One Player, One Trade, Three Franchises

By Akiva Wienerkur   January 14, 2021 

One Player, One Trade, Three Franchises

It has been an open secret that James Harden was unhappy with the Houston Rockets since before the season even started. The Rockets, though, instead tried to quickly improve the talent around Harden, hoping that a better supporting cast would help change his desire to leave.

They seemed to do a pretty good job, too. Christian Wood is a candidate for Most Improved Player and is averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds, and nearly 2 blocks per game. John Wall has been a major upgrade over Russell Westbrook with his efficiency alone, and he’s averaging 19 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 45 percent. DeMarcus Cousins has played limited minutes as the team eases him back from injury, but his per-minute numbers look great so far.

The Rockets arguably have more talent than they have in at least two seasons, at least offensively. And the team never cared much about defense anyway, so their deficiencies on that end of the court don’t hurt them any more than they have in previous seasons.

The moves didn’t seem to change Harden’s demeanor, though. When Harden said in a press conference this week that he didn’t think the team was good enough to compete, followed by Wall and Cousins both publicly responding unfavorably to those comments, the end of his Rockets tenure seemed to be near.

DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 10, 2021 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas

“He can feel however he wants to feel about the organization or whatever his current situation is, but the other 14 guys in the locker room have done nothing to him,” Cousins told ESPN. “For us to be on the receiving end of some of the disrespectful comments and antics, it’s completely unfair to us.”

“When you have certain guys in the mix that don’t want to buy in as one, it’s gonna be hard to do anything special as a basketball team…it hurts,” Wall told the New York Post.

Now Harden’s tenure as a Rocket – a very successful tenure, for what it’s worth – is over. There’ll be plenty of time for postmortems about Harden’s impact on the game and his prime years with the organization. For now, though, the trade fundamentally changes the direction of three of the four teams involved. And the fourth team, the Cleveland Cavaliers … well … they got another center for some reason?

The trade involves a lot of future draft picks as well, but those aren’t important for this season’s purposes. Here’s a breakdown of who is going were:

  • Brooklyn Nets get: James Harden
  • Houston Rockets get: Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs
  • Indiana Pacers get: Caris LeVert
  • Cleveland Cavaliers get: Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince

The trade changes the fortunes of each team involved in different ways. Here’s a look at what to expect from each franchise.

Nets: Brooklyn is really going all-in for a title, adding a third superstar to a team that includes Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The biggest question immediately for Brooklyn has nothing to do with Harden – where is Irving, and is he going to play again? Nets GM Sean Marks recently said that Irving’s return was “on the horizon,” which doesn’t exactly clear things up.

But say Irving does come back soon, and Harden finds the motivation he lost in Houston. The biggest question for that group is how they’ll share the ball. Durant has already played on one super team in Golden State, and he didn’t sacrifice any shots or touches playing next to an MVP in Steph Curry. It’s not conceivable he’d suddenly become deferential, especially considering he’s trying to return to the MVP conversation this season after missing a year due to injury.

Irving has already bristled once in his career about sacrificing shots to a bigger star, which hastened his departure from the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Irving was a young player then, so it is conceivable that his outlook has changed and he’d be willing to sacrifice shots and role for a better chance at winning.

The Nets have three major questions now. How can they share the ball between three shoot-first stars? That’ll be the most pressing one.

Irving and Durant are also dealing with significant injury histories. Harden has been durable in his career, but he came into the season almost comically out of shape. Nets coach Steve Nash will have to be disciplined monitoring the minutes of all three.

The Nets also lose two key defensive contributors in the trade. Allen was a great rim-protector who would erase a lot of mistakes made by the team’s weaker perimeter defense. Prince was a solid defender off the bench. The Nets do have two good reserves in Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown who can now step into bigger roles, but don’t expect this team to be all that great at stopping anyone.

Pacers: The Pacers were hesitant to sign Oladipo to a long-term extension due to his injury history, and Oladipo didn’t seem all that interested in staying in Indy long-term anyway. Indiana spun him into a younger player signed to a reasonable contract for one more season after this. 

Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against the Sacramento Kings on January 11, 2021 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California

LeVert isn’t as good defensively as Oladipo, but he might be better offensively at this point in their careers. He’ll fit in perfectly in a solid Indiana lineup that includes Malcolm Brogdan, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner all having excellent seasons. Indiana might not be a title contender, but they’re hard to defend and will be a tough out for any Eastern Conference playoff team they face this season.

Rockets: Plugging Oladipo in for Harden is an obvious downgrade in talent, but Oladipo is probably a superior fit for the direction the franchise is going in. Houston has talent and a good shot at making the playoffs still. Wall now gets a chance to show he can be a face of the franchise again, and he gets a talent in Oladipo who should form a good backcourt with him. Their skillsets are complementary, as Oladipo is a good passer and playmaker who can take on that role and allow Wall to be a scorer at times. Oladipo is also a much better defender than Harden, so he should fit the system coach Stephen Silas is trying to build in Houston.

Cavaliers: Cleveland likely wasn’t a true playoff contender this season anyway, so this trade is pretty inconsequential for them, other than wondering why they were even interested in Allen? They already have one center on the roster who is an impending free agent in Andre Drummond. Allen is the better player of the two, but if both players are splitting minutes prior to free agency, that probably means both will be unhappy. Add in the fact that Cleveland also has veterans Larry Nance Jr, JaVale McGee, and eventually Kevin Love in its crowded frontcourt and this seems to suggest more roster moves should be expected by the Cavs prior to the trade deadline.

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