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May 18, 2023

The NBA free-agent scramble starts about a week after June 22 draft, and Harden may be the biggest name on the market. While he can opt into one more season with the Philadelphia 76ers at $35.6 million, multiple sources indicate he's likely to decline the option and explore the market.

That doesn't mean he won't re-sign on a new max deal with the Philadelphia 76ers starting at $46.9 million. That's still very much in the cards with new head coach Nick Nurse and reigning MVP Joel Embiid.

But Philadelphia is far from a lock. It's a personal decision for Harden that will come down to more than just the opportunity to win or finances. Houston (22-60)—tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the second-worst record in the league—has a real opportunity to reunite the former Rockets All-Star. The pull of family (still living in the area) is a real factor, but it may not be enough.

For Harden to come home, the Rockets may need to give him more of a basketball reason. Not to belittle the talent in place—Houston has several impressive young players—but the team may need to cash out some of what it has to give Harden a viable enough roster to compete for a playoff berth.

And if Harden gets that same starting max salary, the Rockets probably can't achieve that with roughly $17 million in cap space remaining, plus the $7.6 million room mid-level exception.

The answer may come via trade, and (with a green light from Harden, contingent on upgrades) that's where the front office needs to earn its stripes. Other teams, like the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors, have their own problems. So too, do the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks.

Perhaps Houston can be the conduit to multiple solutions.

The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement all but explicitly targets the Warriors to limit their spending with stringent rules above a new second apron (at a projected $179.5 million this coming season). Golden State needs to decide if it intends to spend anyway, with Klay Thompson extension eligible and Draymond Green with a player option of $27.6 million for 2022-23 (with a decision coming before July).

If the plan is to keep the "Splash Brothers" together, Green is a massive part of why that's worked over the last decade; paying him on a lower starting salary but on a long-term deal could make sense (how about five years at $87-$100 million?). Green's contract at that number would pay for itself with the reduction in immediate luxury taxes

But the Warriors may not want Green's deal running longer than Curry's and could recognize that the time has come to start transitioning in a different direction. Green doesn't have to opt out, and if the time has come to leave Golden State, he may be open to an extend-and-trade to the Rockets that adds $59.3 million over two additional seasons.

When a team with a ball-dominant star is looking for that complementary piece, getting that "Draymond-type" is a must—acquiring the actual guy could be a fantastic fit next to Harden as a secondary playmaker and defensive captain.

Sources also say that new Houston coach Ime Udoka would like to instill a defensive mindset, but ownership hasn't exactly enjoyed the recent lean rebuilding years. Getting back to the postseason would do a lot for the franchise, and Harden's scoring with Green captaining the defense and running 4-on-3 offense could do the trick.

But is it enough? That's where the Raptors join the fray. The franchise is deciding its direction, and many around the league believe Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. won't return (both have player options). Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are heading into the final years of their contracts (Anunoby has a player option for 2024-25).

Either the Raptors recommit fully to that group (the team doesn't have a head coach yet) or go in a different direction entirely. Several competing executives anticipate Toronto will build around Scottie Barnes and young talent with deals leading into the NBA draft.

Putting it all together, the Rockets have Nos. 4 and 20. The team will have significant cap room in July (a trade could be agreed to in the coming weeks but executed after the moratorium) and many young talents like Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Sengun and Tari Eason. Others like KJ Martin, Jae'Sean Tate, Usman Garuba, Josh Christopher, TyTy Washington Jr. and Daishen Nix hold different levels of appeal.

Houston also boasts two Brooklyn Nets first-round picks (2024 and 2026), which it can trade with or without protections.

Finally, Kevin Porter Jr. has a unique contract starting at $15.9 million for next season, with $4.8 million in unlikely incentives. Because he has three additional years, none with guaranteed salary, his contract can be waived and stretched at $1.76 million over nine years (just 1.3 percent of next year's projected $134 million salary cap).

The timing and order of operations would need to be precise, but in July, the Rockets could sign Harden to the max, acquire Green on an extend-and-trade from Golden State and land both Anunoby and Trent from the Raptors. The bounty from Houston would be divided between the Warriors and Toronto.

Perhaps it's No. 4 and one of the Rockets' top three prospects (Green, Smith or Sengun) to Toronto, with Martin and Porter to the Warriors. Golden State gets a well-regarded young role player in Martin at $1.9 million for 2023-24, a $9.8 million trade exception and an incredible $153.5 million tax savings with Green gone and Porter stretched.

The Warriors may not be ready to break up with Green, but it has to be tempting. The Raptors get a high pick in a strong draft class, one of Green, Smith or Sengun, plus players like Christopher, Washington and Nix from Houston.

Harden returns with the Rockets to play with Green, Anunoby and Trent, plus remaining pieces like Eason, Garuba, Tate and the team's top two remaining prospects. Trent would need to opt in, but an extend-and-trade may appeal to him as well (starting as high as $19.8 million)—if that were the holdup, a deal could easily be forged without him.

It's a foundation built on many "ifs," but it's certainly arguable to all sides. If Toronto is out, the Rockets and Warriors may be able to get something simpler done with Green.

But say the Warriors decide to keep Green long-term, and/or the Raptors hold onto Anunoby—where could the Rockets turn to get Harden the help he needs to commit?

The Timberwolves had high expectations when it acquired Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz (for significant draft capital) that it would be a strong playoff contender. Instead, they had to fight through the play-in to lose to the Denver Nuggets in the first round.

The new rules don't favor Minnesota, with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels extension eligible this summer. Edwards is believed to be seeking a max deal (and many around the league believe he'll get it), and McDaniels is likely seeking closer to a $25-30 million starting salary.

The team won't be able to afford that, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert combining for over $90 million in 2024-25. Dealing Gobert will not return anything close to what the Timberwolves paid to Utah. Other competing executives think Karl-Anthony Towns will be long gone ahead of the 2024-25 campaign.

Some even believe Minnesota would jump at an opportunity in the next few weeks. The team's most significant need is a point guard to replace Mike Conley, who was very good for the team after a deadline deal (also with the Jazz) but will be 36 before the start of next season.

If Scoot Henderson isn't there at No. 4 (he's projected at No. 3 by B/R's Jonathan Wasserman), then the Timberwolves may need Houston to rope in another franchise if it's giving up Towns.

The Hawks are facing a more immediate problem under the new CBA, with a payroll projected to be $172 million and $16.4 million in luxury taxes (more if players hit various incentives). The team is believed to be looking for a home for John Collins, but some whispers abound that Dejounte Murray could be had in the right deal.

Murray is due $18.2 million this season but may not be open to an extension limited to a $25.4 million starting salary. Unless Atlanta can shed significant salary elsewhere, they may not be able to afford Murray at his current price, let alone on a new deal in his likely asking range above $30 million.

That's where Porter, with his long-term stretch, could help the Hawks under the luxury tax entirely. It would probably take the No. 4 pick, along with other considerations.

The Rockets get Towns to pair with Harden, a very different look than Green in the Warriors scenario. If Udoka expects a defensive roster, the front office would add two high-powered scorers who aren't nearly as impactful on the other end.

Once again, Houston gives up one of its top three prospects, No. 4 and other considerations. Would the Timberwolves say no to Murray and Smith for Towns? Do the Hawks turn down No. 4 and other player/draft pieces from Houston for Murray?

And there's enough flexibility to configure it in different ways, with Murray to the Wolves, Smith to the Hawks, throw in No. 20 or a Brooklyn future first—Collins could be added to the equation from Atlanta. There would be fertile ground for conversation if the three franchises were so motivated.

Or maybe Minnesota and Houston just leave the Hawks out, and Minnesota goes for younger pieces in volume from Houston and figures out a point guard later.

The Rockets have the cap room, young players, draft picks and Porter's magic bullet contract. The starting point is a "yes" from Harden, but Houston may not get that without lining up the trade possibilities first.

The good news is that the logic has been laid out above. The teams just need to get on the phone together and hash out the deals.

Email Eric Pincus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.