James Harden is heading into the summer as arguably the biggest free agent available alongside Kyrie Irving. While it seems Irving will likely stay in Dallas, Harden has been heavily linked with a move away from the Philadelphia 76ers. The Houston Rockets are widely considered frontrunners for Harden and they can sign him without having to negotiate a sign-and-trade, meaning the 76ers will be unable to replace Harden as an asset and lose him for nothing.
It's in Philadelphia's best interest to work out an extension with Harden so that they can at least sign and trade him for some assets. They also need to convince Harden to go to a different location, as the Rockets can't really give them anything they need. So after the failed approach by the Lakers for Kyrie Irving, maybe they can refocus their attention on acquiring a primary ball-handler and playmaker in Harden instead. If Harden is amenable, a possible deal could have the following framework.
Philadelphia 76ers Receive: D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, 2023 No. 17 Pick
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: James Harden
The Lakers move the players from the Russ trade with a valuable first-round pick to ensure that the 76ers do not lose Harden without getting something in return. The 33-year-old former MVP is expected to command well over $40 million annually in his next contract. But why would either side engage in this deal? Let's discuss this.
Losing James Harden for nothing in free agency could wreck the 76ers' team building over the last few years. They do not have the cap space or draft assets to even get players remotely comparable to his level to replace him. If Harden fancies himself living in LA, getting this trade package gives the 76ers extreme utility in their current phase of pushing for a championship with Joel Embiid.
D'Angelo Russell would also need to be signed and traded to the 76ers as a solid point guard but one that the team may not necessarily be able to trust for big production, especially in the playoffs. But through the regular season, D'Lo and Tyrese Maxey could form an incredibly offensively potent duo in the backcourt. Embiid will always generate a lot of attention in the post, giving Russell and Maxey more room to operate. D'Angelo averaged 17.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 6.2 assists during the regular season, showing he can be a big-time player but with inconsistencies. Getting Russell would still be better than getting nothing.
Jarred Vanderbilt ended up being almost unplayable in the playoffs due to his offensive limitations, but the 76ers' new coaching staff with Nick Nurse will almost definitely find utility in what Vando provides with his really strong defense. He is a good asset but one that the Lakers clearly had a hard time integrating due to his skillset not necessarily matching what the Lakers needed. His defense is incredibly reliable and he can start alongside Embiid in the frontcourt or come off the bench as their backup center.
Malik Beasley couldn't get going with the Lakers as his shot never consistently found the net. He averaged 12.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists on 35.7% shooting from three. As shooters go, Beasley will be inconsistent but he will have the occasional 25 to 30-point game that will win the 76ers' games in the regular season. Getting all this depth for James Harden could be just as fruitful for the 76ers as getting them was for the Lakers after February 2023.
Ever since LeBron James and Anthony Davis teamed up in 2019, the Lakers have searched for a pint guard to complete what they need. LeBron played point guard for their first season together and led them to a title, but they almost instantly moved on from that to get Russell Westbrook as their point guard. Westbrook was a bad skillset fit but Harden isn't. The Beard can easily be the primary ball-handler and playmaker in LA after LeBron allegedly wanted to get rid of D'Lo so he can take a step back for a new dominant point guard. Harden gives them exactly what they need and the possibility of forming an explosive big three.
Harden averaged 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 10.7 assists this season but ended up declining in the playoffs and being criticized heavily for the same. That fear of Harden not showing up in the postseason will naturally be a concern, but the weapons around him are a little more fleshed out than they had been in the previous season. Harden will also likely have an offensive guard like Austin Reaves next to him with a possible two-man game between the both of them having the potential to be absolutely lethal.
The Lakers will have to also prioritize retaining Rui Hachimura and possibly even Mo Bamba to not be in a position to fish players out of the market for veteran minimums. Though, adding Harden to this roster will likely make players want to join due to his pass-first nature and the Lakers being title favorites if they have Harden along with LeBron and AD.
Both the 76ers and the Lakers would hope to meet each other in the NBA Finals next season, as both teams are still in their window of contention. This trade allows Philly to not lose Harden for nothing and get three players in exchange to replace Harden's superstar production with depth on the roster. They can't afford to lose him in free agency and try to pivot into building a competitive roster by trading Tobias Harris away for multiple players to absorb his massive contract. Even if D'Lo, Vando, and Beasley aren't elite options, they're better than the alternative. The 76ers could also find value in the 17th pick in the draft, something the Lakers most definitely can given their track record for talent development.
If a trade to LA is possible, Harden may accept his player option and be traded as an expiring contract to match up the contractual timeline of LeBron and AD. All three could be free agents in 2024 after making a run for the title next season. This allows the Lakers to have flexibility if this doesn't end up working, as the team is almost done paying the price for the Anthony Davis trade from 2019 and won't have to give up future picks to acquire Harden in this situation.
The Lakers will pray that Harden, LeBron, and AD can stay on the court for long enough to be the incredibly deadly trio they can be. The 76ers will hope that Embiid can carry a roster with more bodies around him even if the ultimate talent level has dropped. Philly will maintain the flexibility of doing even more trades to further solidify their roster, so both these teams will have to push for championships immediately.
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