Let’s make this incredibly simple: James Harden is a better player than anyone on the Boston Celtics roster right now.
And while only one player, in our eyes, falls under the umbrella of “untouchable,” the Celtics absolutely should be listening on anyone if it means they land Harden.
To catch you up, Harden and Russell Westbrook reportedly are among those concerned about the direction of the Rockets, who have canned general manager Daryl Morey, while head coach Mike D’Antoni left.
Thus, trade speculation has ramped up, and former NBA exec Bobby Marks made some waves Thursday when he named the Celtics among the teams that could actually swing a trade for Harden (the Nuggets, Nets, 76ers and Warriors were the others).
Acquiring Harden at the absolute least would require the Celtics sending Jaylen Brown to Houston as part of the package. We’re certain that trading Brown would be a non-starter for some in the fanbase.
That, of course, is ludicrous.
It’s one thing if the ask is too big overall, but Brown as the centerpiece would merely be the cost of doing business, and if it means getting Harden to Boston, then Danny Ainge should be warming up his car so he can drive his 2016 first-round pick to the airport.
Look, Brown is blossoming into a fine player and he’s only 24-years-old. One has to think he has yet to reach his ceiling. Even if he does, that would put him in a tier with the Paul Georges of the NBA, not the James Hardens.
Brown is a better defender than Harden, but the narrative that Harden is an inept defender has been overstated as time has gone on. Sure, it’s problematic that you need him to care in order to play defense, but he’s not useless.
If ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus is of value to you, his 1.18 defensive RPM ranked 12th last season among NBA shooting guards. Other shooting guards in Harden’s neighborhood were Fred VanVleet, Kent Bazemore and C.J. McCollum. He’s not elite, but he’s not maladroit. And, for what it’s worth, Brown was 37th at 0.35. It’s an imperfect metric, but make of it what you will.
One has to think that in a Brad Stevens system that emphasizes actually caring in the defensive end, Harden could at least not be a liability. The big knock on Enes Kanter when he came to Boston was that he gets manipulated on the pick-and-roll, but Stevens found a way to prevent the big man from getting undressed. Stevens should have no trouble doing something similar with Harden — especially after coaching some borderline dreadful defensive guards in Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving.
And from an offensive standpoint, Harden is leaps and bounds better than anyone the Celtics have to offer. Getting him to coexist with guys like Jayson Tatum could be challenging, but it’s not impossible, especially since we just saw him form a decent tandem with Westbrook, something that shocked many.
It’s nice that the Celtics have multiple guys who can be the volume scorer on a given night, but having someone as reliable as Harden would be a luxury the Celtics have not seen in a long, long time.
Harden’s 34.3 points per game last season was tops in the NBA, while he was seventh with 7.5 assists. His 29.11 player efficiency rating was second in the league, and he still grabbed 6.6 rebounds per game. Brown’s best night offensively would be considered meager for Harden.
Tatum should be the only untouchable. For the right price, anyone else should be moved. Indeed, it would be tough to part with Brown, even more so when names like Marcus Smart and Robert Williams get tossed into the package, as well as picks.
But the Celtics — from ownership down to the fanbase — have a bad habit of getting way too married to guys and overvaluing them. They’ve historically refused to accept the fact that they might, believe it or not, be better with Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler than Brown. Because of that, it’s no wonder why they always seem to be just a piece or two short of a legitimate championship contender.
Harden could be that piece, and if it means moving Brown in the process, that hardly should stop Ainge.
Don’t overthink this.