Behind the rumors: how a James Harden return to Houston might affect the Nets

James Harden was both naughty and nice to 76ers fans on Christmas. Yeah, he led the Philadelphians to their eighth straight win over the Knicks with a 29-point, 13-assist effort in to kick off ABC’s coverage of the NBA. But an hour before that, in what certainly looked like an orchestrated move, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the 33-year-old superstar might want to return to Houston in the off-season. He has a player option this summer in his bargain basement deal with the 76ers.

Nets fans can chuckle, if they want, in the news that Harden might once again try to force his way out of a team, as he did when he moved from Brooklyn to Houston in 2021, then from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 2022. But the consequences of a reunion between Harden and Houston has a number of ramifications for Brooklynites, all of it related to the trades that brought him to the Nets, then sent him out.

The biggest relates to the 2021 trade that Sean Marks engineered to get him in the first place. In case you forgot, here’s how that deal worked:

In the trade, the Nets sent center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince to Cleveland, and guard Caris LeVert and forward Rodions Kurucs, as well as three first round draft picks (2022, 2024 and 2026) and four first round pick swaps (2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027) to Houston. The Rockets also received guard Dante Exum and a 2022 first round draft pick from Cleveland (via Milwaukee), and Brooklyn acquired a 2024 second round draft pick from the Cavaliers to complete the deal.

The swaps are the thing. As long as the Rockets pick is better, that is higher, in 2025 and 2027 than the Nets, Brooklyn keeps its picks, the swap is “extinguished” as they say. But if Nets go into a tailspin and their firsts are better in those two drafts, then they will get sent to Houston and Brooklyn will wind up with the Rockets pick. (The Nets didn’t have to swap picks in 2021 and there is virtually no chance that will happen in next year’s draft.)

So, if Houston, armed with Harden and a solid young core, becomes a better team than Brooklyn by then, it raises the chances for swaps with the Nets. (Now imagine the possibility of Houston winning the lottery, taking Victor Wembanyama and signing Harden! It could happen. The Rockets currently have the second worst record in the NBA.)

That’s one ramification. Here’s the other: the 76ers without Harden fade. The Nets picked up two firsts in the outgoing Harden trade back in February. In case you forget the details of that deal, here they are again:

The Nets sent James Harden and Paul Millsap to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond. They also got the Sixers’ 2022 first-round pick unprotected with a right to defer until 2023 plus a 2027 first-round pick protected 1-to-8. If the protections keep the Nets from acquiring the pick in 2028, it would roll over to 2028 protected 1-to-8 again. The pick turns into two seconds and $2 million in 2029.

The Nets also generated a huge trade exception that along with the 2023 first they used to acquire Royce O’Neale from Utah. That pick is likely to be a late first. It’s currently the 26th.

Might the loss of Harden (for nothing because the Rockets would have plenty of cap space to sign him outright) hurt the Sixers long-term, lead to other ramifications? Maybe, although by the time Philly has to give up that pick in 2027, a lot of people will be a lot older.

Of course, all these ramifications depend on where the Nets stand going forward. Kevin Durant, playing at a very high level now, is under contract through 2026, Simmons, looking more like his old self, is under contract through 2025. Kyrie Irving? That’s the big question. His deal runs out at the end of June. The Nets could re-sign him then … or now, for that matter. Will they? Does he want to stay?

Indeed, Houston’s strategy in requiring those future swaps involved the hope that Brooklyn would be in a rebuild mode by the latter part of this decade and the swaps become valuable. If that’s the case, it could get ugly. The Nets don’t want to see a scenario like the one that played out in 2017 when they lost out on Jayson Tatum because of the pick swap included in the ill-fated trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.

All these scenarios are by nature hypothetical. A lot will happen and there is a decent amount of speculation that Harden, through his sources, just wants the 76ers to think about a bigger extension in the off-season or he wants something else: like a change in head coaches. As Woj reported, his relationship with Doc Rivers along with the one Harden has with Joel Embiid is “a work in progress.”

Meanwhile, for Nets history buffs, there’s this fun fact provided by Jake Fischer of Yahoo! sports…

When Nets officials first learned of Harden’s waning commitment to their franchise, his purported interest in joining the Rockets was on Brooklyn’s radar as much as the looming threat of Philadelphia.

While Harden was frustrated with Kyrie Irving’s part-time playing status in Brooklyn and a January knee injury to Kevin Durant left him shouldering the Nets’ offensive burden, sources said Harden also longed for the familiarity of Houston, where he rose into a central magnate of the area’s popular culture and entertainment industry.

So Marks moved to get something for him rather than having him walk last summer and sign with the Rockets.

What’s the likelihood a Harden move could affect the Nets future? Less than what it would mean for the 76ers and Rockets. That’s for sure, but it’s always fun to speculate. So, carry on.

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