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Trade Grades start to roll in, and they are decidedly mixed

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Any trade nowadays gets graded, from swaps of second rounders on up. And of course, the Nets acquisition of James Harden, part of a four-team deal, is going to get a lot of attention.

So here are the grades ... so far. They range from A+ to D.

ESPN - Kevin Pelton (D)

It’s impossible not to look at this trade in the context of Kyrie Irving’s absence from the Nets for personal reasons for the past week. Harden’s fit in Brooklyn seemed questionable when the Nets already had both Irving and a healthy Kevin Durant as shot-creators. If Brooklyn isn’t sure when or if Irving might return, the need for another ball handler and creator becomes far more pressing — especially in the wake of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partial ACL tear.

The Nets did have LeVert, of course, and he had averaged 26.5 points per game in the four games Irving missed — including a 43-point effort in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. However, LeVert has always been more of a volume scorer than an efficient option. Since his rookie season, when he had a below-average usage rate, LeVert has never posted a true shooting percentage better than .525 during an era when the league average has been no worse than .556.

When it comes to creating offense at extreme volumes efficiently, there’s never been anyone in NBA history quite like Harden. Of the 36 seasons in NBA history in which a player has finished at least 35% of his team’s plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or a turnover, the three most efficient by true shooting percentage all belong to Harden — and they’re all from the past three seasons.

Certainly, Harden hasn’t been performing at that same level so far in 2020-21 after reporting to camp late and forcing the postponement of the Rockets’ season opener, when he was required to remain away from the team following a maskless appearance at a group outing in violation of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

In Harden’s delayed season debut, he dropped 44 points and handed out 17 assists in a narrow road loss against the Portland Trail Blazers, and it seemed like nothing could stop him from producing on the court. But he hasn’t been the same player since missing Houston’s Jan. 2 game with an ankle sprain, averaging 17.4 PPG while making just 26% of his 3-point attempts over the past five games. It’s his longest streak without reaching 20 points since being traded to Houston in October 2012, per ESPN Stats & Information research. More troublingly, Harden has just 19 total free throw attempts in that span, also his lowest five-game span with the Rockets.

By making this trade, Brooklyn is clearly betting that Harden’s slump is some combination of short-term effect of the ankle injury and his desire to force a trade. Given Harden’s previous metronomic consistency in the regular season, I think that’s the right call.

The Nets also seem to be betting that adding Harden makes them the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, with or without Irving, and I’m more skeptical there. The case for that is Brooklyn can now put out 48 minutes of lineups with one of the greatest NBA scorers of all time on the court. (This presumes Steve Nash chooses to stagger the minutes of Durant and Harden after almost exclusively playing Durant and Irving together, but that seems more likely given that LeVert is no longer around to carry a reserve-centric lineup.)

Although Harden played with plenty of future Hall of Famers and even another MVP with the Rockets, he has never in his prime had a teammate as capable as Durant, who has thus far picked up where he left off as one of the NBA’s very best players. That changes the equation in the playoffs, where Harden has typically faltered in the wake of a heavy load. The Nets both can keep Harden a bit fresher and have a strong alternative if he wears down in the postseason.

The biggest question with Brooklyn remains whether the team can be good enough defensively to win the East. The Nets boast the NBA’s 11th-best defensive rating thus far, but that’s built largely on poor opponent shot-making. Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality (qSQ) metric, which estimates the average value of shots based on their location, type and distance of nearby defenders, indicates Brooklyn’s opponents are getting about perfectly average shots. The Nets’ opponents have posted the league’s fifth-lowest effective field goal percentage, in large part because their 36% accuracy on 2-point attempts outside the paint is third worst, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Brooklyn also loses a capable interior defender in Allen, who has contested shots at the rim far more frequently than holdover center DeAndre Jordan during the season-plus they’ve played together, albeit at the cost of weaker defensive rebounding. Jordan has played more than 20 minutes just once this season, including a DNP-CD on Tuesday night, and he is now the only healthy traditional center on an undersized Nets roster that will be relying heavily on small-ball lineups with Jeff Green in the middle. Brooklyn does open up three roster spots with this trade, at least one of which will surely go to another big man.

I get the Nets’ urgency to win now. As good as Durant has looked coming off his Achilles injury, he is still 32, and the East might not always look as open as it does at the moment. But given the lingering questions about Brooklyn’s ability to defend well enough to win the conference, this price looks too steep.

The comparison to the package of draft picks the Nets gave up for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is obvious, and while I hardly think this is fated to follow the same path — Harden is closer to his prime than Garnett and Pierce were, no LeBron James-led Miami Heat team is lurking elsewhere in the conference and flags fly forever — Brooklyn knows the downside to being out picks for years at a time.

Going this far out in terms of draft picks makes it impossible to predict how good the Nets might be by that point. Harden, 31, can choose between a $47.4 million player option and unrestricted free agency in 2022, after all, and it’s difficult to tell which outcome would be worse for Brooklyn: Harden walking so soon after the trade or re-signing a contract that would pay him 35% of the team’s cap during his mid-30s.

Ultimately, that risk means this is not a trade I would have felt comfortable making.

Sports Illustrated - Jeremy Woo (B-)

The real price an organization pays by making the requisite sacrifices to assemble a superteam is, truthfully, impossible to assess in the heat of the moment. But there’s certainly some irony in the fact that Nets general manager Sean Marks—widely credited for rescuing the franchise after a failed 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett that ultimately sent the Nets into limbo for half a decade—was the one to repeat the cycle, shedding Brooklyn’s rights to its next seven drafts, as well as two valuable, homegrown players, for James Harden. It’s a stroke of aggressive management we’ve seen time and again in recent years, but it’s no less jarring to think about just how much a team surrenders for the right to, hopefully, contend in the now. Brooklyn’s star trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving makes them the Eastern Conference’s premier franchise. But in the end, valuing the seismic decision the Nets took to create that opportunity comes down to aesthetics and personal preference. Do you believe?

If you think Durant, Harden and Irving form an unstoppable trio, then Brooklyn deserves a round of applause for getting it done. They have two, maybe three of the five best pure scorers in the NBA. The Eastern Conference is winnable. All three are on similar career timelines. Nobody will enjoy trying to defend them, not alone, not together. On the flipside, consider that there’s only one basketball. We’ve barely seen Durant and Irving play together. Stylistically, Harden is an inimitable force, but he’s also the biggest possible wrench you can ever throw into a pre-established offense. Head coach Steve Nash (and by extension, top assistant Mike D’Antoni, who reunites with Harden), have some imagining to do. We don’t know if these three guys fit. Harden and Durant are wholly different players from their time in Oklahoma City. There’s some cosmic justice in their reunion. There will also almost certainly be challenges for the Nets to handle.

The grade we’re giving the Nets here reflects just how far-reaching the risk and uncertainty now runs. This could certainly be a special team. But the fit is not seamless, and Brooklyn sacrificed not only the future, but the pieces of a relatively solid rotation. Irving, Durant, and the other guys may have already been enough to win the East. Regardless of Irving currently being AWOL, we’ll never know. DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris will round out the Nets’ best lineups. They will need to get something out of Landry Shamet, Jeff Green and Bruce Brown. Brooklyn has three open roster spots, the midlevel exception, as well as a possible disabled player exception created by Spencer Dinwiddie’s season-ending injury with which to flesh out their rotation. But whether or not this team truly works comes down to their three stars.

On the intrigue, excitement, and fun scales, this trade is a win. But that package is a lot to give up for a short and long-term future that feels quite this uncertain. To his credit, Durant learned to fit in with the Warriors, and while it was never perfect, Golden State got the job done. But Irving and Harden are singular personalities, to put it gently, and the Nets aren’t replicating the low-maintenance culture the Warriors built any time soon. Harden is under contract through 2022 and holds a $47 million team option for 2022-2023—the fact he wanted to come to Brooklyn and has a pre-existing relationship with Durant helps to feasibly prop the Nets’ title window open for a few seasons at minimum, as both players move toward their mid-30s.

Contractually, Durant and Irving are on the exact same timeline as Harden, with player options for 2022-23. The Nets should in theory get three opportunities to win with that trio, at minimum. By then, we’ll know if it fits. The odds all three of them leave—particularly in an attractive, player-friendly market—feel somewhat unlikely. As long as Brooklyn avoids a nightmare scenario where they bottom out and send lottery picks to Houston until the end of time, the absence of first-round selections can be managed. Marks knows that approach well, of course. Picks can always be procured—just not the sexy ones.

Then again, superstars move more often than you think in this league. As Durant, Irving, and Harden have all shown us before, it’s often by their own impetus. The Nets are now at the mercy of their potentially fickle chemistry. The risk is major, and the stakes are high in Brooklyn. Then again, if it works, forget you ever read this.

Zach Harper, The Athletic (A-)

There are a lot of questions about how this will fit and how Harden will embrace a new culture that isn’t centered around him, nor exclusively catering to what he wants to be on the court. For the past eight years, Harden has been allowed to be the focus of an offense and go get whatever numbers and accolades he seeks. It got him an MVP award and several top-two finishes in the voting. But it never ended up with Harden finding himself past the conference finals. The last time he was past the conference finals was right before he was traded to Houston in 2012. That was when he was the sixth man for Oklahoma City and teamed with Kevin Durant and a super talented, yet often mercurial, point guard.

Well, guess what? He’s now back with KD. He’s got Kyrie Irving as the point guard on the team, whenever he decides to rejoin his Brooklyn squad. And it’s safe to say Harden won’t have free reign on offense to play the way we saw with hyper usage over the last few seasons, and he’ll have to fit next to incumbent superstars, instead of the other way around. But Harden gets a chance to prove the issues in Houston weren’t so much him as they were a crumbling organization. He also gets a chance to prove to the basketball world that he is willing to adjust his game to play winning basketball on a loaded team.

Back during 2019 All-Star Weekend, Steph Curry was on camera and mic’d up telling Mike Budenholzer that Harden told him he doesn’t want to play that way anymore. He doesn’t want to have to do everything. He wanted more team play, like what he saw in Golden State. I’m not sure playing with Durant and Irving will accomplish that because those two players historically love to play isolation ball. Irving loves to dribble for days, much like Harden did during his time in Houston. Coach Steve Nash will be tasked with harnessing all that talent and getting it to adopt some level of team basketball on that end of the floor.

However, there are other people who just love the idea of “get me all of the talent you can and allow me to mold it to winning basketball.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The level of individual offensive talent on the Nets now with Harden, Durant and Irving can’t be matched. Making it match together on the court, though, will be a chore. We’ve seen Harden be someone who can deal out 10-12 assists every night. Nash can stagger the minutes to always have Harden or Irving on the floor.

One tough part in all this is giving up Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. LeVert’s a talented scorer who will be missed, but they also just acquired Harden. That scoring has been replaced. Allen’s absence will be tough for a team that may end up as awful defensively. When Allen played center instead of DeAndre Jordan, the Nets were just a much better team. He’s an actual defensive presence and someone who can stretch the floor vertically. But you have to sacrifice something in order to bring in a talent like Harden.

As for the draft picks, once Jrue Holiday went in exchange for control over half a decade’s worth of picks from Milwaukee, the price tag was set on Harden. It would take something historic to get him moved. Now the Nets give up control of seven drafts to the Rockets. That won’t make it easy to plan around with cheap options to build out the rotation, but the Nets obviously feel he’s worth that gamble.

Ever since Harden let it be known he didn’t want to play for Houston anymore, this match has felt mostly imminent. Now we see just how all of these talented pieces fit together in pursuit of a championship.

Sam Quinn, CBS Sports (B)

We’ll start with the obvious: championships are won primarily through talent, and the Nets now have more of it than any other team in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers are the only other team in the NBA that can comfortably say that they have two top-10 players, but Brooklyn also has Kyrie Irving. The Lakers have no such third star. If you subscribe to the theory that talent wins out no matter what, the Nets are, at the very least, Eastern Conference favorites. They might be championship favorites too. But there’s more work to be done here.

The proper Brooklyn grade here is incomplete. If the Nets go into the postseason with this exact roster, they are not going to win the championship. They’re too thin and too weak defensively. But they aren’t going to go into the postseason with this exact roster. Limited as their options may appear, the Nets could still have as many as three arrows left in their roster-building quiver:

The taxpayer mid-level exception, which they elected not to use during the offseason, will allow them to sign a player on the buyout market for a pro-rated portion of $5.7 million, depending on when exactly they sign the player.

A disabled player exception, which they have applied for in light of Spencer Dinwiddie’s partially torn ACL. If the league rules that he will miss the season, the Nets will be awarded a $5.7 million exception (half of Dinwiddie’s salary) to use in either the buyout market or in a trade.

Dinwiddie’s $11.4 million salary itself, and the full Bird Rights that come with it. A team interested in signing Dinwiddie this offseason, or merely looking to move off of some long-term salary, would be interested.

Despite their embarrassment of offensive riches, Brooklyn needs to do quite a bit with those chips if it plans to round out its roster. At a bare minimum, it needs to find a backup center. Right now, 2019 second-round pick Nic Claxton is second on the depth chart. He is currently injured and has played less than 200 NBA minutes. That center might need to be a starting-caliber player. Most metrics, to this point, have painted DeAndre Jordan as a bench-level player. His PER of 12 is below-average, he has a negative Box Plus-Minus (-1.6) and his VORP is zero, meaning the metric views him as a replacement-level player. Kevin Durant will play some center, but right now, the Nets are not equipped to deal with players like Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis in the playoffs.

Similarly, they’ll need at least one more forward. That was a need prior to the Harden deal, and it remains one after Brooklyn failed to extract P.J. Tucker in this deal. Based on their present roster construction, the Nets have almost no choice but to use Durant to defend virtually any elite, big wing they encounter. Their playoff run will almost certainly include some combination of Jayson Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Durant has proven capable of defending those players in the past, and having Irving and Harden limits his offensive burden enough to make it feasible, but is tiring out maybe the best player on the planet defensively really an optimal use of his talent? Throw in some guard depth, and the Nets still have a fair bit of work to do here.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of redundancy. Golden State was so unstoppable with Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson because all three function so well off of the ball. Harden has never been asked to. Irving has never particularly liked to. Does that mean that this trio can’t have the same impact on defenses that the Death Lineup did? Of course not. Given Brooklyn’s shooting depth, there are scenarios in which this group is even better offensively. But that’s not a slam dunk. Harden’s usage rate as a Rocket was 33.3 percent, which would represent the highest figure in NBA history over an entire career. He vaulted above 40 percent at his peak. Something has to give here. All three of these stars are going to have to adjust. Their willingness to do so will determine just how great this offense can be.

And to be absolutely clear, it has a chance to be historically great. The most efficient offense in NBA history was the 2019-20 Mavericks. They scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions. Brooklyn was at 113.4 even before this trade, and that includes games that Irving has missed. There will be fit issues, but they don’t need to be overwhelming. In very small samples, Harden has regularly topped 40 percent as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter. So has Irving. Durant just spent three seasons getting his doctorate in off-ball motion at Golden State University. There is a chance that this offense is so overwhelmingly dominant that nothing else matters. But for now, there are too many concerns elsewhere to give Brooklyn a perfect grade or championship favorite status. We’ll have a far better idea of how well they’ll fare in the playoffs once the trade deadline has passed and we’ve seen what additions they can make on the buyout market.

Jordan Greer, Sporting News (C+)

Let’s be clear: The Nets now possess an incredibly talented trio with Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Each player is a three-level scorer capable of dropping 30-plus points on any given night. No NBA team can match up with these guys on paper.

But there are just so many questions about this “Big Three.” Can Harden get back into shape and learn to change his game? Will Durant be able to stay healthy? Is Irving actually interested in playing basketball?

Aside from the major concerns, the loss of depth also presents on-court issues. Harden, Durant and Irving all rank in the top 20 on the all-time leaderboard for usage percentage. They will need to sacrifice touches and work together in order for the Nets to be a contender. Defensively, oh boy. We aren’t exactly looking at the 2003-04 Pistons here.

A shiver may have gone down Nets’ fans spines when this trade was reported because of the easy connection to the ill-fated deal that brought past-their-primes Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Harden is certainly not at that stage of his career, and the Nets are much better positioned to compete for a championship now than they were in 2013.

Still, this is a steep price to pay for a 31-year-old who completely checked out on his last team. Harden is under contract for at least 2020-21 and 2021-22 (plus a $47 million player option in 2022-23), so there is time for him to transform into his old self, but not much. The Nets handed over control of their next seven drafts to the Rockets. They need their stars to align, or the future could be dark.

Duncan Smith, Hoops Habit (A)

The Brooklyn Nets opted to go down a risky path once again, trading seven years worth of draft control to the Houston Rockets in exchange for one of the best players in the NBA. They sent their first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 to the Rockets as well as pick swaps in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.

It’s a drastic haul that vaults the Rockets into the realm of the war-chest teams, like the New Orleans Pelicans and the OKC Thunder.

This is a trade that launches the Nets into the heights of the NBA’s elites and makes them a legitimate championship contender alongside the Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Adding James Harden to their superstar core of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving just makes them that much more dangerous and are virtually unstoppable on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, that may be another issue, but Harden is a better defender than he’s given credit for and they won’t miss much on that end with LeVert’s departure.

Considering that the Brooklyn Nets want a championship and nothing else matters, they did what needed to be done.

Michael D. Sykes II, USA Today (C)

Look, anytime you can trade for a superstar player you should probably do it. And when you do it, you can’t really be graded at any lower than a C.

James Harden is absolutely a star player. He’s one of the best scorers we’ve ever seen. Even with him half-trying this season, he’s put up pretty good numbers on solid efficiency. You go get this guy if you have the means to do it.

But, man. What did it cost? This is the second time in a decade that the Nets have given up years of draft compensation for a star heading into the twilight of his career. Harden is 32 years old. He’s played almost 29,000 minutes in total through his career and that’s not counting the postseason.

They gave up on the draft for the next seven years if Houston ends up making good on any of their pick swaps. That’s a hard pill to swallow, though you can understand why they’d do it.

After this deal, though? They better win a title this year. If they do? This is an A. If not? This can’t be any better than a C.

Lee Tran, Fadeaway World (A+)

By mortgaging their future for a James Harden trade, the Brooklyn Nets hope to compete now. They have created a big three of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, while still retaining solid players like DeAndre Jordan and Joe Harris. James Harden will have two other stars to help him carry the load and can excel in the playoffs as part of a good team.

The Brooklyn Nets are now the favorites in the Eastern Conference. The expectations are championship or bust, but with James Harden, they will have a very good chance of winning. They could face off against the Los Angeles Lakers: that would be quite a sight to see.

Michael Scotto, Hoopshype (No grade)

Brooklyn pushed all its chips in the center of the table to acquire Harden and form a superstar trio with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

“They better win it in the next two years,” a rival Eastern Conference executive told HoopsHype. “It’ll be interesting to see how all these players and personalities get along together.”

Durant, Irving, and Harden each have a player option for the 2022-23 season.

Irving has been away from the team for personal reasons, but was spotted in multiple videos maskless at a birthday party for his sister, which the league is investigating.

Harden rubbed former Rockets teammates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins the wrong way.

From a chemistry perspective, Brooklyn now has three superstar players who all demand the ball at an elite rate and will need to sacrifice to make the trio work on the court. Harden ranks eighth all-time in NBA usage rate (30.69), Durant ranks 12th (30.16), and Irving ranks 16th (29.29).

Harden reunites with his former Thunder teammates, Durant and Jeff Green, and his former Rockets coach, Mike D’Antoni, in Brooklyn.

LeVert was the first draft pick of the Sean Marks era in Brooklyn after trading Thaddeus Young to acquire Indiana’s selection in 2016. It’s also worth noting LeVert and Irving share the same agency, Roc Nation, for representation. Without Allen, look for the Nets to play DeAndre Jordan and Green at center.

No doubt, there will be more and it will ALL be speculation.