It's hard not to compare James Harden's current trade request to his far briefer first. It may have taken Harden a little while to secure a deal after asking the Houston Rockets to move him in 2020, but it wasn't for lack of suitors. A number of teams registered significant interest, and Harden's fate ultimately came down to a two-team bidding war by the next two teams he would ultimately play for: the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. At that point, Harden was a reigning First-Team All-NBA player. He took a backseat to no one. The league revolved around him.
The opposite has been true this summer. Harden asked for a move in June. October is right around the corner and little progress has seemingly been made. There's no bidding war this time. All reports indicate that while the Clippers have interest, they haven't exactly gone all-out in their pursuit of the former MVP. No other significant suitor is known to have arisen. In fairness, many of them were preoccupied.
Virtually every team linked to Damian Lillard made some degree of sense for Harden. Miami's need, after all, is for a short-creator, and despite his other flaws, Harden still does so at an extremely high level. Yet early indicate that the Heat are not interested in Harden. The 76ers are reportedly interested in Jrue Holiday, but if the Bucks had ever offered him for Harden, a deal would've been done by now. Boston and Toronto have never been credibly linked to Harden despite having needs in the backcourt.
Lillard is coming off of his best season. Harden? One of his worst. His scoring dipped to 21 points per game, his lowest figure as a full-time starter. But he still led the league in assists on the NBA's No. 3 offense. Despite his playoff shortcomings, he still won the 76ers two games nearly singlehandedly against Boston. There's a gap between him and Lillard. It's not quite as big as their trade sagas would suggest. But it's enough to strip Harden of the status he enjoyed three years ago. Teams aren't as willing to overlook his flaws as they once were.
That creates a compelling contrast with the player that has replaced Harden at the center of the trade universe: Holiday, who has never approached the heights that Harden or Lillard have, but carries none of their weaknesses. He's not a primary shot-creator as Harden was, but he does just about everything else better. His elite defense at multiple positions makes him a fit on virtually any roster. Harden is now on his third trade request in the past four years. Holiday has won three Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year awards in that period.
Players like Holiday tend to age gracefully as trade assets. Kyle Lowry managed to generate a bidding war in 2021 free agency, for instance, but the ball-handler types like Harden? They sink fast. Russell Westbrook made $47 million last season. He's barely above the minimum this year. Harden's shooting protects him from such a disastrous outcome, but the principle applies on a smaller scale. It only took a few years of decline to take Harden from among the most desirable trade assets in the NBA to someone struggling to generate a market.
Ironically, Harden might not be somewhat dependent on Holiday to get his trade. Philadelphia has been cited as one of the most aggressive early bidders for his services, and Harden would almost certainly need to be involved for salary-matching purposes. If the Clippers remain interested in Harden, it's easy to envision a three-team deal in which Harden heads to Los Angeles and picks from the 76ers and Clippers get Holiday to Philadelphia.
Of course, the reverse is also true. The Clippers could take themselves off of the board for Harden by trading for Holiday, and reports have suggested they are interested. On the court, Harden more cleanly fits the point guard archetype they've seemingly sought for the past several years. Holiday, for all that he brings to the table, is not the late-game organizer that Harden is. If the Clippers do land Holiday, Harden is suddenly without a destination.
It's not hard to envision another star taking Holiday's place before long. Would Harden be more desirable on the trade market than either of Chicago's star guards, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, if the Bulls decided to retool? It's hard to say, but the question itself points to the trend that Lillard and Holiday started. Teams are willing to go out of their way for players like that. They once would have for Harden. For now, it appears as though those days have passed.