So, the cat seems to have entirely escaped the bag at this point. James Harden allegedly wants out of Brooklyn barely one calendar year into his stint with the team. It sounds like it’s more than just the part-time status of teammate Kyrie Irving that’s bugging Harden. Although the Nets, losers of eight straight, may not usher Harden through the exits, they do have options in this situation.
The first and most obvious choice would be to send Harden on his way, possibly to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons. That fantasy trade has been talked about for months, and we could be getting closer to something happening with the trade deadline looming. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Nets shut down any Harden trade talks as recently as last month. But we know how this game works. There will be another call or two, I’m sure, in the next couple of days leading into the Feb. 10 deadline.
If the Nets can’t get a deal done for Simmons, they do have the option of trading Harden anywhere else in the league, since he doesn’t have a no-trade clause in his current contract. The only thing that could hinder that plan is Harden becoming a free agent this summer. Most teams will shy away from a deal unless Harden agrees to re-sign once the season ends (or signs some type of extension before the trade happens). Unless it’s a team that feels they’re right on the cusp of winning a championship, what team will take Harden for just a few months while also giving up assets?
Brooklyn could also play hardball and tell Harden it won’t trade him now and make him finish the season chasing a title alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. While forcing him to finish the season, the Nets could continue their attempts at re-signing Harden to a long-term deal. When the Big 3 are together on the court, this team is outstanding. Together they have at least a shot at making it to the Finals, even if Irving can only play in away games. When Durant returns from injury, Brooklyn could again go on a tear through the East and be back at the top in a few weeks (the Nets are currently 7th in the conference). That’s how unpredictable the Eastern Conference has been this season.
Another option that doesn’t directly involve Harden but could affect his attitude toward staying in Brooklyn would be to trade Kyrie. This might be a little tougher, as it would likely require the approval of Durant, as he and Irving went to the Nets as a package deal. So, that might be tricky. They could get a pretty nice haul in return for Irving, who would be able to play home and away games for most NBA teams. This might change Harden’s tune to some extent, but nothing is guaranteed.
The Nets need to figure out something fast because their championship aspirations look to be fading away quickly. Most people felt this could end in disaster once Irving’s return as a part-time player was announced. I don’t think anyone believed it would take this kind of turn, barely a month into Irving’s comeback. Everything Brooklyn’s done over the past three years to put this together now appears to be blowing up in its face.
The only constant in the Brooklyn equation is Durant. All he wants to do is play winning basketball. And he’s likely out until after the All-Star Break, resting his sprained left MCL. Ultimately, nothing else matters with the Nets if Durant isn’t right. But they need to get this Harden situation figured out pronto if they hope to contend in the East this postseason. Whether the Nets are a Big 3 or Dynamic Duo come playoff time, they’ll need to be locked and loaded if they hope to make it out of the East as expected coming into the season. The depth of Miami, Chicago, and Milwaukee might be too much for Brooklyn if it can’t get its stars aligned and back on track.