketball operation Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri, a former executive of the year, was an architect of the trade that brought Leonard to Toronto -- a move that culminated in the team's first-ever championship. However, his long-term future with the team remains unclear, as he has yet to sign a contract extension that would keep him making decisions for the Raptors beyond this year.

"The one thing I would say about the Raptors is Masai is unsigned," Windhorst said. "Going forward, it is still a murky reason as to why he is unsigned -- whether it is his choice or the Raptors' choice, I wish I had more information but I don't.

"If you're going to trade for James Harden, you're likely going to have to give multiple lightly protected or unprotected future first-round picks. If I was Raptors ownership, I would say, 'Well, you want to trade for James Harden, let's figure out who is running this team when these picks are being traded.'"

Harden, whose season has been marred by multiple COVID-19 safety protocol violations that have delayed his joining the Rockets and caused him to miss games, has been as impactful as ever when he does play.

In two appearances prior to New year's Eve, Harden averaged 39 points, 12.5 assists and five rebounds.

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