Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. If James Harden is indeed dealt this offseason, it almost certainly won’t be to the Toronto Raptors. The chances of Harden playing next season North of the border are minuscule, and not only because the Raptors may be forced to re-locate South of the border.
That being said, improbabilities have never been enough to deter Masai Ujiri from swinging for the fences. In the summer of 2018 where Kawhi Leonard was on an expiring contract and was determined to go play for one of the Los Angeles teams, the Raptors swooped in to acquire the disgruntled star, and despite losing him a year later, it’s hard to argue that the trade did not pay its dividends.
The Toronto Raptors have a busy agenda this offseason. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Marc Gasol, Malcolm Miller, and Oshae Brissett are all set to hit free agency on Friday. Per Ujiri’s press conference shortly after the Raptors were eliminated from The Playoffs, the team’s highest priorities are to retain VanVleet, Ibaka, and Gasol. Beyond that however, the Raptors need to add some scoring at the wing. Toronto’s offensive inefficiencies turned glaring in their second round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, and the team’s inability to get good shots was ultimately their downfall.
In spite of there being a shallow free agent market this offseason, there are several players available on the trade market – most of whom are on expiring contracts, and would not negate the Raptors’ hopes of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. Among the most talked about names on the trade market whom the Raptors could target are Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, and DeMar DeRozan. It seems that it’s time to add one more star to that list though. The big kahuna; the 2018 NBA MVP; the man with a dad bod who can drop 40 on any given night; James Harden.
Over the past couple of days, there has been a fair bit of confusion surrounding the Rockets’ franchise, further clouded by some turmoil that had leaked out of their locker room. Four days ago, Russell Westbrook requested a trade, looking to join a team where he can play a more prominent role. The same night, there was some chatter that PJ Tucker was “irate” with his contract situation, because the Rockets management had yet to reach out and discuss a contract extension with him. This all follows the departure of front office executive Daryl Morey, who has now joined the Philadelphia 76ers as their president of basketball operations. According to multiple league sources, Harden may be on his way out now as well.
Though reports indicate that the Brooklyn Nets are Harden’s preferred destination, every team in the NBA will be ringing the Rockets’ line to call in their offers. Teams would be foolish not to at least test the waters, and try to land the three-time scoring champ.
As aforementioned – it’s unlikely… even call it fanfic if you please – but Ujiri will certainly be doing his due diligence just like everybody else. What would the Raptors’ best offer for James Harden look like?
Let’s start with the centerpiece: Kyle Lowry.
Writing this breaks my heart as much as it wrenches your gut… believe me… but you do what you have to in order to win championships. To take on Harden’s massive salary ($41.3M in the 2020-2021 season, $44.3M in the 2021-2022 season, and $47.4M in the 2022-2023 season), the Raptors outgoing salary would need to match, and likely, Houston would prefer to take back players on expiring contracts to expedite their rebuilding process. Hence, Lowry’s expiring deal worth $30M would be the perfect piece for them to remain competitive. Houston could use Lowry to develop their young talent, and then possibly flip him at the trade deadline for picks.
In addition to Kyle, Toronto would send along Norman Powell – who is by no means a young talent now at 27 years old – but is still a positive asset, and when put in the right situation: an efficient scoring machine.
Onto the enticing pieces of the trade that actually makes Toronto’s offer competitive, and will shatter Raptors fans hearts to millions of itty-bitty pieces if they are not already, are OG Anunoby, Terence Davis Jr., this year’s first-round pick, and the Raptors’ 2022 first-round pick.
At 23-years-old, Anunoby is one of the most coveted assets league-wide. He’s already one of the best defenders in the NBA with the ability to lock down point guards on the perimeter and battle with centres in the paint, and he’s got a reliable three-point stroke having made good on 36.5% of his shot attempts from deep throughout his career. Anunoby began to show a little bit of ball handling and driving ability in the NBA bubble, and it seems that his potential is limitless. Sure, he may not ever win an MVP, but he could go on to be a multiple time All-Star, and become one of the top two-way players in the league.
Terence Davis Jr.’s value has likely taken a massive hit after his domestic violence allegations arose in late October. Whether the Raptors simply choose not to guarantee his contract for next season and cut him from the roster remains to be seen. If that is not the case however, they should look to flip him for whatever value he still holds on the open market. Packaging him in a blockbuster trade like this as a mere sweetener would probably make the most sense.
To top it all off – this is James Harden whom were talking about. We mentioned that this trade would be realistic, and so competitive it must be. Brooklyn will likely be offering up a huge package of Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and a first-round pick for Harden. Philadelphia might include Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris in a potential deal. Surely, there will be other contenders making bids that are just as high. If the Raptors want to make an offer that the Rockets will consider, they will need to throw in a couple first-round picks of their own.
Following a trade like this, the Raptors’ roster would look pretty hollow. Assuming that Stanley Johnson picks up his player option, and the contracts of Matt Thomas and Dewan Hernandez are guaranteed later this week, that would leave the Raptors with $86.5M on the books for next season, and $22.5M in cap space this fall. That would be enough money try and re-sign VanVleet within the cap, and go over to retain Ibaka, Boucher, Miller, and Brissett since the Raptors have their bird rights. The remainder of the roster would have to be filled out with free agents signing minimum contracts. That would leave the Raptors with the following projected depth chart (excluding free agents signed on minimum contracts).
|Fred VanVleet||James Harden||Stanley Johnson||Pascal Siakam||Serge Ibaka|
|Patrick McCaw||Matt Thomas||Malcolm Miller||Oshae Brissett||Chris Boucher|
Whether or not this roster would even be better than the team that the Raptors currently have is debatable. The idea of VanVleet, Harden, Siakam, and Ibaka all playing together is fun – but beyond those four, the talent level is thin. As an added complication, since Harden’s contract runs through the 2021-2022 season, and VanVleet likely would not be willing to return on a one-year deal, this trade would take Toronto out of the running for Giannis next summer. Giannis and Harden have also made it well-known that they’re not too fond of each other, so Giannis probably wouldn’t join the Harden-led Raptors even if Toronto had the financial flexibility to make it happen.
To reiterate, it’s highly unlikely that Harden plays for the Raptors next year, for just a few of the aforementioned reasons. Unlikely never means “no”, as long as Masai Ujiri is in charge, though.