James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets just more than a year ago to become the third member of a Big 3 superstar grouping and help lead the organization to its first championship. So far, things haven't gone so well. Injuries and Kyrie Irving's refusal to get vaccinated have severely limited opportunities for Harden to share the court with Irving and Kevin Durant. Still, the Nets very nearly beat the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of last year's playoffs and seem well-positioned to make another run this season, currently sitting a half game out of first in the Eastern Conference.
This superteam is not guaranteed to stay together forever, however, and its immediate future is already in question. Durant and Irving are both under contract through next year, and Durant even longer after he signed a supermax extension this past offseason. Harden had the opportunity to sign a similar extension, but declined to do so. Now there are rumors that he'd prefer to explore the unrestricted free agent market for the first time in his career this offseason. Per Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report:
As the NBA calendar approaches the Feb. 10 trade deadline, word has circulated around the league about James Harden's increased interest in testing the open market this summer, and how his impending free agency is impacting the Philadelphia 76ers' asking price for Ben Simmons.
In his 13-year career, Harden has never been a free agent. By all accounts, the former MVP has clear intentions to reach unrestricted free agency for the first time, even if that would lead him back to the Nets.
Harden remains invested in competing for the title in Brooklyn this season, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. But Harden has recently informed several confidants—including former teammates and coaches—of his interest in exploring other opportunities outside of Brooklyn this summer, league sources told B/R.
Regardless of how happy Harden may or may not be in Brooklyn, him hitting free agency makes sense. He's never done it before and doesn't want to commit to the Nets given the uncertainty of the Kyrie situation and how badly having a part-time player making a third of the cap will hinder team-building. Even, as Fischer notes, Harden does return to the Nets, a foray into free agency (however brief) seems inevitable at this point.
So where could he go if he decides to leave Brooklyn? Most options would require a sign-and-trade since Harden doesn't want to join a franchise building into a contender, but rather a ready-made title team. Here are a few options.
Of course. When there is smoke, there is usually fire, and the reports from Monday that Daryl Morey would rather hang onto Ben Simmons and turn him into Harden than consider deadline trades make a lot more sense with the subsequent reports of Harden's openness to hearing him and other free agency suitors out. A Harden and Joel Embiid pairing does seem like a great fit. Harden is a maestro in the pick-and-roll, has never played with as dangerous a roll man as Embiid, and can let the All-Star center take over when it's an off night. The biggest and most obvious problem with teaming up those two is injuries. Embiid seems constantly at risk of missing games and Harden's body has broken down the last year after so many seasons of carrying the load in Houston. If both are healthy, Philly is a championship contender-- but that's a big bet to take.
Los Angeles Lakers
Is this likely? No. Is it possible? Yes. If the Lakers keep Russell Westbrook this season and he opts into his $47 million option for next year, Harden could easily sign a deal with Brooklyn that could match Westbrook's salary and make a trade feasible for both of these extremely capped out teams. The motivation for the Lakers is obvious. Harden is exactly who they need -- someone who can give LeBron James a break from handling the ball and can space the floor when LeBron and Anthony Davis are on the court, too. Harden would be a massive upgrade from what Westbrook brings offensively and is around the same level defensively. Los Angeles does this in a heartbeat.
The Nets' side of things is trickier. Harden can't sign with the Lakers outright due to their cap situation. He needs Brooklyn's cooperation to get there. Yet there is no reason to think Westbrook would be better next to KD a second time around. If the Nets found a third team willing to take Westbrook and send some assets their way, it could happen. Maybe loop in the Rockets, who send John Wall to Brooklyn and take Westbrook and a Lakers first in 2027, the kind of trade they've already been linked to? Harden ending up with the Lakers would require serious gymnastics but is within the realm of possibility.
Los Angeles Clippers
The other LA team's deal would be a lot simpler. The Clippers appear to be taking a brief gap year; Kawhi Leonard is, in all likelihood, out until next season with the torn ACL he suffered in last year's playoffs and Paul George has already missed a month with an elbow injury that might sideline him the whole season. They'll want to be reloaded by next year, especially since their first-rounder is going to OKC this offseason. Adding Harden would be a smart move that helps cover their weaknesses offensively, and his defensive deficiencies can easily be overcome by the PG/Kawhi combo.
There's more motivation to help out the Clippers than the Lakers because of the possible return. The Clippers have a few role good role players with a high enough salary to make a trade easy money-wise; Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, and Marcus Morris, for example, will combine to make $40 million next season. That allows the Clippers to salary match and they can then throw in an intriguing younger talent like Brandon Boston or Tre Mann. The Nets get a far more balanced roster that could withstand the loss of their superstars better than this year's shallow team and the Clippers get a third star who fits perfectly with the two they have. If Brooklyn is going to lose Harden no matter what, this may be the best possible outcome.
The Celtics are a middling team much further away from championship contention than the three other teams on this list, yes. And one of the notes in the BR article above is that Harden doesn't love the climate in New York. If that's true, he would hate it in Boston, which may eliminate them as a possibility outright. But! There is some reasoning here to why it would work out for both sides.
For starters, Boston could clear enough cap space by moving Al Horford's partially guaranteed contract and dumping guys like Marcus Smart and Josh Richardson to sign Harden outright No sign-and-trade cooperation with Brooklyn required. That appeals to Boston for obvious reasons and could appeal to Harden if he just wants to get the hell out of dodge for one reason or another. Harden would be leaving to team up with two young and talented scorers in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but that pairing is far more unproven than the Kawhi-PG or LeBron-AD combo. It would be risky for Harden, no doubt, if his goal is to win championships.
But he would be just what the Celtics need. Brown and Tatum have grown a lot as playmakers halfway through this year but will never reach Harden's level of passing. He is still more of a scorer than a distributor but can help set the table and run a pick-and-roll when things get stagnant. Harden still relies on isolation scoring a lot, which is already a big problem in Boston that would only be exacerbated, but it is the type of huge swing, all-in move that Brad Stevens' predecessor enjoyed pulling off and it led to titles. Not the likeliest choice on this list, but far less unlikely than one might think.