In an alternate reality, James Harden would be in a Denver Nuggets uniform right now.
When eight-time All-Star James Harden made it known that he wanted to leave the Houston Rockets after eight stellar seasons with the Southwestern franchise, the two main cities being presented as potential destinations — by and large — were Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who had just brought over former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to be their lead decision-maker, would have been able to create a trade package centered around 2018 Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons. Indeed, the Sixers even thought that they had secured a deal for Harden, per Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Obviously, Harden would go on to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team deal that included the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. However, there was apparently another team that had their eyes on The Beard, even going so far as to take a “serious look” at trading for him.
The Denver Nuggets.
According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, deciding against trading for Harden “came with an unofficial mandate internally… it was time for everyone on board to take that next step forward.”
Considering that the Nets surrendered seven first-round picks, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen (amongst other pieces) for Harden, it seems fair to assume that Denver would have had to trade away multiple first-round picks, Michael Porter Jr. (or Jamal Murray) and possibly more. A king’s ransom such as that may have even been out of the Nuggets’ budget.
Nonetheless, the thought of Harden in Denver is intriguing.
Sure, Harden’s affinity for the celebrity lifestyle and the nightlife appears to go against the grain of the Nuggets’ culture. Murray and Nikola Jokic — the team’s best two players — have lowkey personalities and don’t appear to fixated on having a luxurious lifestyle. The same can be said for most of the Nuggets’ roster, save for the outspoken Porter and the lively R.J. Hampton.
Still, say the Nuggets’ did trade for Harden with a package that included Porter, which most fans would have preferred of the teams predestined Big Three.
How would Jokic, Murray and Harden have fit when each are lead guards, in some fashion or another?
The ball-movement could have been beautiful though if everyone was happy to be unselfish, and the trio could have all maintained All-Star level averages while making the game easier for each other.
Yet, considering just how much Houston received in return for Harden, it seems more likely that Murray would have had to be traded (much to the chagrin of the fans, of course).
A Jokic – Harden duo seems a lot like that of Jokic – Murray in terms of being able to work a dangerous two-man game and excel playing off of each other. There would be a difference in terms of shot-selection; Murray would take more midrange shots that Harden while Harden took more 3-point shots and attacked the rim more. Harden, who is better at manipulating defenses and facilitating than Murray, would have also been able to mesh better with Porter.
Especially considering that, while Murray is trying to strengthen his star power and up his averages, Harden prefers having the type of offensive firepower beside that prevents him from having to lead the league in scoring.
No matter who was dealt in the package that brought Harden to Denver though, the Nuggets would likely have been better off in the short-term.
Although Jokic is playing aggressively and putting up MVP numbers, let alone All-NBA, Denver is just 14-11 and the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
Murray, expected to take a superstar leap, has actually taken a small step back whether it’s because of injuries or just premature premonitions. Porter, a viable preseason candidate for Most Improved Player after Jerami Grant’s departure created more opportunity for him, isn’t nearly as involved in the offense as you would expect. Each of the team’s free agent signings from last fall are performing below the level of the players they replaced.
In the long-term, with Harden’s age (31) and the potential of both Murray and MPJ, it’s more difficult to determine whether Denver is better off sticking with their current core or not. That said, should Porter turn down or fail to receive a rookie contract extension offer following the season, that question could answer itself sooner rather than later.
Would you have wanted The Beard in Denver? Let us know on Twitter @Nugg_Love.