James Harden

Sizing Up Eastern Conference's Potential Contenders After James Harden Trade

What does the Nets' trade for James Harden mean for the Eastern Conference? We take a look at the potential contenders.

Sizing up East's potential contenders after Harden trade originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Nets are 6-6 and seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. As of Wednesday night, that fact doesn’t seem terribly important.

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Brooklyn’s reported trade for three-time scoring champion James Harden signifies an early-season shift in the East’s balance of power.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, here are the terms of the deal:

What does the trade mean for the Sixers? How will trading Victor Oladipo to Houston and acquiring Caris LeVert work out for the Pacers?  

Here’s an initial overview of potential contenders in the East following the Harden deal (in no particular order):

Nets 

Brooklyn is banking on the trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving being tremendous offensively. As long as everyone’s healthy and available, we think that’s a decent bet.

It might not be easy for first-year head coach Steve Nash to spread the offensive load between three very high-usage and highly talented playmakers, but Irving and Durant have effectively complemented other stars before. Harden did the same early in his NBA career, playing as a sixth man on the Thunder with Durant and Russell Westbrook.

He’s been used in isolation far more than any other NBA player during his time in Houston, so adjustments will be required from all parties. Harden’s 14.1 isolation possessions per game last season were more than any team (besides Houston) averaged. The coach of that offense is now a Nets assistant, Mike D'Antoni, and we assume he'll be a vital part of the integration process.

The “healthy and available” part is far from a certain thing, both for the Nets and the NBA in general at the moment. Irving has missed the past four games because of personal reasons, and the league is now investigating videos of him at a family birthday party without a mask, according to multiple reports. Durant was sidelined for the entire 2019-20 season after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Harden, meanwhile, is known as a durable player. With the 31-year-old making $41.2 million this season and $44.3 million the following year before his $47.4 million option in 2022-23, the Nets sure need him to be.

Sixers 

A Harden trade may very well have made the Sixers the team to beat in the conference. 

The team’s most obvious deficiency is perimeter shot creation, and that’s what Harden does at a historically great level. Seth Curry and Danny Green would’ve been useful drive-and-kick options for the eight-time All-Star. As far as interior dominance, the Sixers have that covered in Embiid, who is among the early MVP favorites and led the team to a 7-1 start. 

The Sixers have both Embiid and 24-year-old Ben Simmons under contract through the 2022-23 season. If president of basketball operations Daryl Morey decides to seriously pursue Wizards star Bradley Beal, the Sixers should be well-positioned to grab him. If the Sixers determine its best to enter this postseason with the roster similar to its current state, then we’ll learn a lot about the Simmons-Embiid duo.

Simmons’ versatile defense is elite and shouldn’t be discarded, but the Sixers need him to turn the ball over less and score more efficiently. Whether or not that coincides with taking jump shots regularly, it’s essential that he makes real progress and doesn’t stagnate or regress offensively. Through 10 games, Simmons’ turnover percentage is 21.7 and he’s scoring 109.7 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass. Both figures would be career worsts. 

Pacers 

The 26-year-old LeVert is under contract for the next three seasons, while Oladipo is an expiring deal. The opinion here, which shouldn’t be too controversial, is that Indiana did quite well.

LeVert, who was averaging 18.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds for Brooklyn, is a nice addition. However, can the Pacers trouble any of the East’s presumed top teams? That might be a stretch this year, their first under head coach Nate Bjorkgren, but LeVert, Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are all under contract through 2022-23.

Celtics 

It’s tough to say much about the Celtics until they start playing games again. Boston’s last three scheduled contests have all been postponed due to health and safety protocols. 

When everyone’s healthy, the 7-3 Celtics remain reliant on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Brown, who has averaged 26.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists, keeps getting better and better.

Kemba Walker was cleared to practice last week after missing the start of the season with persistent left knee issues.

Bucks 

The Bucks’ offense is the league’s best so far, per Cleaning the Glass, but Milwaukee hasn’t had a great start defensively. Giannis Antetokunmpo is locked in through his prime, and the Bucks should be in the championship conversation as long as he’s around. We’ll see how Milwaukee fares in its first postseason with Jrue Holiday.

Heat 

Another team essentially sliced in half by the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the defending conference champions have started 4-5. Jimmy Butler, who’s one of the players sidelined by the protocols, has started the season 0 for 7 from three-point range. The league-wide COVID-19 situation merits concern, but Butler and the Heat’s slow start does not. 

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