It’s fair to say that James Harden has had a significant role to play in the Houston Rockets’ success so far this season. He has been comfortably the best offensive player on a team which will win close to 70 games and which has a better offensive rating than the Warriors, widely regarded as the best offensive side in NBA history.
The Beard has been gradually improving his stats each year of his career, and could count himself unlucky not to have been voted the league’s Most Valuable Player in one of the past four years. This year, that will probably change – he is the MVP favorite and is likely to win it comfortably. At the start of the season, the Warriors winning the title appeared inevitable. Despite the severity of their injury list they are still favorites, but the Rockets overthrowing them to win the Western Conference is not at all outside the realm of possibility. Without Harden, it would be.
The MVP favorite has impacted the league this season enormously. He is the primary instigator of a revolutionary offense, one which relies on an absurd number of 3-point attempts and isolation possessions. Without Harden, this system might not work. He has helped to shape a new kind of offensive system, and one which other teams will no doubt look to replicate. He has helped to create competition where many thought there would be none, considering the ridiculous talent present on Golden State’s roster. Maybe the Warriors will get their stars back and the Rockets system will falter in the playoffs, but regardless, Houston has helped to increase interest in the league throughout this season by challenging the very best.
Harden, however, was not always destined to be a Rocket. After playing his first three seasons in OKC between 2009-2012, he found himself on the trade block as he hunted for a big contract. A number of teams showed interest, and a couple of them could have changed the league today in a big way had they gone through with the trades.
Harden to Washington for Bradley Beal, Chris Singleton
You can forget about Singleton here, even though he was the marginally more experienced Wizard involved. The main interest in this potential trade comes from the presence of Bradley Beal, who is gradually working his way towards elite status in the NBA. At the time Beal was just a prodigious talent, a 19-year-old who’d been picked up at Mo. 3 in the 2012 draft after just a year of college.
Since then, the Wizards’ shooting guard has established himself as one of the sweetest shooters in the league, and though he has taken a little step backwards this season in efficiency, he still managed to earn himself a debut All-Star spot, and looks destined for many more in the future. So, what would things look like if this trade had gone through and everything else had remained equal?
What Houston would look like
Houston would still be pretty damn good. They wouldn’t have the one-two point guard combination that they have with Harden and Paul now, but since Wall went down with a knee injury, Beal has shown he is more than capable of running an offense when he needs to. Running the backcourt alongside Tomas Satoransky, Beal has sacrificed his scoring a little to focus more on getting teammates good looks. He averaged 6.7 assists throughout the month of February and just a little less through the month of March, comfortably above his career average of 3.4 assists. Of course, he is still a long way behind Harden as a facilitator, and Houston would definitely lose out in this regard with Beal subbing in for him. With a backcourt of Paul and Beal though, Houston would still be a dangerous side.
Then there’s the shooting. Harden has almost perfected the isolation step-back 3-point jumper, but few would argue he’s a better all-round shooter than Beal. Last season, Beal averaged 48.2% from the field and 40.4% from long range, and though he has regressed a little this season, he still has one of the best shooting strokes in the game. He may not be able to get the looks off the dribble that Harden does, but playing alongside Paul in D’Antoni’s system he would get plenty of good shots, and would drain them at a high rate.
What gives Harden perhaps the biggest advantage over Beal, particularly under D’Antoni’s system, is his ability to get in the paint. Harden averages 6.5 shots from with 5 feet of the rim this season, and many of his league-leading 10.1 free throw attempts come from the same area. Beal’s 4.6 shot attempts from within this region is still a reasonable number, albeit well below Harden, and he takes just 4.5 free throws a game.
With Beal in place of Harden in the Rockets lineup, there’s no doubt they’d still be a good team, and probably a great one. But they certainly wouldn’t be as good as they are now.
What Washington would look like
Assuming Wall comes back from injury to play some role in the season, the Wizards would look pretty damn good with Harden slotting in as a guard. Wall and Beal is one of the best backcourt combinations in the league, but even Washington’s most ardent Beal supporters couldn’t complain at the prospect of Harden slotting in in his place.
Of course, inevitably the same arguments would arise as when Paul got traded to Houston. ‘But there’s only one ball!’, ‘this will never work!’, yada yada yada. Certainly there may be more credence to the one ball concept considering Wall is a far inferior shooter to Paul, but it would hardly be an unsolvable problem.
The Wizards would boast one of the most athletic point guards and best passers in the game in Wall, and one of the best isolation players in history in Harden. Surround these guys with shooters like Otto Porter Jr. and to a lesser extent Markieff Morris, and you’ve got yourself a pretty useful team.
Of course, the Wizards would still have many of the same problems they have today – an aging center in Gortat, and outside of the talented Kelly Oubre Jr., a very thin bench. With a backcourt boasting both John Wall and James Harden though, and an ability to have one of these guys on the floor demolishing second units throughout the game, they would be a force to be reckoned with.
What the league would look like
As good as Beal is, the Rockets would not be as dominant an offensive side as they have been this season if he was playing in Harden’s place. They would still be good – very good – and could feasibly win 55 games or more with such a lineup. This would be enough for the number two seed in the Western Conference, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to challenge the Warriors for league supremacy throughout the season, despite the injury concerns of the latter. And come playoffs time, with Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green back in the fray, this Houston side would struggle to stretch a series to six games.
On the other coast, the Wizards would be an improved unit. Again, this is without wanting to undersell Beal. He is a terrific player and will continue to get better, but Harden is the probable league MVP, so he’s up against some stiff competition. Washington is locked in a battle for the lower playoff positions in the east, but with Harden playing alongside Wall they would probably have picked up a few wins along the way. They would look more like a 50+ win side than the 45-win side they are likely to end up as this season, and would probably be able to snag either the second or third seed. They would have a definite chance in a seven game series against the Raptors, and likewise against the Cavs. With LeBron ready to step up a gear come playoff time, and Toronto’s depth and experience making them a daunting prospect, the new Wizards would be hard pressed to find their way out of the Eastern Conference, but they would certainly be in with a chance.
Harden to Golden State for Thompson
The other high profile potential trade for Harden involved the Warriors’ Klay Thompson. A pick might have been involved from the Warriors’ end as well here, but at the end of the day the trade wasn’t feasible from their perspective. Still, it’s interesting to consider a league in which Thompson is a Rocket and Harden is a Warrior.
Thompson, of course, has made his name as a member of the Splash Bros., and will go down as one of the greatest shooters of all-time. He is far from a one-trick pony though. Thompson also has excellent awareness on the offensive end, and is terrific at finding open lanes and cutting to the basket. More importantly, he is also an elite one-on-one defender and is able to guard a number of positions. So, what would things have looked like had this trade become a reality?
What Houston would look like
As in the case of Beal, the Rockets would still be an extremely good side. Paul and Thompson would make for a ridiculous backcourt, and there’s no doubt the latter would thrive in the 3-point heavy game style of D’Antoni. He would see an increase in looks and would likely average closer to 25 points than the 19.7 he averages this season.
Then there’s the defensive end. Houston has not forced its way to an unassailable lead at the top of the Western Conference standings purely out of an ability to score, even if that has been the primary reason for its dominance. The Rockets have also been one of the best teams in the league on defense, allowing just 103.8 points per 100 possessions – 7th best in the league. Narrow this down to post All-Star break and they’re second best in the league behind only the Jazz, allowing just 101.4 points per 100 possessions in this time.
Harden’s defense has been justifiably criticized in the past, but he has certainly improved at this end save for the occasional lapse, and has proven himself to be one of the better post defenders in the game. No sane person would argue that swapping him out for Thompson wouldn’t result in an improved defense for the Rockets though, and with the Warrior playing at the two, Houston’s defense would become extremely difficult to score against.
Taking Harden from the Rockets’ lineup would invariably have a major impact on their game, but Thompson would be a pretty handy replacement. He would score heavily without the need to share shots with Curry and Thompson, and would probably make them a top 3 defense in the league.
What Golden State would look like
Scary. The Warriors are good enough that you can take out one, if not two, of their top four guys and they’d still have no problem disposing of virtually every side in the league. As good a player as Thompson is, he is arguably the most disposable of their big four (as crazy as that is to think), and if he was replaced by Harden, Golden State would be more than happy.
Harden and Curry as a backcourt would be, quite simply, unstoppable. They are the best two point guards in the league, and two of the top handful of players in the league. Add in Durant, and this hypothetical Warriors side could claim to have half of the league’s top six players. Pretty ridiculous.
Harden isn’t anywhere near as good of a shooter as Curry, Thompson or Durant, but his 36.4% from long range would almost certainly improve in the Warriors system where he would be taking less shots, and getting more open looks. His ability to get to the rim would be welcomed on a Golden State which ranks 23rd in the league for free throw attempts this season, though his isolation game might not be as positively received. The Warriors move the ball more than any other side in the league, but so good is Harden one-on-one, his new side would probably be happy to give him a few possessions per game to toy with the defense.
Most likely it wouldn’t matter anyway, because this team would be annihilating anyone in their path. Harden, Durant, Curry and Green could play 48 minutes each with no fifth teammate and still win most games, so with the bit of talent they have on their bench, this team would be unstoppable.
What the league would look like
Making the Warriors even more dominant in this scenario would be the fact that the Rockets no longer have Harden. As mentioned, Thompson would be a very useful replacement, and Houston would potentially remain the second best side in the league with him there considering the improvement they would see on defense.
Golden State, however, would have the season everyone was worrying about prior to the current one. A season where no realistic contender to them emerges at any point, and the title race is a foregone conclusion for the entire nine month season. Curry and Harden would be a ridiculous backcourt duo, one of them would be on the floor at all times, and the Warriors would sweep the floor with the rest of the competition.
With this in mind, it is perhaps fortunate that this trade never went further than the initial stages. Golden State is borderline too good as it is, and fans can be thankful that a) they haven’t had a full bill of health throughout the season, and b) Houston is really damn good as well. As a result, the 2018 championship doesn’t appear to be as foregone a conclusion as it might otherwise have been, but take Harden out of Houston and slot him into the Warriors starting lineup, and we would be seeing a very different narrative.
Likewise with the Harden for Beal trade. As good as Beal is, the Rockets would be weakened, and while the Wizards would become a better side, it’s unlikely they’d be able to reach the heights Houston have so far this season. Golden State would benefit, as the gap between themselves and the second best team in the league would widen further, and there would likely be a lot less excitement and anticipation going into the playoffs than there currently is.
The moral of the story is that we can thank our lucky stars Harden is still playing for the Rockets. He has structured his game in a way that is perfectly suited to running one of the more potent offenses in NBA history, and one which is at least able to warrant discussion about whether they can hold their own in a seven game series against the Warriors. If Harden was anywhere else, we may not see him play as well as he is in an offense perfectly suited to his game, and we would see a Warriors side with no realistic contender to their throne. Both of these things would be detrimental to the league, so while Warriors and Wizards fans might be ruing a missed opportunity to gain one of the best players in the world, the rest of the league is probably happy with the way things turned out.