Did Rockets get too greedy in James Harden trade? How not acquiring Ben Simmons could haunt Houston

It’s done. James Harden is no longer a member of the Houston Rockets, who traded their now former star to the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday as a part of a massive four-team deal, per multiple reports. In exchange, the Rockets are reportedly getting four first-round picks and four pick swaps, all unprotected, along with Victor Oladipo — whom Houston acquired by rerouting Caris LeVert to the Pacers. In the footnote section, the Rockets also get Rodions Kurucs and Dante Exum with Jarrett Allen landing in Cleveland. 

As for the core of the deal, Houston now owns Brooklyn’s first-round pick in 2022, 2024 and 2026 along with Milwaukee’s first-round pick in 2022, the latter of which was previously owned by Cleveland and come as part of the aforementioned Allen swap. Houston also gets the right to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027. 

There is a world in which the Rockets could get Brooklyn’s first-round pick in each of the next seven years, though that seems unlikely as Houston will likely be a worse team, and thus have a better draft pick, at least over the next few years. 

So that’s what the Rockets got, and it’s a good package. 

What they didn’t get, or who they didn’t get, is Ben Simmons. 

We know the Rockets were heavily engaged in talks with Philly, and we knew it was going to be a sticky negotiation given that former Rockets GM Daryl Morey is now pulling the Sixers’ strings. But we also know Simmons, in the end, was available, and players with his talent, at his age, who are under team control for the next half-decade, do not come available often. 

Reports indicate that Houston, in addition to Simmons, was asking Philadelphia for Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle and a load of draft compensation similar to what they got from the Nets. Did they get greedy? One could argue that Simmons, by himself, is worth more than everything the Rockets got from Brooklyn if maximized within an appropriate situation. 

If Houston was willing to take one or two fewer draft picks, or relent on Maxey, just for argument’s sake, and then committed to building a team specifically tailored to ignite Simmons’ unique skillset while also covering for his one weakness, essentially one with two-way shooters all over the court and, optimally, a capable half-court playmaker, it’s hard to imagine that team not being really good, if not potentially great depending on Simmons’ development under conducive conditions. 

I preface this by saying that for whatever my opinion is worth, I don’t think Simmons is a franchise player, and I think a team relying too heavily on him is topped out as a second-tier contender. Yet I can recognize that it’s not likely Houston will end up with a player even close to Simmons’ current level with any of those Brooklyn picks in the near term. 

The bet the Rockets are making is that after the Harden-Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving triumvirate ages out, perhaps in just a few years, those picks from 2023/2024 moving forward will become exponentially more valuable, and perhaps could net them a franchise player. It’s not a terrible bet. 

Still, not coming away with Simmons in a situation like this is a risk. You can pile up picks all you want and never end up with a franchise player, which some people still believe Simmons can be with the right supporting cast. Christian Wood is, or would have been, one heck of a nice partner next to Simmons. John Wall could’ve been the half-court playmaker in the interim. We’ll always wonder. 

For now, again, Houston got a good deal. Oladipo looks largely back to his All-Star self. His burst is back. He’s still a defensive stud. His shot looks good. The Rockets might be in a quasi-rebuild, but they have no incentive to fully bottom out as they owe their 2021 pick to the Thunder [via swap] — as well as the rights to all their draft capital from 2024-2026 — as part of the failed Russell Westbrook trade. 

With a top three of Oladipo, Wood and John Wall, and P.J. Tucker still around for the time being, the Rockets can take the OKC route of remaining competitive, perhaps still a playoff team, while focusing on the future when those picks start cashing in. The thing about Oladipo, however, is he’s on an expiring contract, and the Rockets are now pretty glued to giving him big money if they don’t decide to flip him for even more assets. 

Which, apparently, might be in the cards, as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that Oladipo could be flipped again by the Rockets because he doesn’t want to be in Houston long term. O’Connor added that as a free agent this coming summer, it is Oladipo’s goal to land with the Miami Heat. 

That is interesting, and makes sense, because if Oladipo isn’t going to re-sign in Houston and they let him walk for nothing, then they just gave up Caris LeVert, a good young player under contract for the next three years, for no reason. 

For what it’s worth, Houston looks like a pretty solid roster at the moment with a collective chip on its shoulder, which is always fun. Oladipo, Wall, and to a degree DeMarcus Cousins, are trying to prove they are still highly capable players — All-Stars in the case of the first two, and at least useful in the case of Cousins, who has been all but written off for years. Factor in a first-time head coach in Stephen Silas and an organization that feels wronged by its former superstar, and yeah, there’s a lot to root for. 

Can they compete for a spot in the playoffs? That might be a stretch. The West is a Game of Thrones shame walk, and Tucker is a guy contenders are going to be circling come trade-deadline time. In reality, the future is Oladipo, Wood and all those draft picks. It is a future that will not involve Ben Simmons. However that turns out, this decision was a fork in the Houston road, and the ripple effects, one way or another, will be felt for years.

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