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The Whiteboard: Nets, Rockets both got better in the James Harden trade

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The Houston Rockets and Brooklyn Nets entered into the massive James Harden with different goals and timelines. Three weeks later, it looks like it could be a win-win.

The Houston Rockets are actually playing better

In the nearly three weeks since they dealt James Harden, the Houston Rockets have been playing significantly better. Harden is obviously an elite talent and even playing at something less than top gear he was posting ridiculous numbers, but his lack of intensity was obvious and his lack of engagement kept the new roster additions from gelling.

The day after the trade was announced, the Rockets stole a four-point win from the Spurs, a game John Wall and Eric Gordon missed, Victor Oladpio was not yet cleared from the trade to play in. It was one of those flukey, post-trade wins with Sterling Brown and Jae’Sean Tate combining for 36 points on 29 shot attempts. From there, Houston lost three in a row by a combined 23 points.

But Houston has followed that with a still-active five-game win streak. It hasn’t exactly been over an intimidating slate of opponents — wins over Detroit, Dallas, Washington, Portland and New Orleans — but it’s still five straight wins. The Rockets have been allowing just 102.8 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark in the league over the entire nine-game span since the trade. While swapping Oladipo in for Harden has helped, they’ve also managed this with a roster dealing with absences — Christian Wood, John Wall and Oladipo have all missed at least three games during this run.

Rockets’ fans will delight in the fact that their post-trade point differential — plus-5.6 points per 100 possessions — is more than twice that of the Brooklyn Nets, despite identical records. Despite all that, Houston still isn’t even a playoff lock in a deep Western Conference. And, with seven players hitting unrestricted free agency this summer, this roster is likely to look a lot different in the near future. Still, they have a fun, competitive team, full of intense players who actually want to be in Houston, not to mention a billion future draft picks. Their ceiling is lower but they’re clearly in a much better spot than they were a few weeks ago.

The Brooklyn Nets are still figuring it out

The Nets are a bit more of a mystery. They were 7-6, outscoring opponents by an average of 5.2 points per 100 possessions before the trade. Since, they’re 6-3 but their point differential has fallen to plus-2.5 per 100. And, as StatMuse pointed out last night, their defense has been historically atrocious by roughly the same margin that their offense has been historically good.

In theory, the Nets’ ceiling is much higher than it was before the trade but then you see them giving up 147 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers and it all feels a bit fragile. But this trade was all about juicing their championship odds and increased talent and offensive ceiling certainly make it more plausible. Three days before the trade, on Jan. 11, 538’s prediction model gave the Nets a four percent chance of winning the East (behind the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Raptors and Heat) and a two percent chance of winning it all. As of today, their odds of winning the East are at 22 percent (essentially even with the Bucks and Celtics) and their title odds are at nine percent, ahead of every team in the West except the Lakers and Clippers.

A title was the goal and despite the defense, the Nets seem to be closer than they were. Yay?

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