3 big reasons why winning a James Harden trade is all about timing for Rockets

Sometimes the best move is to wait. Composite photo by Jack Brame

As leaks begin to intensify through the media, it's become pretty clear: the Houston Rockets are preparing to trade James Harden. Many have speculated that perhaps Houston was hedging their bets this summer with Harden, but it's hard to overlook these core facts:

1) Prior to demanding a trade, James Harden turned down a contract extension for the first time since being in Houston.
2) The Rockets spent the bulk of their offseason acquiring young talent and first round draft picks.
3) Every long-term contract Houston inked this summer was with players 25 years or under.
4) The kind of offer Houston was looking for in return for James Harden was leaked through the media (blue chip prospect and multiple first round draft picks).

They may not advertise it, but Houston has effectively made it clear that they intend to move on from Harden "sooner rather than later", per Adrian Wojnarowski. This piece isn't to deny what Houston is bound to do, but rather explain why it may be a mistake to rush into a deal.

1. James Harden is one of the greatest basketball players of all time

This one is self-explanatory, but Harden is already one of the 30 greatest basketball players of all time, and he has two years left on his contract. Yes, it may be very difficult to repair the relationship and it's only been done a couple times in modern NBA history, but it's not unprecedented. If Houston has even a two percent chance of retaining him, it's the same principle of chasing that type of talent - it would be malpractice to not go for it.

A lot of what's being said in the media about James Harden not being that attractive of an asset is posturing. If you don't believe me, go look up how poorly some articles have aged the last time players of this caliber were on the market. The best assets (Ben Simmons, Tyler Herro, Jaylen Brown, etc...) will still be on the table a year from now because these general managers aren't stupid; they understand how rare a talent like Harden is. It will not hurt the Rockets much if they choose to see how things develop.

It's possible that teams pay a little more now than later due to losing time on Harden's contract, but it's unlikely that a team interested in his services would be bold enough to take their best assets off the table. Teams interested in Harden are trying to maximize their title window - that will still be the case at the trade deadline. Think of it this way: If the price of trying to keep Harden is losing out on a first round pick from a team's best offer, is it worth waiting?

Of course it is. It's James Harden.

2. The Rockets could still be very good this season

A lot of my skepticism on Houston entering the season was based on the amount of gambles they took this offseason. From John Wall to David Nwaba, the Rockets went with the "high risk, high reward" model up and down the roster. When you compound those odds, it was unlikely that enough bets were going to pay off for Houston to remain a very good team.

However, if you've followed the Rockets' early returns from the preseason, it's become clear that a lot of their bets are paying off. Christian Wood looked like a stud in the 23 minutes of preseason action he played. John Wall looks healthy and engaged defensively. DeMarcus Cousins seems to have reinvigorated his career with three-point shooting. Even Eric Gordon looks poised for a bounce-back season.

Much like the 2016 offseason, a lot of Houston's roster bets are paying off. Trading James Harden before you've gotten time to properly evaluate the team you have could be a mistake. The realistic worst case scenario is Houston isn't very good and they can still deal Harden at the trade deadline. Perhaps you lose out on a minor asset here or there, but the teams seriously interested will put their best chips on the table because they're chasing a championship.

What if 20 games in, Houston has one of the best records in the Western Conference? You may not be able to convince James Harden to stay long-term, but passing up on a year of title contention to pivot to a rebuild is the greatest sin in professional sports.

3. The offers are more likely to get better, not worse

If you wanted to construct the best argument for patience, this is it. Every NBA team is going into the season with zero losses and is excited for what lies ahead. Some of these teams may be interested in Harden, but want to see what they have first before making a major decision like that. At the trade deadline, these teams may recognize that they aren't good enough to win a title and decide to throw in their best and final offer.

This is why you wait.

Unless there's a godfather offer on the table, Houston doesn't have incentive to rush into a trade when Harden has two years remaining on his deal. What if the season starts and a team like Denver falls behind the pack in the Western Conference? Do they come to Houston with their best package?

What if Philadelphia realizes that their problems last season extended beyond floor spacing? Will Daryl Morey stop posturing and include Ben Simmons in his best offer? You can continue this exercise with several different teams, but the point stands - more teams will become aggressive if you wait.

When more teams become aggressive, a bidding war emerges. When a bidding war emerges, Houston will have more leverage than they have right now. Currently, the Rockets have four opportunities to trade Harden:

1. Right now
2. At this year's trade deadline
3. Next summer
4. At next year's trade deadline

There is no need to rush this. Contrary to what pundits are saying right now, Houston has significant leverage and that will remain the case for a while. They have an all-time player with two years remaining on his contract. It's all a matter of how uncomfortable they're willing to get.

If you're going to rebuild, you're going to rebuild. There is no "best time" to do that. A third of the league is in a constant state of rebuild. Ripping the Band-Aid off may seem like an attractive option, but it's monumentally important that the Rockets get this trade right. A lost season is a lost season. Ask San Antonio about the long-term ramifications of screwing up a trade like this.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome