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What actually happened with the Wizards and James Harden this summer? We explore all the possibilities and discuss whether the organization deserves the heap of criticism it will get in each of those scenarios.
As I noted in a previous post, the Washington Post rumor that the Washington Wizards rejected a trade that would have sent Bradley Beal, Chris Singleton and potentially another asset to the Oklahoma City Thunder is a bit more complicated than many have suggested. It's become clear that the Wizards and Thunder did engage in some sort of discussion about Harden, but it's not clear whether those talks were serious or whether the reason a deal never happened was because of finances.
This isn't to say that the Post report should be discredited. There's definitely an element of truth to what was written. However, it's difficult to pin down whether there was actually a formal offer and what the motivations for the trade not happening actually were.
Therefore, let's run through a few possibilities and discuss whether it's fair to criticize the front office for those.
POSSIBILITY 1: THE POST STORY IS 100-PERCENT CORRECT
If so, then yes, the Wizards' front office should be criticized. This was the "step-up" year for the organization, and while one surely believes in Beal's potential, you can't pass up the chance to get an elite talent like Harden. This was the year where the Wizards needed to surround John Wall with pieces that were ready to elevate the team to playoff contention. Nobody on the market could do that as effectively as Harden, whether you think the fit was perfect or not.
POSSIBILITY 2: THERE NEVER WAS AN OFFER
If the Wizards and Thunder never talked at all, obviously, it's hard to criticize the front office for rejecting a trade beyond saying they should have talked. But there's way too much smoke to consider this.
POSSIBILITY 3: THE OFFER WAS NEVER SERIOUS
This is where things get a bit tricky. As noted in the previous post, the Thunder were probably canvassing the league to gauge Harden's market value, and the Wizards, with a young shooting guard and additional trade assets, were a team that they called because the possibility of a deal was at least remotely high. The Wizards also probably weren't the only team they called. We know they called Houston, but maybe they also called Golden State about Klay Thompson, Toronto about DeMar DeRozan, Cleveland about Dion Waiters, Milwaukee about Monta Ellis, Philadelphia about Evan Turner ... I mean, the possibilities are endless. Additionally, the Thunder, based on previous reports, were making these calls while simultaneously trying to secure Harden with a four-year extension that was below the max. They very easily could have been doing these things simultaneously, in which case, any team talking about a Harden trade could not have negotiated an extension with Harden's agent.
Who's to say that the Wizards would have even won out against all these other possible suitors? Is it proper professional form to make a trade before even gauging whether Harden would sign an extension? These uncertainties at least make me think that the front office shouldn't get as much blame as they would with other possibilities. (Though, I will say that if the extension was the issue, the Wizards may have misread the situation, because it seems pretty obvious now that Harden's agent was looking for a max deal wherever he could get it).
On the other hand, it's also possible that the Wizards themselves did not pursue a Harden trade as vigorously as the Rockets did, at least in terms of calling the Thunder to check in about Harden's status several times along the way. Would that have made a difference? Possibly, and that's probably enough to second-guess the process. Maybe discussions could have become more serious that way.
Nevertheless, this is the most difficult possibility to judge.
POSSIBILITY 4: THE TRADE WAS NOT COMPLETED FOR FINANCIAL REASONS
If this was indeed the case, then we should be upset. Even if you assume it's not possible to offload some salary next year to fit the team's payroll under the luxury tax, you can't pass up the opportunity to get a potential star like Harden just for financial reasons.
(Note: there's also the possibility that the June trade for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza prevented a Harden trade from happening because it put the Wizards too close to the tax line in the future. I'm lumping that possibility here because the transaction and the financial implications of a Harden deal are intrinsically related. If this was the case, obviously, it makes a bad trade even worse. Those howling about the OkAriza trade cutting off options in the future should correctly point to this Harden scenario as an option that was limited).
Here, the information in the Post story conflicts with what I've been told, so it's up to you to decide who to believe. Personally, I find it hard to believe that finances played absolutely no role in the decision, but I also find it hard to believe that it was the only factor that prevented the deal from happening.
POSSIBILITY 5: THE TRADE WAS NOT COMPLETED FOR BASKETBALL REASONS
Let's assume for a second that the Thunder would have chosen a package of Beal, Singleton and next year's No. 1 pick (I imagine they'd have wanted an additional asset based on the package they got from the Rockets) over any other trade offer out there. It's possible that the Wizards didn't think that was a good trade for the on-court product. Several of you have argued that Harden is not worth that kind of price because he struggled in the Finals, isn't the most ideal fit with John Wall and has yet to prove he can be THE MAN on a good team. Trading two potential lottery picks, plus Singleton, could be seen as too heavy a package.
But I, for one, think it's more than fair. Harden is 23 and has already proven to the the league's best young shooting guard. A team like the Wizards don't get chances to get guys like that every day. Best-case scenario, Beal becomes as good as Harden, but that's nowhere close to a certainty, and it certainly won't happen anytime soon. Singleton has played well but is a disposable asset, while next year's No. 1 probably would be a mid- to late-lottery pick at best.
As for the question of fit: sure, Harden needs the ball in his hands to be most effective, but developing Wall's off-ball game should be a priority anyway, and you need multiple shot creators in the backcourt these days to be effective. We also, frankly, don't know whether Wall is good enough to turn down offers for star-level talent because of a less-than-ideal fit. If you had to choose between giving Harden a five-year max and giving Wall a five-year max, I think most around the league would choose Harden.
In my opinion, if the Wizards rejected this deal for basketball reasons, they made a big mistake. Obviously, we'll see how this plays out, but I feel pretty strongly about that.
I'm sure there's more to this, of course, and I also think the real truth lies with some combination of these five options. My guess is that option 3 is the closest to the truth, but I stress that's just a guess.
Nevertheless, save for Option 2, there's at least some reason to criticize the front office for the move not happening in each of these possibilities. Yes, it's true that anytime a trade for a marquee star is completed, there's one winner and 28 losers. Every one of those 28 fanbases will at least have some gripe with their team for not pulling the big move off.
However, whether it was directly rejecting the possibility or just not acting aggressively enough to pursue the deal, one can't help but think the Wizards let an opportunity go by.