This Tuesday, I linked to a piece from Zach Lowe where he discussed the potential for the Thunder to trade James Harden for future salary relief. Today, we're going to break down the possibility and mull whether it's at all reasonable. If you haven't read the article, go read it in full now, but I'll excerpt a bit for the purposes of this post.
As I wrote yesterday, it's possible-perhaps likely-the Thunder simply bite the tax bullet for two years in pursuit of a title. After all, why else do people own sports teams if not to seize a rare chance at history and public good will? At the very least, I'd bet on them prolonging the decision to see how any number of variables-their need for Perkins as they play more small-ball, the tax level, the league's revenue-sharing system, etc.-play out before doing anything dramatic, since they'll be able to flip Harden for a massive pile of assets if need be at any time.
But what if the Thunder could both save money and maintain their championship level of play next season - and beyond - at the same time? That will be enormously difficult, especially since Harden, nearing the expiration of his rookie deal, falls into an incredibly complex region of trade rules under the league's new collective bargaining agreement.
As for Harden, Houston could get far enough under the cap to offer several types of packages - one built around Kevin Martin's expiring deal and a couple of picks, including Toronto's likely lottery pick; or another built around those same picks, plus some combination of young wing players (Jeremy Lamb, Chandler Parsons, etc).
Though the Rockets seem intent on a full-out rebuild, the pursuit of Dwight Howard and every signal the Rockets have given in the last three years indicates that the Rockets will give up on the rebuilding effort in a second in order to get their hands on a star player. With that in mind, it seems likely that the Rockets would pursue Harden with everything they have, assuming the Thunder are even open to trading him (certainly a big assumption).
Harden is good, definitely somebody worth going after, but in looking at all the scenarios, I struggle to envision a situation where the Rockets can bring him in.
The reason why the potential to bring in Howard was so enticing was that it's so rare that a top five player hits the trade market. With Howard, Ryan Anderson can be your second best player and you can still be a legit playoff team. The sky is truly the limit with him, especially if you can surround him with a second star player.
Harden? Not so much. He's young, talented, and a probable All-Star for the next half decade or so, but he's not the kind of player you hitch your wagon to and feel comfortable that he's going to headline a consistent contender. That isn't to say that the Rockets shouldn't pursue him, because getting a young perennial All-Star at a difficult position to fill would be a coup, but I don't see him being worth the enormous price the Thunder will demand.
Going into the draft, the Thunder reportedly turned down the #2 pick (and the opportunity to pick Bradley Beal) for Harden. Given that the Rockets tried and failed to acquire the #2 pick from Charlotte, the Rockets would clearly struggle to top other offers for Harden.
In Dwight Howard trade talks, the interested teams had all the leverage. Orlando had to trade Howard before training camp, and everyone knew that. The Thunder only will trade Harden if the deal doesn't seriously hurt their chances to win a title, and that's why I just don't see one happening unless a team overpays big time for him.
I'm sorry, but I'm not prepared to give up Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lamb, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and the Toronto pick for James Harden. If I'm the Thunder, I ask for a package along those lines and if the Rockets reject the offer, I hang up the phone.
In this case, it takes two to tango, and the Thunder don't have to deal with anyone if it doesn't please them. And I struggle to envision a scenario where both the Rockets and Thunder will be satisfied in a James Harden deal. After seeing Morey refuse to overpay for Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, I don't know why he'd start with a lesser player in James Harden.
In the end, Lowe says it best when discussing the Thunder's side of things:
If priority No. 1 is winning a title, none of these offers are that appealing.
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