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Can trading Harden now, for less than Harden was then, make sense?

It may not be a choice, but if it is...

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets
Merely averaging 39 per game.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a serious trade speculation piece. This is not even a silly trade speculation piece.

I’d vastly prefer Killer James Harden just give it a year with the John Wall, Boogie Cousins, Potentially Good Eric Gordon, Christian Wood, 6’5” Assault Team, Rockets.

Part of the reason is that I believe I have invested too much of my life into defending James Harden. He’s like having a brilliant, but controversial, child, in some ways. I KNOW he’s great. I can PROVE he’s great, and if you don’t think so, it’s some sort of personal problem, or axe to grind on your part. That’s how parenting goes.

I cite as evidence in my favor just how superb James Harden suddenly became when the national media realized he might soon be playing for a team they liked more. Oh, so NOW he’s good, and every compliment isn’t a backhanded one? I see. The problem was Houston all along?

So there’s that.

Then there’s a more analytical problem. All the possible trade pieces.

All of them clearly aren’t as good as Harden is right now, because almost no one is.

That’s to be expected, but if you’re trying to get value for Harden, what do you do with “Young Super Stars” when they aren’t as good as Harden was AT THE SAME AGE?

James Harden wasn’t a stick of dynamite that suddenly exploded when he was unleashed on the Rockets. It might seem that way, but he was in fact, really good, beforehand. What he got with the Rockets was far higher usage, in a far larger role, than being the third wheel to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. (1)

James Harden was better than all the potential trade targets at the same age.

Let’s look at the three players who seem like they might be worthwhile trades for Harden.

I’m going to ignore packages of players that seem like 5 nickels for a quarter. It may add up, but you can only play five guys at a time. The marginal value of one of those guys being James Harden, instead of one fifth of James Harden, is clearly immense.

There aren’t many young players of value even mentioned in trade speculation, because the idea that the future will be far better than the present is a strong one. A young player MIGHT outdo James Harden in the future (he almost certainly won’t), but he MIGHT, so his value must be high.

I’ll use Basketball Reference’s VORP (value over replacement level player) for this piece, as it makes same age comparisons easy, and one number. There are, of course, other stats and metrics, that are more, and less, favorable than this one. It’s really just to make a point that even at same age valuations, Harden was better.

There are only three players that seem worth considering being bruited about.

Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons has seen his VORP actually decline since he entered the league (after the usual 76er year plus off due to injury/forgetting how to play basketball, for rookies). Simmons just had his age 24 season, a season where star players start showing real value above their peers, typically. Simmons notched a VORP of 2.8, down from the staggering 4.5 of his rookie season.

Simmons - age 24 - 2.8 VORP.

What was James Harden doing at age 24, in his second season for the Rockets? 4.5 VORP.

So, it’s neat that Simmons is 6’10” PG who can’t shoot, but defends well. He’s unique. He wasn’t better than Harden at the same age, however. He wasn’t even better at 24 than Harden age 22, in OKC, in the sixth man role (3.1 VORP). Simmons is meant to be a marquee star, but this metric, at least, doesn’t see it.

Michael Porter Jr.

Another very tall, very promising, young player with early, seasoning cancelling, back problems. We don’t really have a full season of play for MPJ, and despite him taking “wisdom” from bizarre corners of the internet, he’s an intriguing player. There’s a lot to dream on with him, at only 22.

He’s still not what James Harden was, but he’s young enough that he might be.

Still, age 21 seasons, a breakout for Porter Jr. in that he actually played basketball, saw him lodge a VORP of 0.8.

Harden, age 21? 2.2.

Of course, it’s possible that none of this matter. Health is important. Staying on the court is where value is accumulated, not in highlight reels, or amazing plays nobody else could do.

It could be that MPJ never gets the usage to blossom in Denver, that there’s a Harden type bloom waiting, but it should be noted, Harden fills the stats in nearly every category, because he acts a point guard. MPJ will need someone to pass to him, like Nikola Jokic.

Tyler Herro

What a great story. What an interesting player. Promising skills. Fun.

Not particularly close to Harden at the same age, despite a nice Bubble.

0.1 VORP for Herro, 1.1 for Harden at age 20.

Maybe Jaylen Brown is in play. If so, he’s not as good on a same age comparison basis, either. Jason Tatum IS comparable, but no one seems eager to trade him in Boston.

It could be the Rockets have their hands forced, and they have to make the best of the situation. If they do, though, don’t expect another James Harden. Odds are he’s a generational player, and even actual stars, instead of potential ones, look mundane in comparison. That’s why trying to keep Harden going forward, if possible, is still the best move.

Drama is everywhere, but true greatness is rare.


Going forward?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Stay The Course.
    (430 votes)
  • 20%
    Take What You Can Get.
    (158 votes)
  • 23%
    Luka or no one.
    (184 votes)
772 votes total Vote Now

(1)- Why Harden thinks he wants to play with Durant, after playing with Westbrook, now that he’s a one man supernova, escapes me. You can’t go home again. A creator like John Wall, who can help with the on-ball duties is probably a better fit, except for Durant being a supernova of his own.

There’s another interesting piece here. 2020-21 might be the year the league changed as regards Achilles injuries. Yes, the superduper stars like Durant, could be like Dominique Wilkins, that is, just so talented he’s good anyway, on 1 12 legs, but what about David Nwaba looking springy?)