James Harden trades goals: Clippers lead the field but Knicks, Heat, Celtics and Bucks are ahead

The NBA offseason is usually good for a great performance or two, and boy did the Philadelphia 76ers deliver on Thursday? After months of speculation about whether James Harden would choose for the 76ers or his former team, the Houston Rockets, it turns out he won’t be playing for either one next season. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Harden will accept his contract and the 76ers will try to trade him. While Harden could have signed off and signed with the Rockets, it looks like Houston may have eyed Fred VanVleet as a big backcourt signing this offseason.

So where is Harden going? It seems like he has a heart pinned on a competitor and there are a few of them who could use a primary ball handler. We’re still in the early stages of the trading process, but for now, here are five potential targets for the 2018 MVP.

The Clippers have seemingly spent eons searching for a true point guard. They fell through on a deal with Malcolm Brogdon over health concerns. They signed Russell Westbrook and John Wall last year. Rajon Rondo tried his luck with the Clippers. Since the signings of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they’ve been linked to just about every notable point guard that has come along. Harden is the most attractive option so far.

It matches the icy pace that Leonard and George prefer to play at. He’s the NBA’s all-time assists leader and would join a team that’s only just ranked 28th in the NBA for potential assists. Los Angeles could replace him defensively. Leonard, an absolute playoff assassin when he’s healthy*, could make up for his postseason deficiencies. Harden is one of the NBA’s most consistent stars and could help see the Clippers through the regular season.

The Clippers are beginning to regain access to a decent amount of draft money after giving away a mountain of it to Paul George. They can offer first round picks in 2028 and 2030. They have no shortage of negotiable salaries. The expiring contracts of Marcus Morris, Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum all obviously fit together, although the Clippers would likely prefer to keep at least one for their rotation next season. Philadelphia would certainly want rising guard Terance Mann, even if he has similar skills to Tyrese Maxey. The Clippers have been fighting man offers for three years. Could Harden change her mind? If the answer is no, protracted negotiations could ensue. If the answer is yes, there’s a very good chance Harden is moving to Los Angeles.

While we’re on the subject, let’s address that other Los Angeles team. Currently, the Lakers don’t appear to be a serious bidder. In the past they might have made sense. After all, Rob Pelinka was once Harden’s agent. But about an hour before news of Harden’s fate broke, the Lakers waived Mo Bamba and declined to exercise Malik Beasley’s team option. That would have been the easiest way to achieve a corresponding salary. This is a manipulation league. The Lakers didn’t make that decision blindly. They just seem to have other plans.

*(History suggests that he and George will likely be unhealthy, and yes, that deserves an asterisk).

Miami seems to have a heart for Damian Lillard for now. That’s the right choice in a vacuum. Lillard is a better player. His game fits better with Miami’s egalitarian offense. The Heat didn’t seem to seriously pursue Harden on any of his last two trade requests. Why should that change now?

It would probably require certain circumstances. Portland would need to have a sufficiently successful free agency streak to convince Miami that Lillard is unavailable. Here the negotiations would have to drag on a bit. Harden had to convince the Heat that he could abide by their legendary strict conditioning rules, especially in one of the NBA’s best nightlife markets. The price, which is certainly already lower than Lillard’s, should be reasonable. That could mean allowing Miami to keep Tyler Herro or accepting a smaller package of picks than the three Miami can dangle.

Miami’s desperate need for another goalscorer is well documented, and just as Leonard’s playoff qualities pair well with Harden’s regular-season consistency, so does a partnership with Jimmy Butler. Bam Adebayo is an ideal big man for Harden, capable of catching lobs or directing the more complex two-man game he developed with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia fans have had to witness one of their former stars succeed in Florida. Watching Harden compete in a finals run alongside Butler and Adebayo would hurt even more, but it undeniably fits here.

The Knicks were one of the first teams to be associated with Harden. The logic apparently boils down to their perceived desperation to land a star, and accordingly Ian Begley of SNY, their interest is not uniform across the organization. Based on the postseasons they’ve just had, it’s possible, if not likely, that Jalen Brunson is a better point guard than Harden today. A partnership makes little sense. Brunson came to New York to serve as the primary ball handler. Asking him to watch Harden dribble is a misuse of his skills.

But if the Knicks actually choose to go down this route? You have the means to do this. In addition to all of their own first-round picks going forward, the Knicks have future picks from Dallas, Washington, Detroit and Milwaukee that could be in negotiations. Harden’s price tag at this point could be low enough for the Knicks to trade him in without giving up the assets they would need to add a bigger, younger star later.

The real question here is who the Knicks would use as a suitable salary. Derrick Rose’s option was not taken, so that’s $15 million the Knicks no longer have access to. Evan Fournier’s expiring contract is a start, but everyone is pretty valuable after that. Would the Knicks include RJ Barrett or Julius Randle in such a move? They may just have to do it for a deal to work financially.

If Harden wants a super team, this is it. The Celtics can almost match Harden’s salary by trading Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon and Payton Pritchard. They control all of their future draft funds, minus a pick swap owed to San Antonio. They could still technically bring Grant Williams back since they have free reign over his birding rights.

All in all, it means there’s a very doable road to Boston with James Harden, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams and Kristaps Porzingis in the starting XI and Derrick White and Grant Williams coming on as substitutes. All it would cost would be a whole lot of tax money. The Celtics would still need to fill their roster with minimum wages after that and their frontcourt still poses a high risk of injury, but on paper this is one of the few teams Harden could come to and would be immediately favored in a seven-minute tournament . Game series against the defending champion Nuggets.

Would Philadelphia trade Harden for its closest rival? There’s an argument for doing this just to weaken them down the line. Harden is 34. If Philadelphia manages to pad out its roster and is ready to win again, Harden’s heyday (or whatever’s left of it) will likely be over. Daryl Morey tends not to focus on such things. He will still make the best offer on the table. The bigger question is whether Boston is willing to pay what it takes, both in draft picks and, more importantly, dollars, to put together that roster. Harden is the type of traditional playmaker Boston has lacked in years. He could be the missing piece of their championship puzzle.

And here’s our other Super Team option. Here the chances are even smaller. The little Bucks are even less able to foot a big luxury tax bill (although they received some cash injection when Jimmy Haslam bought a stake in the team this offseason). You’d also have to deal with Harden’s controversial comments about Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020. “I wish I was 7 feet tall and could run and just dive in. It doesn’t require any skill at all. I actually need to learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll learn that every day,” Harden said at the time. There’s bad blood here.

But the Bucks have salary to match in Grayson Allen, Bobby Portis, Marjon Beauchamp and Pat Connaughton. They have one tradable first-round pick (2029) and can offer trades for two more (2028 and 2030), and Beauchamp is probably worth a first-round player himself. If the price is low enough, there’s a viable deal here, and for all the depth it would take Milwaukee, it’s worth noting that the Bucks were essentially ready to go into the 2020-21 season and their entire cap only five players when they almost traded for Bogdan Bogdanovic. This would be a similar principle, but with a far better ball handler.

Harden is the halffield shotmaker that Milwaukee has been missing throughout the competition. The Bucks won a championship in 2021 with Khris Middleton in that role, but his durability has been an issue for him lately and technically he’s close to becoming a free agent. Even if the Bucks re-sign him (which is likely), they will need someone who can provide offense late in the games. A five-man lineup of Harden, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez is about as even as any other unit in all of basketball. That’s three elite defensive players and five very good offensive players. The Bucks would likely be Eastern Conference favorites in this group, even assuming the rest of their roster would likely be based on minimum wages.

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