As the NBA braces for maybe the most frenetic week in league history, silly season on steroids kicked off Sunday with news that the Brooklyn Nets currently headline James Harden’s list of potential trade destinations.
If you’re a Celtics fan hyperventilating into a brown paper bag at the prospects of a Harden-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant super team while repeatedly muttering about how Boston missed its opportunity inside the bubble, it’s important to note that ESPN reported that the two sides had not engaged in any actual trade talks and the Rockets have reportedly told rivals they plan to move forward with Harden.
As Russell Westbrook yearns for a relocation, Harden simply seems to be making it known that he wouldn’t mind playing alongside a couple of superstar buddies if Houston doesn’t plan to maintain a championship-caliber squad.
Here’s the thing, the Celtics can outbid any offer the Nets make, if they desire — and that’s a BIG IF.
The price for Boston to acquire Harden would be mighty steep, though. Any trade package almost certainly starts with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to match salaries then includes a bevy of picks, which means that, ideally, the team makes that move before Wednesday’s draft when Boston owns three first-rounders.
If Gordon Hayward is not in the Celtics' long-term plans — whether by his choice or the team’s — Boston could also explore ways to recoup assets by moving him, then utilize those pieces in pursuit of Harden.
The Celtics would ultimately be left with a Harden-Jayson Tatum-Kemba Walker core. That’s not an ideal setup with two point guards and Boston fans might clamor to move Walker as part of any deal. That’s not happening though, as it would be bad optics for the Celtics to continue the All-Star point guard revolving door and, more importantly, Houston isn’t going to want veterans as part of any teardown.
Other teams could drive Harden’s price tag higher, too. The Sixers and new general manager Daryl Morey would have obvious interest in a Harden pursuit and could offer Ben Simmons as a centerpiece if they were convinced the Simmons/Joel Embiid combo simply will not work together. Denver could get into the bidding with a package built around Jamal Murray. Any team with a young All-Star could thrust itself into the conversation.
A Nets offer built around Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t nearly as attractive. Then again, in a league where Anthony Davis can powerplay his way to his preferred Los Angeles destination, maybe that doesn’t matter. Harden, though, doesn’t have quite the same leverage and Houston shouldn’t sell low on an MVP player.
The bigger question here: Should the Celtics even ponder it if Harden were to truly become available?
The rule of thumb is that, when an MVP player hits the market, you consider it. That doesn’t mean it’s the right move -- but those types of players don’t grow on trees.
Even if you hate watching Harden, you can’t deny the talent.
Putting him alongside Walker and Tatum would make Boston one of the most dynamic offenses in the league and position the team to compete for a title for at least the remainder of Harden’s current deal. There’s defensive concerns and Ainge would be operating with a tight budget to fill out the roster but it’d be a fascinating mix to watch.
Celtics fans might be understandably conflicted.
Many basketball observers hate watching Harden’s ball-dominant ways and there’d be worry about how his arrival might stunt Tatum’s development. Harden's lack of championship hardware has delivered the knock that he is not a winning player, but the Golden State Warriors haven’t helped his cause.
The big concern for Boston would be shortening the overall span of the team’s title window.
With Tatum and Brown, that window is open for at least the duration of their rookie extensions. Adding Harden adds a layer of uncertainty to what happens at the end of his deal. Now, that’s somewhat offset by the fact that both both Walker and Harden come off the books after the 2022-23 season — those two players holding options for a combined $84.7 million that year — which could leave the Celtics as major players in free agency and able to restock around Tatum in the summer of 2023.
Given Boston’s repeated roster overhauls, it’s fair to wonder how Tatum would react to another one, especially one in which he’s back as co-pilot with Harden flying the plane. Winning has a way of getting everyone on board but it’s certainly a riskier path. The Celtics went out of their way to rebuild a positive energy around the franchise last summer after the Kyrie Irving experiment.
All of which makes us think it’s an unlikely pursuit. But one the team has to at least kick around if the Rockets do open for bids.
And, hey, it’s silly season. This is what we do. We ponder one crazy rumor while waiting for the next one to bubble up.