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The Whiteboard: What’s the endgame for James Harden?

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Watching this James Harden situation reach a slow boil has been painful. As outsiders, we’re mostly constructing the narrative arc with bits and pieces of conflicting reports and rumors, which can create the illusion of dramatic twists.

First Russell Westbrook wants out, but Harden will stay. Then he is jockeying for a trade to the Nets, but maybe that’s not true and maybe Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving don’t actually want to play with him anyway. Then the Rockets say they’re committed to both Westbrook and Harden, then a stunning trade for John Wall. Then the Rockets are committed to Harden but he isn’t actually in Houston for the start of camp. Then they’re expecting him to show up the next day but he’s still partying in Vegas. And all of a sudden they have no idea when or even if he’s going to show up.

That seems like a twisting turning path, but maybe it’s all been a straight line for Harden. He doesn’t want to play for the Rockets anymore and he’s always been intent on forcing their hand. It’s certainly not an unprecedented turn of events but the specific dynamics of his situation mean we’re well off-script.

Harden isn’t just signaling his desire for a trade, he’s doing it by flaunting explicit health protocols as the league works to navigate a global pandemic and health crisis. He’s doing it to a relatively new inexperienced NBA owner who is, by all accounts, feeling a tremendous amount of financial pressure. He’s doing it immediately after the Rockets traded Westbrook for a win-now veteran, instead of trying to massage that package into something with more long-term assets. And he’s doing it in a way that torches a significant amount of goodwill he spent the last few years building up in Houston.

Where could James Harden even go?

The situation in Houston may be toxic and getting worse but it’s hard to see how this all ends in a resolution with less toxicity. Harden’s mom has said his focus is on winning a ring but what trades are out there to actually get him closer to a title? A trade to the Nets seems unlikely and even it were to materialize the on-court chemistry is both unique and potentially volatile. It’s not clear that a Warriors trade is anything more than fantasy, the 76ers seem content to run with Embiid and Simmons and there’s no other obvious trade out there waiting to be completed. If Harden is moved before the season begins, landing with a lottery team like the Pistons or Cavaliers seems far more plausible than a trade to an actual contender, both because of financial concerns and the way Harden has gone about this. Houston has no incentive to put extra energy into getting him to a preferred destination.

To be clear, Harden’s desire to play elsewhere is understandable and reasonable. And the ethics and morality of the way he’s handled things are a topic I don’t really care to explore or pass judgement on. We just don’t know the circumstances. The biggest question for me, is how does this end? Playing a miserable half-season in Houston until the trade deadline, both sides wallowing in spite? Harden, at the age of 30, starting over with a new team that hasn’t spent years crafting an ideal personnel structure and strategic ecosystem around him?

I sincerely hope Harden ends up in a better situation, both as a person and as a basketball player. And I hope the Rockets are able to recoup as much value as possible in a trade, setting themselves up for an interesting and successful next phase. But it just feels like this is going to be a lose-lose-lose, for Harden, the Rockets and NBA fans.

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