James Harden's trade request is progressing as most superstar trade requests tend to. He started with a singular preferred destination: the Brooklyn Nets. That team lacked the assets to immediately entice his current team, so the list expanded. As of Thursday, he has reportedly expressed interest in the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks. The Golden State Warriors reportedly made a call as well, though nothing materialized.
The next logical step is the most interesting one. At this point in the proceedings, a mystery team usually emerges. Oklahoma City swooped in out of left field to nab Paul George. Toronto delayed Kawhi Leonard's return to Los Angeles by a year. Whether such a team manages to actually acquire Harden remains to be seen, but before this process is over, one is going to become a meaningful part of these discussions. The following four teams stand out as possible surprise suitors.
1. Toronto Raptors
Kawhi made two decisions when he decided to join the Clippers. The first and most basic was to live in California instead of Toronto. The second and more complicated was to play with Paul George instead of Pascal Siakam. It's unclear which outcome mattered more to Leonard, a southern California native, but rumors at the time suggested that Kawhi would have been open to extending his stay in Canada with the right co-star. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Toronto discussed a possible George trade with the Thunder while attempting to convince Leonard to return. No traction was gained on a deal, but Leonard didn't commit to the Clippers until George was in hand. All signs suggested that Leonard planned to join LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers had a George trade not materialized. Add all of this up and what becomes quite clear is that Leonard, the most important free agent in Raptors history, didn't view Siakam as a suitable co-star.
After the postseason he just had, other free-agent targets are probably going to come to the same conclusion. Why would Giannis Antetokounmpo choose Siakam over Luka Doncic or Jimmy Butler? In their present state, the Raptors not only lack a true superstar, but also the means to lure one on the open market. Siakam might not be that sort of player, but he's the kind of bait that might be able to catch one. It's not as though 26-year-old All-NBA forwards grow on trees. If Philadelphia isn't willing to offer Ben Simmons, Siakam is very likely better right now than any other player the Rockets are likely to be offered. Norman Powell could fill the dual functions of extra value and necessary salary filler.
The fit is cleaner than you might think. Fred VanVleet has never shot below 40 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Kyle Lowry has functioned in ball-handling timeshares before with Leonard, VanVleet and DeMar DeRozan. Harden might actually help fill the post defense void left by Marc Gasol's departure, and OG Anunoby's presence is more than enough at forward. The 16th-ranked halfcourt offense in basketball couldn't ask for a bigger upgrade. There would remain sign-and-trade routes to Giannis next summer, though they'd be tricky. Miami's decision to punt away max space simplifies the path. Toronto wouldn't be the only suitor needing Milwaukee's cooperation.
Harden's effectiveness as a recruiter is secondary. His impact on a Raptors team weakened through free agency in consecutive offseasons is what matters. Toronto has now seen in back-to-back postseasons just how necessary a true superstar is. Harden would give them that kind of superstar, and potentially access to others. Trading Siakam to get one would be a tough pill to swallow, but Masai Ujiri did what it took to get Leonard. If he views Harden as a pathway back into championship contention, he is going to consider him.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves
Harden might not want to move to Minnesota, but he'd hardly be their first Houston transplant. Former Rockets executives Gersson Rosas and Sachin Gupta currently run the Timberwolves, and they've built a roster tailor-made to support Harden. Karl-Anthony Towns would be his best pick-and-roll partner ever, and he also happens to be one of the greatest shooting big men in NBA history. The duo would almost certainly generate a top-three offense, especially with shooters like Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez in place.
D'Angelo Russell would satisfy Houston's desire for an accomplished young player. Anthony Edwards knocks out most of the draft capital requirement. The bet would be substantial on both sides. Towns might not be thrilled with Rosas trading his close friend Russell mere months after acquiring him. The Russell-Edwards pairing looks significantly less appealing without Towns attached, and John Wall further complicates matters. Minnesota's already weak defense probably steps back even further without Edwards' long-term upside.
But teams spend years trying to form duos like Harden and Towns. Defense is fundamentally easier to find than offense, and as long as Towns' four-year deal looks now, they actually have to start, you know, winning if they plan to keep him for the long haul. Harden offers a meaningfully better chance at doing so than Russell and Edwards do. If Harden and Towns buy in, it's a no-brainer. Get the stars and solve the rest later. Sadly, that's a Texas-sized "if," and no amount of potential is likely to sway Harden off of the immediate contenders he's known to be interested in joining.
3. New Orleans Pelicans
Most teams in this derby are asking themselves if they can actually get Harden. New Orleans is asking itself whether or not it should. If the Pelicans go all-in, they can outbid anybody. Brandon Ingram becomes tradeable in February, and there don't appear to be many teams willing to give up 23-year-old All-Stars for Harden. Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Josh Hart and Kira Lewis are all first-round picks on rookie-scale deals. Oh, and before we even bring up swap rights, the Pelicans can trade as many as eight first-round picks: four of their own, two of Milwaukee's and two from the Lakers. A fraction of that war chest would be the winning bid. They'd have enough left over to trade for whatever role players a Harden-Zion Williamson duo might need. Eric Bledsoe, JJ Redick and Steven Adams are a nice start.
That settles the question of "can." What about the question of "should?" The answer is probably no. Williamson is 20. His best basketball might not come until Harden retires. The Pelicans are probably in-line for organic contention a few years down the line. Why sacrifice that for a likely futile shot at the Lakers? Few teams in basketball are in less of a rush than the Pelicans. They're going to be very good one day. That day doesn't need to be soon.
But it's worth asking how much faith the Pelicans have in Williamson's long-term health. Torn meniscuses are scary to even normally proportioned basketball players. Williamson's unique body raises its own concerns. The Pelicans have a better grasp on his medical future than the masses. If they doubt his durability at all, they may not be too fond of the idea of waiting for a prime that might not come. Never underestimate the allure of immediate championship contention. The Pelicans probably have a bright enough future to resist it, but the notion that they might hit fast-forward can't be dismissed entirely.
4. Denver Nuggets
Denver has a brighter present than New Orleans, and a safer future. The Nuggets are a smaller trade short of immediate contention. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are going to get there eventually. Few teams should be less motivated to trade for Harden than the Nuggets. They already have a top-five offense.
But any basketball argument in favor of Brooklyn trading for Harden exists for Denver. The Nets would have the NBA's best offense with Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Harden-Jokic-Murray trio has the same redundancies, but comes with the same upside. The Nets would be weak defensively. So would the Nuggets. Harden might not be thrilled about landing in Denver with his heart set on Brooklyn, and the schemes would be drastically different, but the basic plan of overwhelming postseason opponents with offensive talent applies to both.
Michael Porter Jr. is exactly the sort of possible star Brooklyn doesn't have to offer. Gary Harris and Will Barton offer positive-value salary filler. Denver has most of its own picks to offer, though Jokic and Murray are young enough to limit the value of even their later ones. Bol Bol is a fun sweetener. If the Rockets want upside, the Bol-Porter-R.J. Hampton trio offers an abundance, and is likely far enough away from its fully-realized future to make Houston's own picks more valuable over the next few seasons.
Chalk this one up as unlikely. The Nuggets aren't the sort of organization to play the Porter card lightly, and if they do, a younger, more defensive-oriented counterpart would probably be Denver's target. Harden would make the Nuggets better. He might even make them champions. But he's less valuable to them than almost any other team in basketball. The diminishing returns on offense are likely enough of a deterrent to kill this trade in its crib. But wow, would a Denver offense featuring Harden be lethal. If the Nuggets haven't at least talked this out amongst themselves, they soon will.