According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN, the Denver Nuggets discussed trading for James Harden with the Houston Rockets. In the closing paragraph of his column about the Miami Heat no longer pursuing a Harden trade, Windhorst says
While this is the first time the Nuggets have been linked by a source with the credibility of Windhorst, it should not be very surprising that Denver is being mentioned in trade discussions for a disgruntled superstar. The Nuggets have a promising roster of young players, headlined by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, as well as all of their future first round draft picks. Denver certainly has the trade capital available to make a deal with Houston if they want to.
However, the price to get a bona fide top ten player in the NBA is exceedingly steep. While Denver is certain to have gauged the Rockets interest in a Harden trade, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean that either team found a package that they felt was close to fair value or that any sort of talks got very far at all. Still, the Nuggets should not be discounted as a very real contender to land Harden in a trade. The question is what is the right trade for Denver.
The Jamal Murray conundrum
I know what you’re thinking. Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol, it’s as high as I’ll possibly go. Problem is it’s not high enough in terms of salary, so now throw in Will Barton as well. Also, Bol can’t be traded right now because he just signed a new contract. So your package becomes Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris and Will Barton plus draft picks. It’s not exactly the most stunning of packages when you consider the New Orleans Pelicans got three first round picks outright as well as two pick swaps for Jrue Holiday along with Eric Bledsoe and George Hill who are pretty close to synonymous in terms of value at least to Harris and Barton. That’s for Jrue Holiday, good player, certainly not top ten. Anthony Davis, who is a top ten player, garnered Brandon Ingram (won Most Improved Player the next season), Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, the #4 overall pick in the upcoming draft, two other first round picks plus the rights to swap another...and that was in a situation where the team trading for him had no competition in the market. If the Nuggets want Harden, they’re going to have to trade Jamal Murray.
Making Murray the centerpiece of the deal makes a lot of sense not just from a talent standpoint either. He makes $27 million a season and he’s under contract for five years, for the sake of both teams moving Murray is essential. The Rockets know they’ve got something to build around long term and the Nuggets shed their biggest contract to help take on Harden’s megadeal. Putting Murray’s contract into play means there are a lot more options when it comes to trade packages. Instead of trying to cobble together every tradeable contract they have just to meet Harden’s contract, the Nuggets would have the option to pursue package deals like adding P.J. Tucker or Danuel House to the trade.
Is it worth it? That’s no doubt the question Tim Connelly is considering right now. Murray is at an all time high in his development. He is coming off the best basketball of his career on the biggest stage. Connelly has to decide if he thinks Murray will continue to grow and continue to show the consistency he had in the playoffs that otherwise has been lacking so far in his career. Whether or not Murray can average twenty-five points a game for more than a few weeks in Orlando is at the crux of this decision, Harden undoubtedly can. If Murray can reach that type of level it’s hard to walk away from that when he’s only twenty-three years old. The Nuggets could be sitting on a dynasty right now and they might not have to do a thing except let it grow organically.
On the other hand, Murray’s trade value is also at an all time high right now. His performance in the playoffs vaulted him to a top 20 player in the league if you’re going off of ESPN’s player rankings. He was considered to be the player who did the most for his stock in the bubble and questions about whether or not his contract would end up being a regret seemed to be all but silenced. Trade value is a very fickle thing in the NBA though. Any number of things can derail a players trade value quickly. If Denver isn’t willing to part with Murray in a Harden deal they run the risk of Murray never becoming what Harden already is and missing out on what might be the best opportunity they’ve ever had at winning a championship. It’s no easy decision, but it seems unlikely that a Nuggets trade for Harden happens without Murray going to Houston.
The James Harden conundrum
Trading for an aging superstar to pair with your just entering his prime superstar and metaphorically pushing your chips to the middle of the table isn’t something new to the Nuggets. Many probably thought Denver was on the cusp of making the NBA finals when they acquired Allen Iverson to pair with Carmelo Anthony (Stephen A. Smith certainly did). Though Iverson was older, he represented the best player outside of Melo to wear a Nuggets uniform since Alex English and at the time he was traded he was the second leading scorer in the NBA, right behind Melo. It didn’t work out how Denver hoped though. AI didn’t result in any more playoff success for the team and quickly declined into retirement after wearing a couple more uniforms.
The Nuggets have to be cautious that they could have the same results with Harden, particularly if surrendering Murray and potentially even Michael Porter Jr is what it takes to get him. For starters he’s thirty-one years old, same age as Iverson was when the Nuggets traded for him. Harden hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and his game is less predicated on quickness like AI’s was, but make no mistake his time to slow down is coming and it could potentially be right around the corner. When Murray is hitting his prime, Harden will be entering his golden years, if he’s in the league at all.
If you take age out of the equation there is still a question of fit, both on the court and in the locker room. Harden is a player who dominates the basketball, Houston ran everything through him. You don’t average nearly thirty points and eight assists a night without getting the ball in your hands pretty much every single time down. The Nuggets however already have a guy they get the ball into his hands every single time down in Nikola Jokic. While they can find enough plays for both Harden and Jokic, it means changing the way they run their offense and it means asking both Jokic and Harden to change the way they’ve been playing and there’s no guarantee it will be a change for the better.
There’s the question about how a Harden trade would effect the locker room as well. It’s not going to just be Murray who gets traded in a deal like this. It’s going to be him plus Harris or Barton plus other guys on top of that. It’s important to remember these guys are people, that type of shakeup will be unsettling. Friends move away, co-workers roles suddenly have to be filled, it changes things. A young roster like the Nuggets might not deal with that as well as others. Yes, they’re incredibly resilient, but it might be the bond they have with one another that is a direct reason for their resiliency. Murray is 100% bought in to what the Nuggets are doing, who’s to say Harden will be? Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Harden’s gone through his fair share of running mates that ended with ugly divorces. You can’t put that all on Harden to be sure, but you can’t also say he’s completely innocent either. The only reason the Nuggets are even entertaining this idea is because Harden is locked down for the next three years but can they be confident they can keep him happy over even that period of time? Are they sure the guy who’s most recently been known for skipping out on the first days of camp while being spotted maskless partying in Las Vegas is right for their culture?
Whether it’s the players they’d have to give up, or the guy coming in, there’s a lot of questions surrounding any potential James Harden to Denver deal. What’s undeniable is the talent, both in terms of what the Nuggets would have to give up in addition to what they would receive. It’s going to ultimately be up to Tim Connelly to decide what he’s willing to pay for a player of Harden’s caliber and whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze. One thing’s for sure though, the Nuggets will continue to be a team who hovers around these types of opportunities.