The early portion of the 2023 NBA offseason was highlighted by a pair of high-profile trade requests from Damian Lillard and James Harden. A month later, both have yet to be traded.
At some point, the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers might have to seriously consider offers from teams that aren't the stars' desired landing spots (the Miami Heat for Lillard and the Los Angeles Clippers for Harden). For Harden, that means teams that might be willing to take on a rental.
Harden is on an expiring contract, and he's ineligible for an extension. If things don't go well, he can just walk as a free agent next offseason.
Although Harden has averaged at least 20 points and 10 assists in each of his last three seasons, acquiring him is far from a no-brainer. Any team that trades for him has to contemplate paying his last big contract after his age-34 campaign.
Certain teams could justify such a move, including some that can't trade for him until Dec. 15 or later due to collective bargaining agreement rules. The other consideration is what Philly will get back for him.
In a radio appearance on 97.5 The Fanatic, 76ers team president Daryl Morey said, "If we don't get either a very good player or something that we can turn into a very good player, then we're just not gonna do it."
That sentiment received some consideration in selecting the teams below, but Harden's fit was the primary factor for this exercise.
Los Angeles Clippers
It's easy to see why the Los Angeles Clippers have been Harden's main potential target.
Despite an extreme lack of availability since they joined forces in 2019, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are still two of the best wings in basketball. But whenever Kawhi misses time or both he and George are out, the Clippers' offense drops off significantly.
Adding a third star would be a hedge against those absences, but you can also imagine how all three would play together. Leonard and George are real isolation threats, but both could see efficiency boosts playing alongside one of the game's best distributors.
Despite not being quite as explosive as he was in his prime, Harden uses his skill (and plenty of guile) to get to the paint. Once he's there, few players are as good at spraying out to shooters.
More open catch-and-shoot threes (or opportunities to attack closeouts) for Kawhi and PG would make the Clippers a nightmare to defend.
Although the Clippers may not have an overwhelming offer if they don't include George, they have plenty of expiring contracts (for salary-matching fodder) and a few first-round picks they could part with. That might be enough if the rest of the league is afraid to acquire Harden.
There seemed to be some mutual interest in a reunion between Harden and the Houston Rockets earlier in 2023, but new head coach Ime Udoka was reportedly out on the idea, according to Steve Bulpett of Heavy Sports.
Given the defense-first approach he had with the Boston Celtics, that would make sense. Harden has never been known for solid defense, and being in his mid-30s probably won't help on that front.
But the Rockets clearly want to win this season, as evidenced by the hefty contracts they handed to Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks in free agency. Harden could accelerate that pursuit.
He's certainly more of a win-now player than Kevin Porter Jr. Once trade restrictions pass on Brooks and Jeff Green, Houston should be able to cobble together enough salary to make a deal work under the CBA.
As far as fit goes, VanVleet is a score-first guard who spent plenty of time alongside Kyle Lowry with the Toronto Raptors, while Harden is built more like a wing. Playing those two together would be easy.
Having Harden's high-volume playmaking in lineups with Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün and Jabari Smith Jr. could help the development of all three.
New York Knicks
After missing out on Donovan Mitchell last summer, the New York Knicks could pounce on another trade opportunity with some of the assets they were willing to give up for Mitchell.
They already have an All-Star-caliber guard in Jalen Brunson, but he and Harden could work together for a lot of the same reasons Harden and Fred VanVleet would work in Houston.
Brunson is undersized and is more of a scorer than a facilitator. Harden would make life easier for Brunson and every other scorer in the Knicks' lineup.
Among the teams highlighted to this point, New York might have the best potential offer from Philadelphia's perspective. A pick-heavy package that includes at least one player with some potential (like RJ Barrett) could be flipped to another team for more of a win-now player.
Perhaps a team like the Chicago Bulls, who should at least be interested in a rebuild, would entertain sending Zach LaVine to the Sixers.
San Antonio Spurs
This one may seem a little out of the box, but oddsmakers from various books have listed the San Antonio Spurs as a potential destination for Harden at various times over the last year.
That's hardly a strong indication that either Harden or the Spurs would be interested in teaming up, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't make sense.
Victor Wembanyama may be destined to succeed regardless of team construction around him, but a playmaker like Harden could certainly soften his landing in the NBA. Harden has boosted the offensive output and efficiency of several bigs over the course of his career, including Clint Capela and Joel Embiid.
Getting Wembanyama plenty of the wide-open looks that Harden has generated for other teammates over the years could set the rookie up for earlier NBA accolades.
You typically think of a new team as a landing spot, but there's a non-zero chance that Harden ends up staying with the Sixers.
Given Harden's age, contract and multiple trade requests in recent years, it's understandable why any team might be hesitant to trade for him. That means Morey's mandate of getting a "good player or someone we can turn into a good player" might not be met.
If Harden wants one more big payday, he needs to perform during this contract year, even if that's in Philadelphia.
Alongside Embiid, he'd almost certainly be in the mix for the league lead in assists per game again. He might have a shot at postseason redemption, too.
Despite their increasingly common playoff struggles, the 76ers still have enough talent to be in the mix for a title.