There are still a few big names available in trade talks this summer, including 76ers shooting guard James Harden. Some publications have even floated the Knicks as a potential suitor for the disgruntled star. And it does make a bit of sense, I suppose. While he may not be on the level of Joel Embiid or Donovan Mitchell — stars the Knicks were reportedly chasing — Harden is still considered by many as a star, something New York’s front office has long coveted. And in getting Harden, the Knicks would be able to pair Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle with a true facilitator, making their jobs much easier offensively. That being said, when factoring what the Knicks would have to give up, both on the court, and with assets, this trade starts to make less sense.
First, the Knicks would very likely have to move RJ Barrett. There are still questions on if Philadelphia would even want Barrett, but a third team could always get involved, take him on, and help facilitate a potential trade. Now, Barrett has admittedly been a very frustrating player to watch and root for. He’ll show flashes of being a potential All-Star one night, scoring an efficient 25 points while dishing out a few assists and playing some solid defense. And then he’ll follow that up with two straight weeks of sub 20% three-point shooting and bad defense. But Barrett showed during the playoffs just how close to being good he might actually be.
Over the 11 games in the playoffs this past season, Barrett averaged 19.3PPG, 4.5RPG, and 2.8APG on 43% shooting and 32% from three. Those numbers don’t blow you away, but they aren’t that far off from Harden’s. Philadelphia’s shooting guard averaged 20.3PPG, 6.2RPG and 8.3APG but shot just 39.3% from the field. Obviously Harden right now is still a better player than Barrett but the difference does not warrant mortgaging some of the future by trading away the younger player and likely sending away a few picks as well for an aging, often disgruntled star, that likely won’t take the Knicks over the hump given his well-documented playoff struggles.
Secondly would be the rest of the starting lineup that the Knicks would have to figure out. Let’s just say that the Knicks pulled this trade off without sending away any major piece outside of Barrett. Then the Knicks would have Brunson, Harden, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson as the centerpieces of the starting lineup. Now, that’s a very solid, even good, starting lineup. There’s shooting, playmaking, interior scoring, and the ability to get to the free throw line. But who would the Knicks plug in at the small forward?
By trading away Barrett, who is pretty much the only small forward currently on the roster, the Knicks would then have to look elsewhere to fill that hole, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Veteran small forwards could likely be found relatively easily to fill in a 3 and D role. But by slotting Harden into the starting lineup, the already clogged backcourt becomes even more clogged, which means less minutes and in turn less development for guys like Immanuel Quickley, and Quentin Grimes. And we haven’t even gotten to Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo who both warrant significant minutes as well given their skillset and financial investments. They would be left with having four natural shooting guards and one small forward. Basketball has become as positionless as ever and playing small is as viable as it ever has been, but they would be one injury or one disappointing season away from having no real small forward on the roster.
Thirdly, and maybe even the most daunting issue, is the defense. Tom Thibodeau has long been known as a defense-first coach that prioritizes players’ efforts and execution on that end of the floor. By bringing in Harden, who has been known as a notoriously bad defender since leaving the Thunder, the Knicks would be asking Thibs to trot out a starting backcourt that may just be the worst defensive backcourt in the league. And even if they were to find a very good defensive wing to slow in as the small forward, given Randle’s inconsistent defensive effort, the Knicks’ defense would rely too heavily on Mitchell Robinson, who is great but also injury prone. So far this offseason, the Knicks front office has seemed intent on creating a roster that Thibodeau likes and can maximize while prioritizing their young players so trading for Harden would just seem odd.
Again, I do get why Harden’s name has been floated around as a potential target for the Knicks. New York is seemingly always star-hunting. By getting Harden, who is very obviously disgruntled in Philadelphia, they could bolster their offensive and improve on what was a surprisingly successful 2022-23 campaign. But as is the case with a lot of these mock trades and hypothetical trade scenarios, it just doesn’t make much sense once you really dig deeper and look at certain things. Things like player fit, what the team would have to give up, roster construction afterwards, the direction and timeline of the team, the coach, etc. Now, the front office could do a complete 180 and change some of their philosophy and find a way to make a Harden trade make sense. We’ve seen crazier things happen in the NBA. But right now, it doesn’t make much sense and I just can’t see it happening.