Three James Harden Trade Destinations

James Harden
James Harden / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

Just about everybody in the NBA expected James Harden to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, either to re-sign with the Philadelphia 76ers or head back to Houston to coast out the rest of his playing days with the Rockets. It turns out we were all wrong. Harden instead is choosing to opt into his $36 million player option -- in order for the Sixers to trade him. Shams Charania had the report on Thursday.

This comes as a massive surprise. News on the Harden front has been slow to come after the last half of the season was filled with reports he wanted to go back to the Rockets. Once Harden's 76ers were eliminated in embarrassing fashion by the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, the Harden camp basically fell silent. This decision does not provide any more clarity as far as what Harden wants, but if he truly desired to play on a rebuilding team in his longtime home he would've just opted out and signed there. This seems to be a sign that Harden wants to play for a championship contender, and most contenders can only afford to bring the former MVP in via trade rather than signing him outright.

Buyers may be cautious. Harden is still an elite passer and floor general who can occasionally pop off for a 40-point night, but those games are growing fewer and farther between. His injury history is also scary for any team potentially giving up long-term assets to add him as he turns 34 years-old next year. Harden remains an elite facilitator and Joel Embiid would not have won MVP without him, but he definitely can't be the second or option on a championship team at this point.

Interest should still remain strong. Here are a few possible destinations for Harden now that Philly has made it clear they're open for business.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers were named by Charania as an interested party in a follow-up tweet to the Harden news and it makes sense. It's been clear for years that even when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George manage to get on the court together the duo needs a table-setter to reach their true potential. Harden is certainly that if anything nowadays and would be a tremendous fit. His occasional scoring punch would also help offset the loss of who the Clippers would need to give up to land him. A package of Norm Powell and Marcus Morris works financially but would obviously need more juice for the Sixers.

Unlike most teams in this position, Philly isn't trying to get picks in exchange for their star. The Sixers need contributors. Powell was a legit Sixth Man of the Year contender before getting hurt and can put up real numbers off the bench or slide into the starting lineup. It's unclear how much Morris has left in the tank but his money makes this all work. Maybe Philly squeezes the Clippers and gets a cheap contributor like Brandon Boston or Bones Hyland in addition, but any Clippers-Sixers trade will feature Powell as the centerpiece.

Miami Heat

The Heat haven't hidden that they're big-game hunting this offseason. They were in the running for Bradley Beal and presumably have a standing offer for Damian Lillard if he ever asks out of Portland. They struck out on Beal and there hasn't been movement on the Lillard front. So would they settle for Harden? He is a much better passer than either of those guys, albeit a more unreliable scorer. Miami doesn't need a table-setter as much as it needs a perimeter threat to make the lives of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo easier. But we've seen Harden turn backup big men into PnR maestros and create open shots for borderline G-Leaguers time and time again. Lillard would be a better fit but Harden is certainly an upgrade over what they've got right now.

The question then becomes if the Heat are willing to give up as much for Harden as they would for the other stars and if Philly really wants to send him to the defending Eastern Conference champs. If Miami is still willing to put Herro on the table then perhaps a deal featuring him and recent first-round pick Jamie Jacquez Jr. would entice Philly. It's a bit of a long shot bug Harden would obviously sign on to play in Miami for a year. If the Heat want to make it happen, then they definitely could.

Boston Celtics

This one would be nuts but... it makes some kind of sense? The Celtics traded away their best passer in Marcus Smart to get Kristaps Porzingis. There is not a replacement on the roster and this year's playoff run made it obvious that Boston's own pair of superstar wings need someone to set them up when it matters most. Jayson Tatum has come a long way as a passer but still pales in comparison to a guy like Harden. The Sixers might be interested in doing a deal with the team that eliminated them because it would likely net them Malcolm Brogdon, a 44 percent 3-point shooter last year who could play great off of Embiid. They could also land Grant Williams (in a sign-and-trade) whose quality shooting from the corner make him one of the few power forwards perfectly suited to play alongside Embiid in pretty much any lineup.

The fits work. The question is then twofold: is this enough to convince Philly to send Harden to Boston, and do the Celtics even want to do this after watching Harden wilt (again) in the postseason in front of their very eyes? Boston could sweeten the pot with second-round pick and perimeter defender Jordan Walsh while also convincing themselves that Harden won't collapse under the weight of pressure when there are two superstars alongside him. This has the feel of a 2K trade rather than a transaction to occur in reality, but you can see the vision. If you squint.