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How James Harden (Possibly) Moving East Could Help the Timberwolves

The disgruntled Houston Rockets star has expanded his trade wishlist to to more Eastern Conference teams, according to reports.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that discontented Houston Rockets star James Harden wants a trade. Harden was late reporting to camp and blew off an individual team workout he promised to attend. Instead, Harden was spotted at rapper Lil’ Baby’s birthday party in Las Vegas with no mask, complicating matters with the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. Rockets coach Stephen Silas said Harden had not provided him a reason for his absence.

Early reports were that Harden sought a move to Brooklyn or Philadelphia, probably in that order. Then on Thursday morning, the Athletic reported the former MVP added Milwaukee and Miami to his wish list.

The news that Harden is angling his way to one of four Eastern Conference teams is clearly fantastic news for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. Granted, the Rockets have no real obligation to deal him to any of these teams — Harden has three years left on his current contract and that much team control should drive his value up. If those four teams don’t present the best offer, it makes sense for them to be patient and want for other, more substantial offers.

But back to the Timberwolves — moving Harden to the Eastern Conference likely removes the Rockets as a guaranteed playoff team for the foreseeable future. Sure, it depends on the return and how much John Wall has left and more, but trading Harden would seem to drop the Rockets into a tier with teams like the Pelicans, Grizzlies and perhaps even the Timberwolves.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

With the implementation of the play-in tournament, remember, you just need to get to the 10th seed. Obviously, it’s more advantageous to secure the eighth or seven seeds, but sending Harden to the opposing conference levels the playing field for the West’s middle class.

How likely is it for Harden to go to the Eastern Conference?

This is the tricky part. Seeing a clear path to any of these four teams acquiring Harden is difficult. Let’s look at each of these situations:

  • Milwaukee Bucks: Having used a significant amount of draft picks to acquire Jrue Holiday, the Bucks may find themselves checking between the couch cushions for trade assets. Milwaukee does not own their first-round pick in 2022, 2025, and 2027. They have pick swaps with New Orleans in 2024 and 2026. Because of the Stepien Rule, the Bucks cannot trade their first until 2029.

If the Bucks want Harden, they will have to get creative. Khris Middleton would very likely be a starting point, but it’s not clear how they put together a package for Harden. Maybe a third team like Oklahoma City and their treasure trove of draft picks gets involved somehow.

  • Miami Heat: It feels safe to assume the Rockets ask for Bam Adebayo, the Heat refuse and talks go nowhere. Now, if it came down to Tyler Herro or Duncan Robinson, two good players, you make that trade quicker than a Harden step back. Adebayo, Harden, and Jimmy Butler likely solidifies you as the title contender in the East. You absolutely make that move if it opens a three-year championship window. However, it seems like getting there will take a lot of work.
  • Brooklyn Nets: The Nets certainly have interesting pieces like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen. Yet, whether the Nets could put together a combination to sway the Rockets into trading Harden remains to be seen. The Nets at least have all their future first-round picks and four 2021 second-round picks to sweeten the pot. It’s not a bad package, especially with draft compensation, but Houston might still hold out for more.
  • Philadelphia 76ers: This is fascinating. New Sixers basketball boss was the lead decision maker for 15 years with the Rockets. Daryl Morey has already traded for Harden once, so what would stop him from doing it again? If the Rockets are willing to engage Morey, it seems like one of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons would depart for Harden. The Sixers have all their future firsts except for their 2025 pick.

Moving a player like Harden is no easy endeavor but it feels inevitable. As others have pointed out, the only player to go back on a trade demand was Kobe Bryant in 2007. The Rockets have said they were willing to get uncomfortable and it certainly seems like we have reached that point. With the season slated to start in less than two weeks, it will be fascinating to see if this turns into more of a Kobe-like situation (i.e. the player rescinds on their trade demand) or a Jimmy-like situation (i.e. the player goes nuclear and forces his way out).

While the Rockets will continue to have a multitude of options and could essentially trade the former Arizona State Sun Devil anywhere, dealing him to the Eastern Conference would undoubtedly help the Timberwolves’ 2021 playoff chances (and beyond).