The Milwaukee Bucks have locked up Giannis Antetokounmpo. With “The Greek Freak” off the market, should the Toronto Raptors pursue James Harden?
The news that Giannis Antetokounmpo had signed a five-year, $228 million extension with the Bucks hit like an earthquake, stopping the Raptors rumour mill dead in its tracks.
But Antetokounmpo isn’t the only superstar out there. James Harden has made it abundantly clear that he wants out of Houston. Let’s break down the Harden situation, and if a move to Toronto would be beneficial for all parties involved.
The case for pursuing Harden
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Whoever ends up with James Harden at the end of this melodrama is getting one of the best basketball players in the world. Liable to pull up from anywhere on the floor, the Arizona State product is a deadly shooter who has had plenty of time to practice his long ball in Mike D’Antoni’s three-centric offence.
From the Raptors’ point of view, it’s clear that to win a championship in today’s NBA, a bona fide superstar is a necessity. While Pascal Siakam could still blossom, his performance in the playoffs last season has led to questions about what his ceiling is.
Pondering the Raptors’ current situation requires the removal of the rose-tinted glasses permanently affixed to our heads thanks to Kawhi Leonard. Can this current group truly contend for a championship without making a major move? The answer, in my opinion, is no.
So now that we’ve established that James Harden is good at basketball and the Raptors are in the market for good basketball players, let’s take a look at the situation that Harden has created for himself in Houston.
Locked in contractually for two more years, Harden has made it known that he wants out.
Listed among Harden’s preferred destinations are Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami, three contenders in the Eastern Conference with enough trade pieces to make it happen.
There are two problems here: One, Harden doesn’t hold the cards. Two, the Rockets aren’t willing to give him away for free.
In an era of increased player agency, Harden finds himself in a rare position of powerlessness. The Rockets can trade him wherever they want. If the bridge between Harden and Houston cannot be mended, management’s prime interests lie with the team, not with Harden’s future. Thus, the team is looking at options outside of the markets in which Harden has expressed interest.
It’s hard not to make comparisons between this situation and the circumstances that led to the arrival of Leonard. Both players were/are fed up with team in Texas, and both had/have zero control over just who their new team was/is going to be. Harden can pine for the sandy beaches of Miami or the talent insulation of Brooklyn all he wants. At the end of the day, it’s not up to him.
This is the sole reason why Toronto is in the running for Harden to begin with. Even with our championship pedigree and proof of fandemonium, we’re still seen as being on an island, removed from the rest of the league by much more than a border. If relations sour to a point of deceit between Harden and general manager Rafael Stone, Toronto could be that spiteful landing spot that Stone casts Harden off to.
The case for staying out of this mess
The reason why it might pay for the Raptors to leave Harden alone is the very reason why Harden remains in Houston as we speak. The Rockets are not going to part ways with him for peanuts.
There’s no mysterious quad injury that Masai Ujiri can use in negotiations to leverage a better deal. By all accounts, Harden is in his prime. Thus, Houston has said that any trade to Brooklyn would need to result in either Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving coming to Houston. Likewise, any trade to Philadelphia would need to see Ben Simmons become a Rocket.
This means that in all likelihood, Houston would need to see some combination of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and/or OG Anunoby shipped their way.
And all that could be for a player who doesn’t even want to be here. We’d be guaranteed two years of paying his salary, but would he even play? If he did, would he try?
These are the same questions we asked of Kawhi Leonard as he touched down in Toronto, and he delivered a championship. However, there’s no reason why Harden would react in the same, lemons-to-lemonade manner.
On top of this, his ability to effectively quarantine is also a question. He reported late to Rockets camp this season after partying with rapper Lil Baby. His first workout was delayed even further, as the team required him to test negative for COVID-19 six times before hitting the court.
Harden in chevron (which seems to be the Raptors’ primary colour now) would also necessitate a huge shift in scheme for Nick Nurse. About as ball-centric as a player can be, Harden demands the rock constantly. His style is a far cry from the selfless culture both Nurse and Ujiri have spent their tenures building.
The other tidbit that could hold the Raptors back is that Harden is still ringless. Whereas Leonard brought with him championship pedigree from San Antonio, Harden has fought a loaded Western Conference fruitlessly for his entire career. From his days as a six-man in Oklahoma City to his leadership role in Houston, Harden has encountered stout roadblocks at every turn, usually in the form of the Golden State Warriors.
As with most things in life, a hard “yes” or “no” doesn’t sit right with me in the case of the Raptors pursuing James Harden. If relations between “The Beard” and the Rockets get to a point where the team is looking to offload him for whatever they can get, who’s to say that Toronto can’t scoop him for the cheap?
However, with Houston’s current demands being what they are and Harden’s give-me-the-ball-always play style, the Raptors would be best served by observing this debacle from a distance.
Should the Raptors be looking at a potential trade for Harden? What would you offer in a potential deal? Let us know in the comments below.