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Why a James Harden trade to the Nets would be incredibly complicated

It’s one thing for James Harden to reportedly want a trade to the Nets. It’s another thing for it to actually happen.

Thanks to the NBA’s tricky trade rules when it comes to matching dollar values, along with salary-cap implications for a Brooklyn team already paying Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving big money, it’s not as simple as the Rockets just sending Harden to the Nets and calling it a day. A potential trade might have to include a third team, or pay cuts for Durant or Irving, or both. That’s before even considering the matter of how KD, Irving and Harden would all share one basketball (but that’s a discussion for another day). 

Here’s a look at the complex factors influencing the potential of a Harden move to Brooklyn.

MORE: James Harden reportedly contemplating reunion with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn

Matching salaries in a James Harden trade could require a third team

NBA teams without salary cap space (which in this case applies to both the Nets and Rockets) have to come within a certain margin of each other when it comes to the dollar amount moving both ways. The salary number to consider for Harden in a trade is $41.2 million for the upcoming season. When a salary that large is on the move in a trade, an NBA team is only allowed to take on 125 percent of its outgoing salary, plus $100,000. So in this case, the Nets have to send out at least $33.06M to make a deal work by the NBA’s trade rules.

Because the majority of Brooklyn’s salary is tied up in Irving and Durant (who the Nets wouldn’t be moving in such a deal), matching the salaries isn’t easy. It would require Brooklyn to, at minimum, include Caris LeVert ($16.2M) and Spencer Dinwiddie ($11.4M). While DeAndre Jordan ($10.3M) could slot in to get the money aligned, an aging center such as Jordan doesn’t really line up with Houston’s timeline if it’s trading Harden, so the Rockets could want younger players to complete the deal.

One possibility, put together with TradeNBA.com, is this:

  • Nets receive: James Harden
  • Rockets receive: Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Garrett Temple and Jarrett Allen

For that deal to work, Brooklyn would first have to accept Temple’s team option for the 2020-21 season, which would be a simple matter if it would complete the trade. As a much younger, better version of Jordan, Allen could be closer to getting this deal done. Because the Nets also own their first-round picks in every future draft, Houston’s goal could be to add those to the incoming package, as well.

That potential deal, or anything like it, is only proof that it is possible for the Nets and Rockets to match salaries in a Harden trade. It doesn’t mean both front offices feel that the trade is a fair value for their side. 

Another method of getting salaries to match is to involve a third team in the deal. In this case, the Timberwolves and James Johnson ($15.8M) could work because Johnson’s salary is similar to LeVert’s. Minnesota could help the deal get over the line by sending along additional assets to Houston in order to get LeVert from Brooklyn and got Johnson off the Timberwolves’ books. 

Basically, unless Houston likes the exact package of players (plus picks) listed above, or a variation very similar, a third team would have to get involved, because Brooklyn really only has that combination available to match salaries, unless Jordan is desired despite his age and contract figure. 

NBA salary cap could require Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving pay cuts

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that the NBA’s projected salary cap for the 2020-21 season will be $115 million, and that the luxury-tax threshold will be $139 million. The NBA has a “soft cap,” meaning that teams can go over that $115 million number but with various penalties. If a team exceeds the luxury tax number, ownership has to pay taxes based on how much a team goes over.

If Harden ($41.2M) were to join Durant ($39M) and Irving ($33.3M) on the Nets, their salaries for the 2020-21 season would add up to approximately $113.5 million. That’s within $1.5 million of the soft salary cap figure of $115 million.

The Nets would not be restricted in making moves altogether at that point, although their options would be very limited. Teams can sign as many players as they want to minimum-salary deals, and they also have various mid-level exceptions to play with that can basically afford what amounts to a role player. 

Brooklyn would have a lot of roster to fill if it traded four-plus players and potentially one or two draft picks from the 2020 NBA Draft to acquire Harden. Seven Nets are set to become free agents, including sharpshooter Joe Harris. Add in four or more players traded away, and Brooklyn would be looking at refilling almost its entire roster besides the big three. The Nets’ best bet would be to use Bird rights, which allow a team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign its own players, to bring back a number of those impending free agents, but someone like Harris could be worth more than the Nets would be willing to pay.

To at least give Brooklyn more wiggle room, Durant, Irving or Harden could renegotiate their contracts so that less dollar value is tied to the 2020-21 salary cap. It’s unlikely it would create a huge relief for Brooklyn, but getting further from the luxury tax would at least add the possibility of re-signing Harris or bringing in more talent on the mid-level exception without major tax penalties.

This deal is possible at all only because the NBA has max salaries for players, which at least in the case of Durant is probably less than what he’d get paid in a truly free market. But it would create a situation in Brooklyn not unlike what the Heat faced when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami. Those Heat teams were forced to rely on aging veterans and unroven rookies because of their limited contract possibilities. It worked for Miami thanks to those Hall of Fame talents, but for the Nets to try to replicate it wouldn’t come without complexity and risk. 

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