James Harden wants out of Houston, that much we know. But his list of preferred destinations is expanding, and it now includes the Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Kelly Iko. The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets have sat atop that list since early December.
It makes sense for Harden to expand that list of destinations. As of Christmas Eve, a deal to trade the disgruntled superstar does not appear to be imminent. He’s made it very clear that he wants a trade, so adding additional landing spots is the smart thing for him to do. To put it simply, it can help him reach his goal of leaving town. But the Celtics are an interesting destination, as they are already in win-now mode and have plenty of intriguing assets. So is this a realistic possibility?
Keep in mind that Harden adding Boston to his list of preferred destinations does not mean the interest is mutual. It has been widely reported over the last month that the Celtics looked into Harden but came out uninterested in acquiring the 31-year-old. Regardless, if that were to change, Boston has the assets to make some legitimate noise in the chase for Harden.
If you’re Danny Ainge, you certainly have to inquire. Harden is one of the game’s best pure scorers. To not feel out the market, especially if he has expressed interest, wouldn’t make any sense. Harden also has two guaranteed years left on his contract (the third season is a player option), meaning you wouldn’t have the concern of losing him for nothing next summer. Boston has to do its due diligence if they haven’t already.
This truly comes down to the Celtics’ front office. If they want to get involved in the Harden sweepstakes, they can insert themselves right into the thick of it. Could Ainge and Co. shy away because of their past endeavors, though? Just two years ago, Kyrie Irving left for Brooklyn in free agency, leaving the Celtics empty-handed. Giving up a host of riches for Harden, only to see him leave after two years would be a brutal hit to the organization’s long-term plans. But say they do want to give it a go — what would Boston’s trade package look like?
Jaylen Brown immediately becomes the Celtics’ most coveted asset with Jayson Tatum being untouchable. Brown has great value thanks to a solid contract and fringe All-Star skillset (it likely won’t be long until he finds himself at All-Star Weekend). Marcus Smart makes a lot of sense here as well, considering the salary-matching element when paired up with Brown. He’s a young, starting-caliber point guard who is likely viewed as a good asset around the league. Robert Williams, Romeo Langford and others could serve as additional young assets alongside draft picks, but for a star like Harden, you’d have to imagine that the deal begins with Brown and Smart and ends with a younger player or two plus future draft picks.
There’s another important question at play here: Where does Boston view Brown’s ceiling? If they feel he is approaching that mark with limited room for future growth, maybe they would be willing to part ways with the the 24-year-old. I don’t see that being the case, however, especially after his impressive season opener vs. the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night. If Brown continues to improve as a playmaker with the ball in his hands, his ceiling will continue to rapidly rise.
If Houston looks to pursue a deal with Boston, it really comes down to how much they value Brown. He’d be the centerpiece of a deal, along with Smart, which could allow for a very nice trade package heading back to the Rockets. It’s important to note how much the Celtics value both Smart and Brown. They’re at the core of Boston’s current structure, and it’s beyond clear that the organization thinks extremely highly of them both. It would not be easy for the front office to part ways with the young pair.
I’m not so sure Boston is the right place for Harden, and I don’t think Harden is the right player for the Celtics. They have a great thing going with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown serving as the franchise’s building blocks. A deal for Harden likely means giving up Brown, but it also thrusts Harden into a situation he isn’t all that familiar with. Harden has had a part in running the show in Houston for some time now. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in Boston, so it’d be interesting to see how he would mesh with the Celtics’ organizational culture. From a long-term standpoint, it makes much more sense for Boston to steer clear of a Harden trade. Do you really want to trade two young core pieces for a superstar who could walk out the door in two years? That doesn’t sound like a great plan to me. It’s also important to consider how Harden has approached the last month or so. That alone should give Boston pause as they consider mortgaging their future.
Again, Danny Ainge has gone for the home-run acquisition many times before. Sometimes it has worked (Garnett, Allen), and other times it has not (Kyrie Irving). The latter certainly could make Boston hesitant in pursuing Harden, and it should, but time will tell if they want to take a swing at a blockbuster deal. For my money, Harden doesn’t make sense for the Celtics.