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With the Giannis dream dead, should the Raptors trade for James Harden?

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Harden may be a handful, but there’s no doubt that the Rockets superstar would be a major needle-mover for the Raptors.

NBA Preseason 2019: Toronto Raptors announce 2019-20 preseason schedule, James Harden, Kyle Lowry Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo has signed an NBA-record $228-million dollar extension with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors highly publicized Plan A for the 2020-21 offseason has fallen off the table with a major thump.

The Raptors, who were widely considered one of the front-runners for the Greek Freak’s services (if Giannis had indeed become an unrestricted free-agent), undoubtedly have multiple ideas on how to use for all the cap room they could create at the end of the year.

However, what was once shaping up to be a potentially franchise-changing free-agency period for several teams is starting to look a lot less exciting.

With Giannis, Paul George, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis all off the market, and potential restricted free-agents like Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo and De’Andre Fox gone too, the cream of the crop right now looks to be a potential opting-out Kawhi Leonard (seems unlikely), Rudy Gobert (will the Jazz find the right number to extend him first?), Kyle Lowry (well, that doesn’t make me feel good) Jrue Holiday (almost zero-percent chance the Bucks let him go after what they paid), Chris Paul (ditto, but with the Suns), and Duncan Robinson (sneakily very good, but can he do it again?). Or, if buying players with significant injury concerns and declining performance is more your style: perhaps I can interest you in Victor Oladipo or Blake Griffin?

Basically, there likely ain’t anything left that can change a team’s fortunes in one swing. If we know one thing about Raptors team president Masai Ujiri, it’s that big swings are his jam.

Which brings us to James Edward Harden Jr., a highly talented, disgruntled, Western Conference superstar, who hasn’t expressed any interest in coming to Toronto, but can’t actually control his destiny.

Sound familiar?

For many Raptors fans, the idea of bringing in Harden, given his: ‘2020 COVID-Stupidity Tour’ to apparently every nightclub in the United States, is about a bad idea as you can come up with.

Of course, harken back a couple of years ago, and it was Kawhi Leonard that was being seen as a malingerer. He refused to play even though he wasn’t that hurt! He wanted to call his shot as to where he was going to play next!! He was trying to force his way out of the San Antonio Spurs — the team that drafted and developed him and is one of the best run organizations on the planet!!!

Here is where we step in to defend Harden a little. Has he acted like a Grade A ass-hat these past few days? Yep. Does his list of franchises he’ll accept a trade to — given he’s got two years (plus a player option third) left to run on his current deal — smack of trying to use a leverage he doesn’t own? Sure.

But...

While Kawhi wanted to leave a great organization, Harden’s desire to get out of Houston is far more defensible.

Imagine the company you worked for has just been bought out. The new owner spends so much on the deal that he can’t really afford to run the team at the same level you’ve been accustomed to. Corners are cut. Luxuries are removed. Except that then you realize that maybe those luxuries weren’t so luxurious after all — they were actually “must haves” if you wanted to be the best company possible.

Then imagine your new boss proved himself to be kind of... unpleasant. He alienates your manager and his manager — and while you didn’t always see eye-to-eye with them, I mean, it’s work, you did respect them, and they had proven to be good at their jobs.

To make matters worse, this new boss is friends with a political leader that you don’t think much of. That almost none of your co-workers in any of the other companies in your industry think much of. That, in point of fact, you and your colleagues have been working to get rid of.

Of course, I don’t know how much Harden cares about Tilman Fertitta’s political leanings. Or if he really minds that, by many accounts, Fertitta is a bully, and a meddler who forced one of the better NBA executives out of town. (That year Daryl Morey was taking off to hang out with his kids sure was short).

What I do think I know is this: the Rockets have been watching their pennies when they have arguably the greatest offensive player of the past fifteen years on their team. It just can’t be sitting well with Harden. Whatever you think of Harden’s personality, or the aesthetics of his style of play, or even the success of that style, you can’t deny he is one of the league’s few true difference makers.

When you have a player like that, the best organizations, the truly championship caliber ones, do whatever they can to maximize them. For years Morey tried to do just that — culminating in that fun-house nightmare of a 2018 playoff series when, after losing Chris Paul to injury, the Rockets missed a legendary 27 threes in a row to drop a heartbreaking Game 7 to an all-time Golden State Warriors squad.

Since then though, the Rockets have been sliding the wrong way amid reports that Fertitta is having significant financial problems. Maybe if it was just the money thing Harden might still stay — fortunes can change after all. But combine that with the fact that Fertitta is, by most accounts, a real jerk, thinks he should be running basketball operations, and goes to war with his own people, well... why stick around an organization that isn’t doing everything to maximize a first ballot Hall-of-Fame career?

So Harden wants out. But should the Raptors be one of the teams to go after him? And if they did, what would a deal look like?

Given Harden’s $41-million salary, and his pedigree, there are only a couple of options that make sense. One, a deal centered around Pascal Siakam, and another salary or salaries, or two, a deal involving Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby.

The Rockets are going to want either Siakam or Anunoby as the centrepiece, and if it’s Anunoby, it’s basically impossible for the Raps to add enough salary to make the deal work without including Kyle.

For a few reasons, I think the Siakam deal makes more sense — for both sides. Anunoby is a very interesting young player, but he still tops out, right now, as “high-end role player”. It’s clear the Raptors have him slotted in as that third guy of their future (behind Siakam and Fred VanVleet), despite his obvious versatility and utility.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that despite his burst Bubble last year, Siakam is good. An All-NBA talent, who can defend multiple positions and generate offense for himself, and increasingly, for others, Siakam is a player to build around. While the popular consensus is that the Sixers’ Ben Simmons is the best player the Rockets can get for Harden, there is a case to be made that Siakam, who may not quite have Simmons’ strengths, but certainly does not have his one massive weakness, is actually the easier player to build around.

The rest of the package could go a few ways — Norm Powell’s salary works pretty much perfectly to get a deal done, and he’s also good, but Toronto could get there by putting in Stanley Johnson and Patrick McCaw, or, maybe two of Matt Thomas, Malachi Flynn, and Terence Davis. Although, that might start feeling too rich for the Raps blood, depending on the picks going out the door in the deal too.

Trading Siakam and keeping Anunoby makes sense for Toronto too. First off, Anunoby isn’t getting max money on his extension (well, Toronto hopes not, anyway), perhaps opening up other options down the road. Secondly, Anunoby is a better catch-and-shoot threat than Siakam — a must-have to put around Harden. Third, a Siakam trade means Kyle Lowry stays in Toronto which is important for a couple of reasons: it means Harden would, like Kawhi did, be walking into a franchise that has a clear clubhouse leader to set the tone, while making sure the Raptors were still flush in backcourt playmakers and defenders.

Why does that matter? Because if I’m the Raptors, I’m acquiring Harden not to play in the backcourt or on as a small forward — but as the team’s small-ball four.

I know, I know, the major question about on-court Harden is his defense. Why on earth would you want to push him up the positional spectrum? Just hear me out.

At 6’5” and 220 lbs, Harden is smaller than Anunoby, but still an impressively strong human being (it’s why when he drives to score, and not draw fouls, defenders bounce off of him). He is strong enough to attack most any player in the league on offense when he wants to.

Yes, Harden has a litany of embarrassing defensive GIFS on his resume, but overall, the concerns about his defense are overblown. Four times in his Rocket’s career, Houston has fashioned a top-half of the league defense, twice in the top ten.

On a personal level, according to Cleaning The Glass, when Harden has been on the court, opposing teams have consistently been forced into taking a disproportionate amount of long two’s and non-corner threes. So, he clearly understands what shots are best to surrender.

There’s also another interesting trend to look at:

Getting Harden to score on

Year Team MP EF FG% RIM Short Mid Long Mid All Mid
Year Team MP EF FG% RIM Short Mid Long Mid All Mid
19-20 HOU 2472 68 48 89 56 86
18-19 HOU 2862 44 16 73 39 65
17-18 HOU 2520 40 23 33 87 69
15-16 HOU 3118 29 37 44 62 57

This data, also from Cleaning, measures what percentile a defender Harden was in from various parts of the floor — the higher the better. It’s clear that Harden is not an elite defender inside the arc. What’s interesting though is how last year Harden’s defense goosed up to, well, above average.

Why is that? Well, as you may remember last year the Rockets went all in on small-ball, and consequently, Harden was able to defend bigger players more often. That meant Harden was no longer defending quicker perimeter players, getting attacked off the dribble, and giving up open mid-range shots and blow by lay-ups. Instead, he was on bigger wings, or sometimes fours, where his lack of defensive burst was less exposed, and his tank-like build made him hard to dislodge.

In fact, last year, Harden was one of the stingiest defenders against post-ups — despite being attacked more than almost anyone in the league. Watch here as Harden makes life miserable for Siakam in the paint:

Think of it how the Spurs used DeMar DeRozan in the Bubble. DeMar is also a very strong wing. He also gets toasted by quick players, and hung up on screens. But, put him against bigger players with less off-the-bounce verve and his job becomes much simpler.

After a Siakam deal, the Raps could start Baynes-Harden-Anunoby-Lowry-VanVleet — that’s shooting at every position, several ball-handlers to protect Harden from gassing out in the playoffs, and solid to excellent defense everywhere around him.

This configuration gets the best out of Harden on defense. In an era where post-play is declining, Harden wouldn’t face that many opponents who could throw a bruising power forward at him. If the Raps were facing a particularly physical front-court, Anunoby could always take that assignment, while Lowry and VanVleet would still spare Harden from having to consistently defend the point-of-attack.

Whatever the Raps defense loses from a lack of switchability compared to having Siakam, it more than gains back by obliterating it’s half-court offense challenges. Imagine the fun coach Nick Nurse could have scheming his motion offense around players like Harden, Lowry, and VanVleet? It’s also worth noting that Harden has been quoted as saying he wants to play in an offense that would see the ball come out of his hands more — of course he’ll have to actually move without the ball, but that’s a problem Nurse will gladly try to figure out in this scenario.

If you trust the culture the organization has built, than whatever malcontent DNA Harden carries with him, could be reprogrammed as he comes to a team where he’s the most-talented, but not necessarily most important player.

Even if Harden isn’t hyped to come to Toronto, like Kawhi, he’s coming to a team that could win it all. Unlike Kawhi, the Raps would have Harden signed for at least two seasons. Worst case scenario? You simply move him down the road. His value is such that the Raptors would still getting a treasure trove of assets back to pivot into whatever comes next for the team.

The Giannis dream in Toronto is dead, but the dream of acquiring a superstar doesn’t have to be.