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Huge trade unlikely to affect James Harden sweepstakes, at least in the short term

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NBA All-Star Game 2015 Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When the Rockets and Wizards traded their All-Star point guards Wednesday, the question was whether the Russell Westbrook-for-John Wall (plus a protected 2023 first) would affect James Harden’s desire to relocate in Brooklyn.

Pundits think it’s unlikely and in fact suggest that the Rockets appear to be doubling down on their belief the team can contend. This was not a rebuilding trade. This was a contention trade.

As John Solomon of the Houston Chronicle wrote Thursday of the Rockets rookie GM Rafael Stone...

Clearly, he hasn’t moved away from the franchise’s long-stated goal of being a contender. The Rockets haven’t believed in a tank-and-rebuild project since winning the coin flip that landed them Hakeem Olajuwon.

How much of a contender the trade of Russell Westbrook for John Wall and a first-round draft pick will make the Rockets can be debated, but the intent is clear.

Similarly, Tim MacMahon of ESPN quoted a Rockets source shortly after the trade as saying...

Stance on James Harden has not changed. Houston hopes to be competitive with him this season and does not envision a scenario where Harden would be traded before the opener.

The Harden-Westbrook backcourt duo didn’t work in Houston and so, the Rockets new front office is taking a flyer on Wall, who like Kevin Durant is coming of an Achilles rupture but has looked good in off-season workouts. The belief is that the addition of Wall along with DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood might make Harden more comfortable with Houston. He has three years and $131 million left on his deal, with the final year a player option.

Bobby Marks writes Thursday...

Houston’s front office is confident that the team can be competitive this season. Rookie general manager Rafael Stone has remodeled the roster in his first weeks on the job, adding skilled centers Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins in free agency before this sell-low swap of max-salary PGs. The Rockets are hopeful that winning will ease Harden’s itchiness for an exit while recognizing that the pressure to trade him will intensify if early returns indicate that the team is not capable of contending.

But Wall and Cousins are both coming back from major injuries and there’s a reason why Wood went undrafted and has now played for six different teams in six years. He’s seen as a bit of a locker room issue.

Moreover, we don’t know how much or even if the Rockets consulted with Harden on the deal. It came together in a few hours. According to Kendrick Perkins, both Harden and Westbrook feel they are not part of the decision-making process in Houston, don’t have that prerogative usually reserved for superstars. Perkins implied that the Rockets new head coach and GM were both hired without the superstars having any imput.

In an ESPN interview Friday morning, Adrian Wojnarowski said Harden preferred Wall to Westbrook but didn’t offer details.

“He had a preference of John Wall over Westbrook although in the last couple of years, Harden has moved teammates in and out. He brought Chris Paul in, moved him out. Same with Russell Westbrook now. Whether that’s going to be enough to convince him to stay to want him to be there long term ... Rockets aren’t sure about that. They do have a cushion to work with. Remember, James Harden is under contract for two more years. So they’re going to start the season with Harden and Wall.

“To get John Wall back to that All-Star level, they’re hopeful that will help make a case to James Harden.

One pundit who thinks this move accelerates a Harden-to-Brooklyn (or somewhere else) trade is The Athletic’s John Hollinger. He thinks the Rockets got worse in the trade and that reality will ultimately force Stone and his boss, Tillman Fertitta’s hand. Harden, he argues, is a declining asset that Houston can’t afford for every long.

As a result, here’s the question other front offices are asking: When does it all hit the fan? Do the Rockets start taking calls on Harden at the trade deadline? Does Houston make one more effort to right things at the trade deadline before saying uncle after the season? This is a key question when you’re trying to salary-match a $41 million contract. Figuring out the timing and lining up the right contracts and assets for a deal is an important piece for those teams (hi, Brooklyn) scheming to add Harden to their mix.

Others wonder if the next issue is whether Westbrook is so on the decline that he could hurt the Wizards’ team chemistry, particularly in the backcourt. Bradley Beal, forced into the lead role with Wall’s absence, averaged 30.5 points a game ... and doesn’t have the baggage the other three guards have.

Acquiring Westbrook should buy time for Washington when it comes to the future of Bradley Beal, who has a player option for 2022. Beal likely remains off-limits in trade talks for teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers until next summer. But if this doesn’t work and the Wizards end up back in the lottery, history says that players as good as Beal on expiring contracts usually end up moving on.

The Wizards have done well in the last couple of years in the Draft, going for Rui Hachimura in 2019 and Deni Avdija last month. They also re-signed Davis Bertans to a rich contract. And they have a number of serviceable pieces.

The big question going forward for a team like the Nets and 76ers, suggests Bobby Marks, is how their management and ownership would react to a slow start. Would they push for a big move, negotiating with the Rockets for Harden ... or even the Wizards for Beal?

The Nets or 76ers could start slowly, leading to pressure to make big moves. Would the Nets get desperate and make a kitchen-sink offer (Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, four future unprotected first-rounders and two pick swaps) if they are hovering around .500 in mid-January? Would the 76ers reach the point of offering Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle and multiple firsts?

Bottom line says the former Nets assistant GM is that don’t expect anything now.

Those packages are too rich before the season starts. This trade doesn’t change that. But if Harden maintains his preference to leave and one of these teams is ready to make an overwhelming offer, Houston should certainly listen

So, despite the trade, the status quo remains likely and there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Nets are going for a big move between now and when they open the NBA season in 19 days.