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Rockets could keep James Harden instead of dealing him to Nets

The Rockets' James Harden argues a call during

The Rockets' James Harden argues a call during the second half of an NBA Western Conference semifinal playoff game against th Lakers on Sept. 12 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

James Harden made his intention to leave the Rockets and try to force a trade to the Nets clear on Monday when he turned down a two-year contract extension worth $103 million, according to reports from ESPN and the Houston Chronicle. But as the NBA draft approaches Wednesday night, there is no indication the Nets are ready to do what it would take to get Harden or even that the Rockets are yet willing to deal him.

One NBA source with knowledge of the Rockets’ thinking told Newsday they were planning to keep Harden with the idea of remaining "in the top tier and competing for a title." The contract offer to Harden, who still has three years and $131.5 million remaining on his current deal, supports that notion.

According to ESPN and the Houston Chronicle, Harden has made it clear he only wants to be traded to the Nets, where he could rejoin former Thunder teammate Kevin Durant along with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. The NBA source who spoke to Newsday said it would be a "no brainer" if the Nets could pull off a deal for Harden and suggested he would be especially motivated and is a better defender than his reputation suggests.

But the Rockets might hang onto Harden into the season and wait to see if a market develops for a player who has led the NBA in scoring the past three seasons. The Nets have some attractive assets they could package in a deal, including Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince. But there is no star available to ship to the Rockets.

The Nets also have the 19th pick in Wednesday’s draft via the 76ers, and they have all their own first-round picks starting in 2021 and going forward plus a second-round pick this year and four second-round picks in 2021. That is important because draft picks would be part of the package in any deal for Harden.

The market was set earlier this week when the Bucks made a mega-deal with the Pelicans to acquire point guard Jrue Holiday. The Bucks sent George Hill and Eric Bledsoe to the Pelicans along with three first-round picks and two pick swaps. They also executed a sign-and-trade deal for Kings free-agent perimeter shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic in which they sent Donte DiVincenzo to the Kings.

The Bucks made those bold moves in an attempt to get reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year extension worth $220 million before the coming season. They now have a starting lineup that includes Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Bogdanovic, All-Star Khris Middleton and center Brook Lopez that is as formidable as any lineup in the Eastern Conference.

But if the Nets were to add Harden, they would have as much firepower as any team in the NBA. The trick would be to find chemistry between ball-dominant players like Harden, Irving and Durant and to fill out the roster around them with low-salaried vets after trading away most, if not all, of their young assets.

In the meantime, the Nets are believed to be in the hunt for Raptors free-agent forward Serge Ibaka, who also once played with Durant on the Thunder and who has described him as being "like a brother. Ibaka would fill the Nets’ most obvious need at power forward.

They also could try to fill that need in the draft. One player who might be available when the Nets turn comes is 6-9 Memphis forward Precious Achiuwa. But several mock drafts have projected R.J. Hampton, a shooting guard who played last season in New Zealand, and Stanford point guard Tyrell Terry as possibilities for the Nets. That makes sense in terms of depth if the Nets ultimately trade guards LeVert and Dinwiddie.

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