When the Toronto Raptors were mired in an early-season slump, the rival Brooklyn Nets shocked the basketball world by giving up several established players and control of their draft for decades in order to pry James Harden away from the Houston Rockets
So far, the pairing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving has been a success. When Harden, Durant, and Irving are all playing together, the club is 5-2, with one of those losses coming against Toronto in a game muddled by some COVID-19 mishaps. Brooklyn has since amassed an 18-12 record and taken control of the No. 2 seed in the East.
Toronto, meanwhile, is struggling to get back over .500, being affected by both the much-improved Atlantic Division and the oversaturation of interesting teams in the Eastern Conference. While Toronto will need to fight and claw to make it into the postseason, Brooklyn can rest comfortably knowing that they are a championship contender.
With Harden now forming a trio that will make life hell for the Raptors in the foreseeable future, it’s time to ask the question. Should Masai Ujiri have made a stronger push to go after Harden when he was available?
How would the Raptors be playing with James Harden?
Harden, who is averaging 24.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 11.8 assists per game with the Nets, would’ve given the Raptors a whole new dimension on offense, as he could’ve combined Fred VanVleet’s shooting, Kyle Lowry’s playmaking, and Pascal Siakam’s efficiency all in one package. When needed, Harden has also proven to be a solid on-ball defender.
In order to both make the money match up and give the Rockets equal value in return, Toronto would’ve had to trade most of their depth and draft control to Houston. While that is certainly a steep price, Harden would’ve made the Raptors a contender in the East, and their ambivalence allowed a division rival that was already a contender to pounce on him.
Ujiri, as evidenced by the Kawhi Leonard deal, clearly has no qualms with trading some stars and young players in order to acquire a superstar. Harden might not have done much to help Toronto’s rebounding or defensive woes, and trading for him would’ve eliminated most of their depth, but playing with a true superstar would make them perennial contenders.
Watching Harden lead a comeback win against the Phoenix Suns showed just how lethal he can be when given the platform to dominate the ball.
Given the fact that the Raptors have the disadvantage of both playing in Canada under normal circumstances and in Tampa during this unusual season, Harden might not have been all-in on becoming a Raptor. However, much like Kawhi, Harden would’ve made the Raptors instant contenders, and they could regret letting him go to a division rival.