NEW YORK • Amid an opening month marked by postponements, depleted rosters and ragged basketball, four teams intervened last week to deliver a blockbuster James Harden trade.
It was a rousing diversion as the National Basketball Association (NBA) strained to play through a pandemic, but clear winners in this deal do not jump off the scorecard.
The daunting truth for the Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets, who drove this whopper transaction, is that the Cleveland Cavaliers look more likely to come away satisfied after paying a modest price to acquire highly rated centre Jarrett Allen from the Nets.
The Indiana Pacers should also celebrate the deal, provided that forward Caris LeVert can return safely from the disclosure that he is out indefinitely after a small mass was discovered on his left kidney. The Pacers shipped a potentially expensive free-agent-to-be, Victor Oladipo, to Houston for LeVert and his team-friendly contract.
Indiana and Cleveland, despite their lesser roles as trade facilitators, got most of the early kudos for the deal. The Nets and Rockets might not care about that, but reservations for the headliners persist for several reasons.
The Nets, for example, had to surrender control of their first-round pick in their next seven drafts to acquire Harden and put him alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
They have their new star trio under contract only through next season, while facing many questions about their sudden defensive shortcomings and how they plan to keep three volume scorers content.
Irving participated in a full practice on Tuesday after missing seven games for what began as "just a pause" that he said he needed because of "personal stuff". Yet as good as Durant and Harden have looked together, mixing in a third star who wants and needs the ball changes the dynamic.
The Rockets, for their part, did not come away with the young franchise player they had long coveted in any Harden swop.
Houston have unexpectedly embraced a rebuilding strategy more associated with a front-office alumnus not named Daryl Morey. Stockpiling future first-round draft picks, remember, is former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie's trademark. Of course, for the strategy to be successful, Houston will have to turn those picks into at least one cornerstone player more talented than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons.
Houston chose the Nets' trade offer and a trial run with Oladipo, who is still recovering from his own injury woes, over the 76ers' Simmons-centric pitches. It's a call that has some wondering if the Tilman Fertitta-owned Rockets, at closing time, dealt with the Nets because they could not bring themselves to send Harden to Morey's new team.
The Los Angeles Clippers surrendered a fistful of draft assets to Oklahoma City in July 2019 because they knew trading for Paul George would also clinch the free-agent signature of Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers made a similar move to put Anthony Davis next to LeBron James. Those were NBA no-brainers.
Milwaukee's gambit in November to part with three future first-round picks and the rights to swop first-rounders in two other drafts to prise Jrue Holiday away from the Pelicans is in a tier of its own.
The Bucks endured after the Holiday trade until Giannis Antetokounmpo agreed to a five-year, US$228 million (S$302.3 million) contract extension. Persuading him to stay, on some levels, equated to a championship in itself.
Then the Nets' trade realistically falls into a tier below that, since Milwaukee's move was fuelled by the understandable desperation to please Antetokounmpo.
Who in this Nets trio will embrace third-wheel status like Chris Bosh did in Miami beside James and Dwyane Wade, or like Ray Allen did in Boston alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce?
Who among Durant, Harden and Irving has the personality to lead the way to a pecking order? How can the Nets play passable play-off defence against offensive monsters like Antetokounmpo and Davis when Durant, Harden and Irving share the floor?
How much can the Nets even count on Irving after his messy exits in Cleveland and Boston and this season's bumpy start?
Don't forget that the Nets are asking a rookie coach, Steve Nash, to steer this group. Don't forget, that it took the James/Wade/Bosh Heat more than a season to gel.
Winning a championship is not the Nets' only motivation here. If the Harden trade persuades Durant to re-sign, and if Harden sticks around, those would be significant triumphs.