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BEHIND THE SCENES: How the James Harden deal came together, what it took

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Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

James Harden is a Net and according to reports out of Brooklyn, Houston —and Philadelphia, the Nets willingness to give up so many draft picks and the the Rockets’ desire for Victor Oladipo won the day for Brooklyn. But some of those same reports paint an even uglier picture of Harden’s departure, complete with a Rockets team meeting two days before the trade.

In addition, reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reveals that the 76ers thought they were getting Harden, but the Rockets were so happy with the Nets offer that they never even asked Philly to counter. Both Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, reported to be the key pieces in a 76ers offer, “were even informed by their agents on Wednesday of an expected trade,” Pompey reported.

Harden, an eight All-Star and both a former MVP and Sixth Man of the Year, was the centerpiece of the trade consummated Wednesday afternoon. The Nets ultimately had to give up three first rounders, the right to swap four other first rounders as well as Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs in the deal, receiving only Harden in return. To compensate for an issue with LeVert’s physical, the Nets had to add $2.6 million in cash considerations to complete the four-team trade.

As had been repeatedly speculated, the Rockets weren’t interested in any of the Nets young players but instead wanted Brooklyn to acquire a star for them .. and add picks. Oladipo was that star.

The deal, according to all reports, came together quickly with the Nets and 76ers being asked for offers not long before the deal got done. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Kelly Ilko, the Celtics had also expressed interest, more than Danny Ainge would later admit. Sean Marks, in talking to Michael Grady Friday, said the process that led to the deal only started “two to three weeks ago,” then accelerated earlier in the week.

“We’re always checking in with a variety of different teams,” Marks told the YES Network reporter. “I think on the James Harden front, we might have had a conversation two or three weeks ago. Really was nothing to it. It really sped up over the last 48 hours prior to the trade when conversations were happening, you know, very frequently.”

In that same time frame, things were deteriorating in Houston. In a previously unreported team meeting Tuesday after a second loss to the Lakers, Harden’s teammates criticized Harden. It was the culmination of weeks worth of trade rumors, gossip about Harden’s seeming disinterest in following NBA health and safety protocols during parties in Atlanta and Las Vegas, fines, docked salary, etc., etc.

“John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins both spoke during the meeting, sources said, seeking a direct response on Harden’s level of commitment and preaching about the importance of accountability,” The Athletic reporters wrote.

According to Amick and Ilko, Harden was “well aware” of trade discussions even before the meeting and his famous comments later Tuesday night about the Rockets being “not good enough: to compete in the West.

“We’re just not good enough,” Harden had said in a 90-second discussion over Zoom with the media. “Um, you know, we just — we don’t, we don’t — obviously chemistry, talent-wise, just everything...”

Rockets GM Rafael Stone said Sunday that the comments were not a determinant for him or the Rockets in the ongoing trade talks, although he admitted other teams in the mix may have considered it as discussions intensified. He did not specify which teams.

Amick and Ilko also suggest that the Nets desire to acquire Harden smacked of desperation, driven perhaps by Kyrie Irving’s mysterious absence ... and Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL. Marks has denied any connection between the Harden trade and Irving’s absence.

“Brooklyn went Full Monty,” one rival executive whose team showed interest in Harden told The Athletic. “Desperation was in the cards, and there’s nothing better in this league than to have desperation.”

Whether desperate or not, the Nets were willing to trade anyone not Durant, Irving or Harris, who of course they had just signed to a four-year, $72 million deal.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN said on his Hoop Collective podcast that the Nets had wanted to keep Jarrett Allen but eventually caved. He said as well that before the Cavaliers agreed to add its pick to the Rockets’ package, the Nets were looking for another pick to satisfy Houston and had shopped Landry Shamet.

“I talked to two different teams that the Nets offered Landry Shamet to in the last week attempting to get a first-round pick,” Windhorst said on his ESPN podcast. “The were trying to keep Jarrett Allen, as you can imagine. To get the fourth first-round pick, they were trying to find a team that would give them anything, so they shopped Landry Shamet pretty hard from what I understand.”

Stone, the Rockets GM, told reporters in Houston Sunday that he liked the “flexibility” the Nets’ offer afforded, particularly the picks as well as Oladipo.

“What’s super exciting about this deal is it gives us flexibility,” Stone said. “In the NBA, picks, especially high picks, are the best currency. Everybody likes them. Everybody values them. So that was great. Organizationally, it gave us flexibility to do different types of deals as they come up, this year, next year, whatever.

“Then, we were able to get Victor Oladipo as part of it, along with Rodi (Kurucs) and Dante (Exum.) But Victor is a guy we’re really excited about. We think he’s very talented. That’s not insignificant from our perspective.”

Indeed, judging by his comments, Stone anticipates that sometime in the future, the Nets will have to rebuild and that their picks and swaps will become more valuable pieces than it would seem today. As Amick and Ilko write. “If the Rockets are going to make out like they hope here, to have all those first-rounders and pick swaps return as much value as possible when the time comes to make those moves, they need Harden and these revamped Nets to fail in spectacular fashion.”

Specifically, Brooklyn gave up first round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 as well as the right to swap picks in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027. None of the picks are protected. The Rockets are also getting the Bucks first rounder in 2022 from the Cavaliers.

Marks admitted including all those picks was not an easy decision, but said the experience of the last five years —including the Nets scouting and development successes— made him feel comfortable that the organization’s success can be “sustainable” over the long-term.

“Regardless of whether we had made this trade or not, the goal of this organization is to go out there and find players that fit with your timeline of what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to accomplish and help develop them and stuff,” said Marks.

“So it’s incredible opportunity again that we have ahead of us. Its not as if we don’t have the picks. When we first came in here, there just flat out weren’t any. Whereas now we have them. they’re just, you know, tied up in swaps and so forth, but there’s a variety of different ways in which we can continue to build this and put out something that is hopefully sustainable for a long time.”

Aside from the Nets picks, Stone said getting Oladipo, a two-time All-Star and former Most Improved Player, was a big part of the Rockets’ assessment of the trade.

“I think it’s (about) fit, for him, for us, for everybody,” Stone said. “But your hope is that it’s a perfect marriage. He’s an extremely talented player. He’s a two-way player. He’s played on an extraordinarily high level. He obviously took a significant injury. He’s back. He’s already really, really good. In his own mind and in ours, there’s still room to grow which is really exciting.

“For him and for us, this is a really exciting time where we get to see how it works out and hopefully, it just works out gangbusters and we take it from there.”

However, the Rockets will have to re-sign Oladipo this summer. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer after earning $21 million this season. The Rockets will have Oladipo’s Bird Rights.

Stone, in his first season after a long tenure as general counsel for the team, said that Harden had spoken to the organization about a trade shortly after the Rockets were eliminated in the Orlando “bubble” and both Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni departed as team president and head coach in the fall. Morey is now president of the 76ers, D’Antoni, an assistant to Steve Nash on the Nets. Harden, in his comments Friday, said the same thing as did Amick and Ilko.

“As far as with Houston, after the bubble and that loss, I wanted to reevaluate my career, the team, and the direction the organization was going,” Harden said. “You look from top to bottom from the general manager leaving to Mike D’Antoni leaving to reevaluating our personnel to see if we had enough to compete with the best teams in this league.

“As time went on with free agency and everything like that, I felt like we didn’t have a chance.”

Reports that Harden wanted a trade to Brooklyn surfaced during the summer as the Nets Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined Harden and others in workouts at the Academy outside Los Angeles.

Harden in his discussion with reporters two days ago, said that Durant and Irving’s presence in Brooklyn was part of his decision to seek a trade to the Nets, as was D’Antoni’s hire to be the team’s offensive coordinator.

“It was a part of it,” Harden said on D’Antoni being in Brooklyn. “Mike is an unbelievable coach and has been doing it for a very long time. Mike is a factor and being comfortable with him, with Kevin, knowing Kyrie, and just those four pieces right there made it easy. Them being in Brooklyn, it was a no-brainer.”

Both Stone Sunday and Harden Friday said that the relationship between the two sides was more amicable than had been reported and that the process worked out as best it could under the circumstances.

“James is a great player, full stop, period. And the eight years he was here, his work ethic was incredible,” Stone told reporters, adding, “It’s definitely accurate that I worked with James [to find a deal] … We do our best to work with our players and this was not an exception.”

Still, he said, the Rockets own interest was paramount.

“The flip side is our goal remains unchanged. We are well positioned to develop something really special. I do think the flexibility we have organizationally is really interesting and hopefully, we can do really, really good things with it.”

Stone wouldn’t discuss competing offers from other teams nor identify which teams had expressed interest in Harden. However, Pompey, the long time Sixers beat writer, suggested there were talks between the 76ers and Rockets up to the time Brooklyn and Houston worked the deal along with with Indiana and Cleveland.

Pompey wrote that the Philly offer was centered on Simmons, Thybulle and two first round picks but that Tyrese Maxey, the 76ers prized rookie, was not included and was not a show-stopper, as others had written. Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer reported that the Rockets wanted Simmons, Thybulle, Maxey and three picks for Harden.

The two teams were heavily engaged in talks, but the Rockets essentially left the 76ers in the lurch. Quoting a “league source,” Pompey wrote the Rockets “never called the Sixers back for a counteroffer before making the four-team blockbuster deal that sent Harden to Brooklyn.”

In fact, Pompey reported, the Sixers thought the deal for Harden was done, adding, “The team won’t come out and say it, but Morey pushed hard to reunite with the 2018 MVP (Harden). Simmons and Thybulle were even informed by their agents on Wednesday of an expected trade.”

Pompey also implied that the 76ers were motivated to pursue Harden after the Nets, undermanned at the time, soundly beat Philly on January 7.

Amick and Ilko put a different spin on it, writing that “the Sixers’ interest was very real, of course, but the Nets just kept upping the ante to the point where Philadelphia could no longer compete.”

Marks, summing up his thinking on the trade, said the decision was not easy one in large part because of the players he had to give up. At the same time, the Nets GM said getting Harden was a great “opportunity” because both that “he wanted to be here” and his relationship with Durant.“.

“So you have to weight everything that those guys brought —the fiber they were a part of and the fingerprints that are all over here,” Marks told Grady. “Then, you say, we have the opportunity here to add a franchise level talent in James Harden who wants to be here, who wants to be part of this and who already has a pre-existing relationship with one of our star players.

“Those are things, to be quite frank, that we couldn’t shy away from and they met our organizational goals of where we wanted to be over the next few years.”

Marks also gave a shoutout to his owner.

“Joe Tsai has been nothing but supportive in every form and fashion of how we’re tryin to build this. And that’s great. To see his conviction to winning, his conviction to doing something that’s never been done in Brooklyn before. I know he’s excited about getting fans back in this building, Barclays, and so forth. To be quite frank, the borough deserves it.”