Harden trade puts Nets in a familiar position, hoping for a much different result


Somewhere in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov is smiling.

The former Nets owner, who instigated the ultimate go-for-it trade in 2013 that doomed his franchise for five seasons, can only marvel at what successor Joseph Tsai has just pulled off.

Make no mistake, the official three-team deal bringing superstar James Harden to Brooklyn has to have more than just ownership’s blessing. Adding in a later Pacers-Rockets swap, the final tally saw the Nets send Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince to Cleveland and sixth man Caris LeVert to Indiana, while the Rockets got Victor Oladipo from Indiana (ostensibly for LeVert), Dante Exum from Cleveland, Rodions Kurucs from Brooklyn, and a treasure trove of draft picks – Milwaukee’s 2022 first-rounder, the Nets’ first-rounders in 2022, 2024, and 2026, plus pick swaps with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027. Moreover, all of the picks, just like the ones sent and swapped by the Nets to Boston in 2013 for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, are unprotected.

The difference here is that Harden is still in his prime (assuming he gets in shape), while Garnett and Pierce were running on fumes. Though his numbers are down this season (24.8 points per game), Harden has led the NBA in scoring in each of the last three seasons, and while his isolation preferences can be eyesores, he has always been a willing passer, averaging 10.4 assists per game this season and leading the league in that category in 2016-17.

However, the fact that Brooklyn reportedly received no other assets in this trade, other than a future second-pound pick, is disturbing. I was hoping that the Nets would somehow finagle Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, who does the dirty work most Nets won’t, into this trade. If the idea was to simply add a so-called third star to go with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, why not just trade LeVert for Oladipo, who has been ramping up his game recently to the tune of 20 points per game following a couple of injury-plagued seasons?

Logically, this had to be driven by ownership. Houston was in a bind, with Harden basically announcing he had all but given up on the franchise as recently as Tuesday night following a loss to the Lakers. The Nets should have had significant leverage, with Philadelphia the only other team reported to be in the running but unwilling to give up their most prized players. The Nets still gave away the store.

A trade like this has never been part of Sean Marks’ playbook. All the things he has preached since taking over as general manager in February 2016 are gone. Culture? Harden reportedly ruled over Houston’s coaching staff when it came to things like scheduling.

And forget flexibility – if things go south, where can the Nets find improvements outside of veteran minimum deals? They’re already over the luxury tax threshold, though they still can employ the $5.7 million taxpayer midlevel exception and another $5.7 million on a free agent off the street to thanks to the disabled player exception they got after Spencer Dinwiddie’s season-ending injury. Who is out there that can be a real difference maker?

Considering Irving’s situation, a doomsday scenario has to be at the ready. The mercurial point guard has missed Brooklyn’s last five games, including Wednesday’s tilt versus the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, for “personal reasons.” The Nets have never divulged any further information about when he will return, even after the photo of a maskless Irving at a party came to light.

In the meantime, Brooklyn’s lack of quality depth will be further exposed. Thanks to the deal, Irving’s absence, Dinwiddie and Nic Claxton’s injuries, and Tyler Johnson’s absence due to COVID-19 protocols, the team had just nine active players versus the Knicks, including two-way players Chris Chiozza and Reggie Perry. Yes, they won that game, and they’ll add Harden soon enough, but they’ll need other bodies.

If the Nets win an NBA Championship, this trade is defendable. You can make a case that Durant, Irving, and Harden form the greatest trio in league history.

However, you can also argue that the Nets not only have the same holes (i.e. defense and rebounding) they had before the trade, they further amplified them for their pursuit of glory. They’ll need a heck of a lot more from, among others, center DeAndre Jordan, who has looked washed-up this season, with Allen gone.

Unless the Nets can fortify their areas of weakness through other moves, this looks like a bad bet. Maybe not as bad as the 2013 blockbuster right now, but the long-term consequences could be just as dreadful.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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