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Would the Rockets even listen to a Siakam-for-Harden trade proposal?

The Raptors have reportedly spoken with the Rockets about a James Harden trade. But is an offer including Pascal Siakam enough to make a deal happen?

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

The Raptors have now been officially linked to the James Harden sweepstakes.

According to a report from Marc Stein of the New York Times, Toronto is one of the teams to have had an “exploratory” conversation with the Houston Rockets about their disgruntled superstar. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s likely that two-thirds of the league have made a call to Rockets GM Rafael Stone to at least gauge the temperature in the room. If Raptors GM Bobby Webster hasn’t made a phone call or two on Harden he wouldn’t be doing his job.

Toronto is one of a handful of teams Stein says is “in”, in some fashion or the other, on Harden. The Rockets guard had said he was interested in going to Miami, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. While Stein identifies the Raps, Nuggets, and Celtics as teams that have had those “exploratory” conversations.

History has shown that in deals where teams trade superstars the key is getting at least one excellent asset in return. The recent gold-standard being OKC’s trade of Paul George to the LA Clippers. While the Thunder received a boat-load of first round picks — the fact that they have no guarantee any will be lottery picks means the real prize they got was Canada’s own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a silky smooth guard with some real: “What is Shaun Livingston never got hurt and could shoot threes?” vibes. (In fact, when you consider the Pacers got two All-Stars in the bargain when they dealt him, it seems “trading Paul George” is a pretty good team building strategy).

All of the interested teams could put together packages of varying degrees of impressiveness, but any team acquiring Harden is going to reduce the value of their draft-picks — even if the Rockets are grabbing picks, say, six years down the road.

That means the main asset the Rockets have to count on is one that’s in the NBA now. If the Raptors are indeed interested in chasing one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game, how does their best trade chip stock up to everyone else?

Now, for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to say that Miami is not in fact “out” as Stein reported. They’re just being strategic in their negotiations. I also haven’t put forward a player from the Bucks, because I just don’t see them moving Kris Middleton or Jrue Holiday and I can’t see any other way they can get the salary to work. I’ve also added two Nets, because both Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie could be seen as having “centerpiece” value in a deal.

So, how do the key assets from each of these teams stack-up?

Setting the Hook for Harden

Ben Simmons 7449 24.4 0.157 11.2
Pascal Siakam 7196 20.9 0.140 6.2
Spencer Dinwiddie 8162 18.3 0.108 4.8
Jaylen Brown 7340 13.9 0.091 1.6
Caris LaVert 5494 7.3 0.064 2.0
Michael Porter Jr. 903 2.9 0.154 0.8
Tyler Herro 1508 1.6 0.05 0.1

No major surprise here. Ben Simmons is, by advanced stats, the best asset the Rockets could get in exchange for Harden. He leads in Win Shares, in Win Shares per 48, and in Value Over Replacement Player. It’s not a massive margin over Siakam, but it’s significant.

The surprising one in here may be Michael Porter Jr. While his limited minutes suppresses his Win Shares, his per 48 number jumps off the page. Porter Jr. has some similarities to Simmons in that both missed what should have been their rookie seasons due to significant injuries (Simmons a foot, Porter Jr. his back). The major difference is that Porter Jr.’s injury was considered serious enough that it sunk his draft night value as, despite being talked about as in contention for the first overall pick, Porter Jr. slipped to 14th.

Still, you can make the argument that Siakam is just as valuable as Simmons if only because of Simmons one glaring weakness — his inability, and unwillingness, to shoot from distance. While Raps fans may wring their hands at Siakam’s playoff performance last season, Simmons has spent every post-season becoming marginalized as teams dare him to shoot at every opportunity.

What’s also interesting here is how far back Jaylen Brown seems to be. Raptors fans got an eyeful of how exceptional Brown could be as a two-way force when he out-played Siakam in the Bubble. However, career-wise so far, Brown seems nothing more than a third or fourth best option.

Because of that Brown valuation, maybe career numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story. What about looking at these players by their peak season?

(A quick note, to determine a player’s best year, I used the very unscientific method of basically taking the year where two of the three metrics were the player’s best, or tied for best.)

Peak Harden Bait

Pascal Siakam 2548 9.3 0.175 2.8
Ben Simmons 2732 9.2 0.162 4.5
Spencer Dinwiddie 2306 5.7 0.118 1.5
Jaylen Brown 1934 4.9 0.123 1.4
Michael Porter Jr. 903 2.9 0.154 0.8
Caris LaVert 1063 1.7 0.077 0.6
Tyler Herro 1508 1.6 0.05 0.1

Well, there we are. Taking a look at the players’ best seasons arguably pushes Siakam to the top of the list. He just surpasses Simmons for WS and has a sizable edge in WS/48 — but he does trail significantly in VORP.

Regardless, Siakam’s 2018-19 season showed that he could be an upper-echelon player. Some might argue that’s because Kawahi was soaking up opponents attention, allowing Spicy P to cook against weaker defenders. Sure, that definitely helped, but it wasn’t like the rest of the NBA was trying to stick me on Siakam every night. Dudes knew he was a threat, and they still couldn’t stop him.

Spencer Dinwiddie’s name moves up the chart here, which is interesting. Dinwiddie is often overlooked when people talk about some of the better young(ish) players in the game — partially because his career took a few years to get going, but for the past three seasons the Nets guard has been very good.

Brown also seems more valuable now, as his best year, last year, puts him on par with Dinwiddie, and, given the value of switching wings in today’s game, you can easily make the case that his best is decidedly better than Dinwiddie’s.

Caris LeVert also surprises, but in a bad away. The Nets do-it-all guard opened eyes last year, especially in the Bubble, when he pretty much had to do everything for a gutted Nets team, save shoot from deep at a high-percentage. Still, LeVert has never had a particularly impressive season which suggests that if the Rockets are looking for the highest ceiling player, LeVert might not be it.

Still, this experiment has definitely made it harder for guys like Porter Jr. and Herro to show out, so let’s take a third look at everyone — how did players do in their rookie years?

Foundation for a star?

Ben Simmons 2732 9.2 0.162 4.5
Michael Porter Jr. 903 2.9 0.154 0.8
Caris LaVert 1063 1.8 0.07 0.3
Pascal Siakam 859 1.6 0.089 -0.1
Tyler Herro 1508 1.6 0.05 0.1
Jaylen Brown 1341 1.5 0.053 -0.6
Spencer Dinwiddie 455 0.1 0.009 -0.1

Here one name leaps off the page — and it is, of course, Simmons, who had one of the greatest NBA debuts in history.

This definitely shows that Simmons floor is, by far, the highest for any of this group. Even without ever learning to shoot, Simmons’ physical gifts, his hunger to defend, and his genius-level passing make him a major asset.

It also shows though that Simmons ceiling might not be able to match some of the others. After all, his rookie season and his peak season are one and the same, and while Simmons last two years haven’t seen a major statistical dip, it has to be a little concerning that he hasn’t really shown any growth.

Siakam-wise, the chart shows that Pascal’s rookie season wasn’t that bad. On quite a few metrics he tops guys like Brown, Herro and LeVert. In fact, you could make the argument that he was the third best guy on this list out of the gate — meaning his exceptional improvement has a better foundation that many would believe.

Porter Jr. pops again on this list, on a per-48 minute basis he was almost as good as Simmons. Of course it came in dramatically fewer minutes, but Porter Jr. is a deadly three-point shooter, a physical marvel, and has shown some early ability to be a secondary creator already. Sure, his defense could be charitably described as a tire fire, but in the playoffs he showed flashes of being able to use those physical gifts on both ends of the court.

Herro also gets a bit more interesting now. While the former Kentucky guard had a couple of “wow” performances in the Bubble — his overall statistical profile doesn’t scream star. However, in the Bubble Herro showed far greater off-the-bounce verve and playmaking than before. The knock on him out of college was that he might just be a good shooter and not much else. If Herro has the ability to add skills like, say, the player right beside him on the list, does he have the sort of lead-guard upside that Houston would covet?

Lastly, we’ll loop back in with Siakam — just to underscore how incredible his improvement has been in Toronto. There are reasons for Houston to believe that Siakam is not finished getting better. That on a team with, half-court weapons like John Wall and Christian Wood, and to a lesser extent Eric Gordon and Boogie Cousins, Siakam might be able to take a leap he couldn’t in Toronto, where he’s the focal point of so much of what the Raps need to do in the half-court to succeed.

Of course all of this is in something of a vacuum. Contracts matter here. You may prefer Siakam to Porter Jr., but Pascal is making almost ten times as much as Porter over the next four years. The Rockets are going to take that into account.

Best Bang For The Beard

PLAYER Age Avg Salary Years Left
PLAYER Age Avg Salary Years Left
Ben Simmons 24 $35.45m 5
Pascal Siakam 26 $34.2m 4
Jaylen Brown 24 $26.58m 4
Caris LaVert 26 $17.5m 3
Spencer Dinwiddie 27 $11.45m 2
Tyler Herro 20 $3.82m 3
Michael Porter Jr. 22 $3.77m 4

A couple of notes here: Dinwiddie’s second year is a player-option which he will definitely turn down — barring some sort of catastrophic injury. Herro’s deal only runs three more years, but he’s also extension eligible, and would become a Restricted Free Agent if not extended, which would potentially give the Rockets another four or five years of control. Porter Jr. is in a similar boat.

Of course the small downside to the cheaper contracts is that the Rockets would be forced to take on a whack of contracts to make the numbers work. The Heat can easily match Harden’s salary without making the Rockets swallow any deals they’d be uncomfortable with. The Nuggets though, assuming they want to keep Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic (which seems like a safe assumption), would likely need to include both Gary Harris and Will Barton — both of whom have multi-year deals, and both of whom have reasons the Rockets might then demand additional assets (injury issues for Barton, up-and-down play for Harris).

We’ve already discussed what the Raps might do, add Norm Powell and picks. Powell might not be a huge asset, but he is useful, young enough that the Rockets might want to keep him, or as a practically expiring contract (with so many teams having cap space if Powell has a year similar to last he’s almost certain to opt out of his deal), he has value as a trade asset in ways Harris and Barton might not.

However you slice it, it’s hard to say that Siakam is unequivocally the best single asset on this list that Houston could get in return for Harden, but when you factor in everything, you could make the case that Siakam is, in fact, that asset. Whether you think the Raptors should even be having exploratory talks on Harden or not, it’s clear that if the Bobby Wesbter calls again, the Rockets should at least listen.