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Ranking the five teams involved in the James Harden trade saga

It’s been long enough to have an idea of winners and losers.

Photo by Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle

So here we are, just about 16 months removed from the four-team blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What’s surprising about this deal is that nearly every tangible piece involved is no longer a part of the team they were shipped to. What isn’t surprising is that somehow, someway, former Houston Rockets’ GM and current Philadelphia 76ers’ President of Basketball Operations, Daryl Morey, was going to exhaust all efforts to acquire his guy, even if it came in a roundabout way.

With all of that being said, I think we can officially rank the winners and losers of the original trade.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

I would love to put the Rockets at the top spot here...that being said, the thing I value the most in a large trade such as this one is getting back players that can step in and immediately become core pieces towards the future. Houston can jump Cleveland in the years to come depending on how they use their draft picks, but right now, at this very moment, the Cavs are in pole position.

The draft compensation Cleveland had to send out to piggyback on this trade likely won’t accumulate to what they received in the burgeoning Jarrett Allen when you consider it was a Milwaukee Bucks first-rounder. Just this year, Allen was elected to his first All-Star Game, ironically as an injury replacement for Harden.

Combine that with the fact that Cleveland was able to secure him to an extension last summer, you would have to believe the Brooklyn Nets are kicking themselves for opting to keep DeAndre Jordan over Allen due to his friendship with Nets’ stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

2. Houston Rockets

Don’t get too upset at where your team is currently ranked because it can only go up from here. Rewinding back to how acquiring tangible pieces is a desired outcome in trades, the reason Houston is number two at the moment is because the draft pick that became Josh Christopher is the only actual player on the roster at this time. That will change though. The real goldmine is the assortment of Brooklyn picks that Houston controls for the next SEVEN seasons. We’ll get to how valuable those are later on.

I’ll be frank in admitting that I didn’t think that the Rockets received enough when it came to proven talent. Then again, they were left with no other choice than trading their malcontent franchise player and had lost some leverage in the process. And with the way Harden has been playing now, it appears they may have actually maximized their potential return.

It seemed like Allen could have been had, but once the tank was on, it became apparent that taking the Oklahoma City Thunder approach to “rebuilding” was put in motion. Victor Oladipo, who was still hampered from his devastating quad injury back in 2019, was soon flipped to the Miami Heat for the likes of Kelly Olynk and Avery Bradley, both no longer with the team. The other minor pieces in the trade such as Dante Exum and Rodion Kurocs aren’t even in the NBA anymore, so what we’re left with is the hope of great draft luck.

The seven years of Brooklyn picks hold high potential for the Rockets, especially when you consider the whirlwind trajectory of that team.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

The role Philadelphia played in all of this couldn’t be ignored. Once all of the trade rumors started swirling around Harden last year, it become apparent that his basketball future likely included the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia edges Brooklyn in the rankings due to the Sixers technically being the closest to winning a title. I’d argue that a healthy Brooklyn squad would beat them in a series, but we are going off what’s happening in the moment. Philly also can claim victory due to not having to part with talented young players, Tyrese Maxey and/or Matisse Thybulle, both who would have likely been required had Harden been sent directly to the 76ers in 2021.

Philadelphia would have been declared the slam dunk “winner” of the Harden trade had it happened last year, but that's a different James Harden than the one we’re accustomed to. Considering his impromptu and seemingly diminished play, the Rockets should feel fortunate that they won’t have to pick up the tab on the five-year, $270 million max contract extension he’s likely seeking this summer. The long-lasting effects from the hamstring strain that happened circa April 2021 appear to have zapped some of the super-powers he had shown during his time in Houston.

Now of course, if Philadelphia manages to win a title anytime in the next few seasons (it won’t be this one), they would correctly be vaulted to the top of the list. However, for that to happen it’s likely going to require a more consistent version of Harden that closer resembles him in a No. 13 jersey and not the one he’s displayed since switching to No. 1.

4. Brooklyn Nets

Trust me, I searched for an angle to place the Nets last here, but if all things are considered, they would do this trade again 100 times out of 100. This was a trade they couldn’t resist and how do you blame them? Pairing three of the greatest offensive players this game has ever seen netted the Nets the highest offensive rating by a team in the history of the league. When Harden, Durant and Irving were on the court together it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would win at least one title...

But suddenly, by some measure of misfortune, it all came crashing down. Injuries plagued them going into and during last season’s playoffs. This season was marred by more injuries, Irving forgoing the NBA’s vaccine mandate, and then subsequently came the Harden trade request which ultimately reunited him with Morey.

For Brooklyn, this offseason will require recalibration in hopes that they still can realistically compete for a title and not be a fringe playoff team. Durant isn’t a spring chicken, Irving hasn’t proven an ability to consistently be available, and Ben Simmons, who was the bulk of the return that the Nets got for Harden, is yet to suit up and just had BACK SURGERY.

All of those factors point to things trending in Houston’s favor.

5. Indiana Pacers

To be honest, Indy doesn’t even feel like they were involved in this trade at this point. I almost considered them as N/A in these rankings, but since they helped facilitate the trade they’ll get some talking points.

Providing more than just a silver lining, this trade very well may have saved Caris LeVert’s life.

However, LeVert’s tenure with the Pacers mirrored Harden’s stay in Brooklyn: short. It did result in some draft capital for Indiana. It’s a win for a team that, like the Cavs, got assets for giving up virtually nothing. But unlike the Cavs, none of the assets are currently making an impact on the court for the Pacers, and thus they round out the rankings.

Final Verdict

At the end of the day, trades are always going to look better or worse in retrospect. The Rockets felt confident enough at the time to go with this package over competing offers and it looks like that decision has a high likelihood of paying off. Do you agree or disagree?


Which team won the James Harden trade saga?

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    Houston Rockets
    (653 votes)
  • 2%
    Brooklyn Nets
    (26 votes)
  • 21%
    Cleveland Cavaliers
    (196 votes)
  • 0%
    Indiana Pacers
    (3 votes)
  • 2%
    Philadelphia 76ers
    (21 votes)
899 votes total Vote Now