James Harden trade rumors: Projecting star’s impact on a new team, and what numbers say about possible deals

The fundamental premise of any James Harden trade is that the acquiring team believes he can win it a championship. That’s it. There’s no deeper motive. There are no tickets to be sold this season. At 31 years old with some questionable fitness habits, there is no five-year plan. You trade for James Harden because you think having James Harden is the difference between winning a championship over the next year or two and not doing so. 

But how big of an impact would Harden really have on the teams in the hunt to acquire him? SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh ran the numbers to find out. Each game this season was simulated 10,000 times both before and after a possible Harden trade, with the tables below displaying the results. 

They will likely surprise you. In most cases, Harden’s impact on his new team projects as minimal. In some cases, Harden even makes his new team slightly worse due to the tremendous cost of acquiring him and the limited options in refilling depth during the season. 

So let’s go through the most realistic destinations, set a likely price and figure out just how much Harden would actually help each of these teams. One last note before we begin: In reality, these deals would include draft capital. Picks are not included for our purposes because they have no impact on the 2020-21 season (beyond use in other possible deals, which we won’t project). With that in mind, we’ll begin with the team Harden has been pushing for from the start. 

The trade: Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs for James Harden

Nets

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

3

97.3%

9.2%

33.2%

After trade

3

97.9%

10.7%

35.6%

The Nets improve slightly by adding Harden, and their motivation to acquire him likely grew when Dinwiddie partially tore his ACL. He’s now expected to miss the rest of the season, and with a player option on the final year of his contract, there’s no guarantee that he ever suits up for the Nets again. 

But Oh’s statistical model views the upgrade from LeVert to Harden as somewhat marginal, when you factor in the loss of Allen as Brooklyn’s best center as well. No team would face a greater “too many cooks” dilemma in adding Harden than the Nets. As dominant a trio as he, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would form offensively, satisfying all three would be a challenge, and would weaken Brooklyn’s defense and depth. At a certain point, their offense would see diminishing returns. How good can any offense even be? 

The saving grace in this iteration of a Harden deal is that it would allow Brooklyn to keep Taurean Prince’s salary to use in another trade that might help it replenish some of that lost defense and depth. If Houston demanded Prince as well? The notion that adding Harden would be mostly a lateral move for a dominant Brooklyn offense only gains credence. 

The trade: Ben Simmons and Mike Scott for James Harden

76ers

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

1577.1%0.7%14.6%

After trade

1386.2%2.3%

21.8%

The numbers here are relatively small, but Philadelphia’s gains are probably the most significant of any of the teams in the mix for Harden. The 76ers’ odds of beating the Lakers in a seven-game series improve by nearly 50 percent, and their overall championship odds more than triple. That makes intuitive sense. Philadelphia’s greatest weakness, aside from the brief Jimmy Butler era, has been individual shot creation since Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons joined the team. Harden resolves that issue immediately. 

So why are these numbers still so low? A combination of things. For starters, the model isn’t sold on Philadelphia’s revamped roster as is, and as much as adding Harden would help offensively, it would hurt just as much defensively. Simmons is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He should not be traded lightly. The 76ers would have to like their chances far more than this model does to make the deal. Perhaps their own internal modeling has yielded similar results, explaining their hesitance to include the 24-year-old Simmons in a deal for an older star in Harden. 

The trade: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk for James Harden

Heat

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

789.2%5.3%24.9%

After trade

1082.7%1.8%

18.4%

Here we have the first preferred Harden destination that actually gets worse mathematically by adding him. That largely stems from the preexisting roster … and the one Harden would inherit. Individual shot creation isn’t a weakness for this team. It’s something the Heat would have in abundance through Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic even before factoring in Harden. What they’d miss would be 3-point shooting. They finished second in the NBA in 3-point percentage last season, but the four players they are losing here accounted for over 50 percent of their made 3s last season.

Harden is used to playing with shooting, but in Butler and Bam Adebayo, he’d have at least two teammates that practically never attempt 3s, and most of the remaining holdovers specialize in other areas. Factor in some defensive decline, and this makes sense. The fit here is complicated. Now, might the talent be so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter? Sure. The Heat might be able to solve the rest of the roster as well. This is Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra we’re talking about, after all. But this is no slam dunk. It would take some rejiggering that even one of the NBA’s best organizations could struggle to do within the span of a single season. 

Trade 1: Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton and Gary Harris for James Harden

Nuggets

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

1185.9%3.3%24.8%

After trade

1467.2%1.4%

22.4%

Trade 2: Jamal Murray and Will Barton for James Harden

Nuggets

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

1185.9%3.3%24.8%

After trade

1276.1%2.3%

24.2%

This is probably the most surprising set of results in the batch. The Nuggets get worse in both iterations of the deal, and yet, despite Porter’s inconsistency, the model likes his version of the team than Murray’s. That likely has something to do with Harris remaining in Denver in the Murray deal (as Murray’s higher cap number doesn’t necessitate his inclusion), but there’s also the redundancy of pairing Murray and Harden in the same backcourt to consider. 

Murray isn’t an elite shooter. Neither, for that matter, is Nikola Jokic. Porter might become one, and Barton has developed into a decent one, but Denver has never prioritized shooting in its lineup choices or offensive scheme development. That makes it an odd Harden destination, especially since Denver, like Brooklyn, really doesn’t need to improve offensively. The idea here would be to become so dominant offensively that defense no longer matters. The raw talent suggests that would be possible. The limited aggregate shooting, especially compared to Brooklyn, makes it unlikely. It would also disturb the tidy Jokic-Murray-Porter timeline. If Denver trades for Harden and it doesn’t work out, the Nuggets have fired their best bullet without hitting the target. The risk factor would be higher for the Nuggets than most teams, and that likely informs their tepid interest to this point. 

The trade: Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for James Harden

Celtics

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

593.3%5.1%12.4%

After trade

494.7%8.4%

17%

The structure of this deal would leave the Celtics in a fairly similar situation to Brooklyn’s after a Harden trade. Boston would have three elite offensive players in Harden, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Its defense would decline, but is thankfully starting from a fairly high point. Some shooting concerns might linger, and the Celtics would need one of their young players on the bench to pop to make up for the enormous loss in crunch-time minutes this deal enforces, but no team in this thought experiment sees a greater overall gain in championship odds by acquiring Harden than Boston. 

The trade: CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr. and Zach Collins for James Harden

Blazers

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

1655%0.9%17.6%

After trade

1740.7%0.7%

20.6%

Yet another deal that could backfire on the acquiring team. The upgrade from McCollum to Harden would be meaningful to most teams, but the Blazers already have Damian Lillard. Individual shot creation isn’t a need, though Lillard would function well in an off-ball role much as Stephen Curry has. Portland has a fair bit of depth, but losing Trent, its best defensive guard (and a budding star shooter) would be significant especially when you factor in his fit with virtually any ball-dominant guard. 

Throw in Collins, and Portland’s gains here would be limited compared to its losses. There’s also the reality that, at this moment, Portland is not close to championship contention. Does it make sense for it to give up two talented youngsters to get better if being better doesn’t lead to championship contention? That’s a matter of debate. 

The trade: Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell for James Harden

Raptors

Power ranking

Playoff percentage

Championship percentage

Percentage chance of beating Lakers

Before trade

1283.3%1.9%17.8%

After trade

1569.4%0.8%

15.2%

The numbers aren’t kind on a possible Toronto deal, and much of that lies in the theoretical redundancy of having three ball-handling guards. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet can both shoot and function off the ball, but lose value in a Harden-centric offense. The defense would decline as well, and it’s worth noting that as problematic as their lack of shot creation proved in the playoffs, this team had a better record than the Lakers in the 2019-20 regular season. Room for growth is minimal, and it would likely come in a frontcourt that just lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. 

How do the Rockets fare?

Here’s the most surprising takeaway from this project: Literally every deal listed above actually helps the Rockets in the short term, according to these simulations. There are a number of possible explanations for that. Virtually every trade sends the Rockets, a team sorely lacking in depth, multiple valuable players. Most of them furnish the Rockets with extra shooting as well, which becomes even more valuable on a team run by John Wall. Taking Harden off a defense never hurts either. 

No trade makes the Rockets a realistic championship contender. If the Rockets prioritize draft capital over immediate talent, any chance of them pulling off a surprise season like the one Oklahoma City just had fades. But with the right additions, these numbers suggest that these Rockets don’t need to tank after trading. They can remain somewhat competitive if that is their goal. 

Overall takeaways

Take a look at the far right column in those tables. Every number is below 50 percent, which, in a sense, makes the argument that no team should trade for James Harden because no feasible James Harden destination would be favored in a matchup with the Lakers even after adding him. They may not be a Warriors-caliber favorite, but their preseason championship odds according to Oh (35.8 percent) more than doubled any other team’s (the Bucks came in second at 16.9 percent).

There’s an argument to be made here that the acquiring team doesn’t necessarily need to believe it is better than the Lakers to make the trade. Seasons are long. Players get hurt. Secondary trades can be made. Shooting luck plays a greater role in all of this than anyone wants to acknowledge. But if a team is going to trade a significant package of long-term assets, it needs to at least believe it is in the same ballpark as the defending champions. Only the Nets reach a 30 percent chance by adding Harden, and they were there to begin with.

That brings up the broader question of how much value Harden actually brings to the kinds of contenders that will try to add him. The short answer is, we don’t fully know. Oh’s simulations tend not to love Harden. He’s a good defender only in a very specific role that few teams can accommodate, and outside of that role, he has largely struggled. While his efficiency is extremely impressive relative to his scoring volume, overall, it isn’t great. Harden has played such a distinct form of basketball over the past several years that trying to assess his value on a normal team is almost impossible. 

His impact on a basketball game just can’t be fully quantified. Harden’s individual numbers almost have to be separated from the numbers his teams post as a whole. His offense is almost always in the top five primarily because he’s in it. The amount of attention he draws from opposing defenders makes life easier for teammates on a scale few players in NBA history have ever matched. He might be more efficient playing alongside better players. A lighter scoring load might improve his defense. He’s proven capable at times on both fronts. 

Every team in the running for Harden will weigh these factors differently. What this exercise should tell you is how very complicated a Harden trade would ultimately be. Throwing him into any existing ecosystem would create some degree of chaos. Doing so, by itself, wouldn’t necessarily be a slam dunk. The team in question would have to carefully reorganize its roster and playing style to optimize him. After years of doing so, Houston would argue that it is well worth the risks. Whether the rest of the NBA agrees remains to be seen. 

Published: 2020-12-31 17:21:42

Tags: #James #Harden #trade #rumors #Projecting #stars #impact #team #numbers #deals

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