Pete of the North, 12/26/2020
As a day-one Toronto Raptors fan, it took about a week of soul searching and rationalization for me to come to this conclusion after the initial rumors emerged of potential trade talks between these two teams. The Raptors have been burned so many times in the past by their stars fleeing South to the sunny shores of the continental US, it is very difficult to say goodbye to a great player who actually wants to stay in Canada for the long run, let alone bring in a star who most likely isn’t planning on investing long term in Toronto.
However, I, along with all Raptors fans, need to accept the fact that top 5 players simply don’t become available, let alone twice in the same three-year span. Masai Ujiri and company parted ways with a fully vested, dedicated fan favorite in Demar DeRozan and immediately won a title with one-year rental Kawhi Leonard. I say it is time to let history repeat itself.
The Proposal: Rockets trade James Harden and PJ Tucker to Raptors for Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and 2021, 2022 first round draft picks
For the Raptors
The Raptors instantly improve their status as contenders, joining the Nets as the likely favorites in the Eastern Conference.
James Harden dragged a small ball Houston Rockets team to 7 games against the virtually unbeatable Kevin Durant and Steph Curry led Warriors squad in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. The starting line up for that squad consisted of:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: James Harden
SF: Eric Gordon
PF: PJ Tucker
C: Clint Capela
That Mike D’Antoni-led group came a Chris Paul injury and one win away from a finals appearance and most likely a title (no offense to the 2019 Raptors, but this Rockets squad was rolling and most likely would have been the favorites in that hypothetical finals matchup). Let’s compare that to the theoretical line up of a Harden-led Raptors squad after this trade, with two possible variables:
Small ball lineup:
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Fred VanVleet
SF: James Harden
PF: OG Anunoby
C: PJ Tucker
Against bigger lineups
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: James Harden
SF: OG Anunoby
PF: PJ Tucker
C: Aaron Baynes
These teams are highly comparable. What the Raptors lineup may lose in rebounding and shot blocking not having Clint Capela, they make up for with spacing and shooting as well as defense, which for a Harden-led squad is ideal. Aaron Baynes, back up Chris Boucher, OG Anunoby, and of course PJ Tucker are all effective shooters and strong defenders.
At point guard it is close, with 2018/19 Chris Paul probably holding a slight advantage over Kyle Lowry in skill, but Lowry’s unselfish approach and leadership could potentially be a much better fit alongside Harden than Paul was (Paul forced his way out of town immediately after that season with Harden). Lowry has been sharing the floor with a fellow point guard for two years now in Fred VanVleet, and has no problem playing off the ball should Harden want to take a turn running the offense.
Harden would find himself surrounded by hard-nosed defenders who can also shoot the three. Every single person in those two hypothetical Raptors lineups would be more than capable of knocking down open threes if Harden drives and kicks. This line-up (with Siakam) has also been a top 5 defense for three years.
While losing two first round picks is a negative for Toronto, they will only be losing those picks for the length of Harden’s contract (two seasons). They have a minimum core of Harden, VanVleet, Anunoby, and Baynes locked up for those two seasons, and it seems safe to say Lowry and Tucker would sign on for a second season of contention to stay with Toronto for 2021/22. Even if those two players leave that would give them plenty of cap flexibility to bring in two replacement pieces in free agency, while continuing to develop the young weapons off the bench in Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas, and Malachi Flynn. By the time Harden potentially moves on, the Raptors will have first round picks available to rebuild around Anunoby, VanVleet and company.
The Raptors would be a lock for the Eastern Conference Finals, and my personal pick for a finals appearance in 2021. Masai and company have to play those odds.
For the Rockets:
The Rockets lose their disgruntled franchise centerpiece but bring in a new one with a virtually limitless ceiling. Pascal Siakam is an All Star and an NBA champion, who has only been playing ball since he was 16. He has made monumental improvements to his game every season, and if he takes the logical next step, he becomes a fringe top-10 player in the league. In 2019, when he wasn’t even the player he is now, he proved he could be a number 2 option on a championship squad. Matched with John Wall, the Rockets would be probably one piece away from contention but already a fringe playoff squad.
In Norman Powell, the Rockets also get a solid three and D shooting guard/small forward who put up 16.0 points per game last year and would most likely beat out Ben McLemore and Sterling Brown for a starting job.
Let’s take a look at a hypothetical post-trade starting line-up:
PG: John Wall
SG: Norm Powell
SF: Eric Gordon
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Christian Wood / Demarcus Cousins
Not contenders at this point, but a respectable squad, with an awesome young front court in Siakam and Wood. The ultimate short-term success of this lineup really depends on what version of John Wall they get. If he comes back from injury close to 100%, this is a playoff squad. If he struggles or faces further injury struggles, this is a challenging bridge year for Houston.
Just as important as the addition of Siakam would be the two first round picks that the Rockets desperately need. The Rockets mortgaged their future for a one-year lease of Russell Westbrook a year ago, and this trade would gain them two valuable first round picks over the next two seasons. This would put them in a great position to build around their core of Siakam and Wall and give them much brighter future prospects than a melodramatic two year run with a miserable James Harden could.
Technically this move hurts the Rocket’s win-now abilities, but considering they now have virtually no choice but to move Harden, the long-term potential of a piece like Siakam, a starting level piece in Powell and two first round picks makes this a win for the franchise.
Make it happen, boys.
Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Let me know! And as always, thanks for checking out the Blog!