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What the James Harden trade means to the Spurs

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It’s the end of an era for one of San Antonio’s division foes and a monumental shift in the league’s power balance that will affect the Spurs.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is no longer employed by the Houston Rockets. In a blockbuster four-team trade, The Beard has been moved to the Nets for Victor Oladipo, Rodion Kurucs, Dante Exum, four first round picks and four pick swaps, according to reports.

It’s the end of a successful, if often turbulent, era in Houston. It’s unclear if a full rebuilding effort is next for the Rockets, but what’s certain is that there will be challenges ahead after dealing the disgruntled former MVP.

A move of this magnitude will inevitably affect other teams, including the Spurs. So let’s take a look at what this means for San Antonio and what lessons can be learned from what happened in Houston in the past few seasons.

The Kawhi Leonard trade looks even worse in retrospect

It would be unfair to compare the trades of Paul George, Russell Westbrook and now James Harden to the Kawhi Leonard trade, since the circumstances were completely different: Harden essentially ended his tenure in Texas’s largest city with last night’s post-game media availability; even though Leonard never said it outright, he worked through back channels to make it known he wanted out, and the concerns about his health were greater than any of the recently-traded superstars.

The Spurs got a lesser star, a backup center and the second to last pick in the draft for one of the top five players in the league while other franchises managed to get multiple first rounders and pick swaps for their distressed assets. To be fair, it doesn’t reflect well on the Lakers either, as what they deemed too high of an asking price at the time for Leonard has now become standard even for lesser players, but Lakers management at the time was a mess, so that’s not all that comforting.

The Spurs are fine. DeMar DeRozan has worked out well for them as a stopgap until the young players blossomed, Jakob Poeltl (slow start to the 2020/21 season notwithstanding), is a quality rotation big, and the pick they got turned into Keldon Johnson. On paper the trade might not have looked great, but it’s turned out well enough.

That being said, the going rate for even superstars with spottier track records in the locker room (and in the biggest moments) has clearly become much higher than it was when the Spurs were forced to deal Leonard. They are not at fault, though the return could be considered disappointing when compared to the trades that have closed since.

The Southwest looks a lot less scary... for now

The trade might be addition by subtraction in terms of chemistry for the Rockets, but in terms of talent, they have downgraded greatly. Victor Oladipo is good, but he’s not Harden, and Houston is getting offers for P.J. Tucker, per reports, so unless the new John Wall-led squad does better than anticipated in the next few games, a fire sale could be on the horizon. The Rockets, it seems, have gone from a lock to make the playoffs under normal circumstances to now being a fringe candidate, at best.

It’s obviously good news for the Spurs that not only a playoff contender but also a division rival they have yet to play has gotten worse. In fact, a big reason to think the Silver and Black could fight for a postseason spot is rooted in the fact that they are now in arguably the weakest division in the West. Dallas is looking strong, but San Antonio still has seven games left against the Rockets, Pelicans and Grizzlies, which all now look winnable. The Southwest, which has been a gauntlet for over a decade, is not looking too scary right now.

That could all change in a few years, though. The Pelicans have a young All-Star in place in Brandon Ingram and a potential superstar in Zion Williamson. The Grizzlies are led by the most intriguing young guard-big man pairing in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. And now the Rockets have gotten a lot of draft capital and potential future cap space to play with. In a couple of years, right as this group of young players gets ready to lead the Spurs, the division could become insanely tough again.

For now, though, the Southwest is not a bad place to be.

The whole mess is the latest reminder that ownership and continuity matter

Love them or hate them, the Rockets were undoubtedly successful under Leslie Alexander and Darryl Morey. Their reliance on analytics, Morey’s often smug attitude and Harden’s play style made them tough to root for and an easy target for criticism, but Houston was a playoff mainstay under that triumvirate and made two conference finals with the core they built. Alexander set the rules and expectations and then stayed out of the way. Morey tinkered with the roster and Harden played at an MVP level, and that was enough for Houston to be a contender for years.

The synergy between ownership, front office and star was clearly disrupted when Tillman Fertitta bought the team. Immediately there were cost-cutting moves that almost surely wouldn't have been made under Alexander, which hindered Morey’s ability to do his job and resulted in a lesser roster being assembled. With Morey eyeing the door, the experiments he made went to overdrive while his concern for the future of the team decreased. It’s not surprising that not only Harden but several other Rockets started to express concerns about the team and then became outright disenchanted with the franchise.

There’s a lesson there for the Spurs, which could be facing similar challenges soon. The divorce of Peter and Julianna Holt threatened to potentially cause disruption at the top, which fortunately so far hasn’t materialized. But with R.C. Buford switching responsibilities, a new general manager in place and the potentially imminent retirement of Gregg Popovich, trialing times could be ahead if the franchise isn’t already prepared.

Fortunately it seems like the transition is being made. Promoting Brian Wright to GM while Pop and R.C. are still around was a wise choice, and so has been the clearing of the books — except for extension to the young players. If the Holts hold on to the team, the new generation of decision-makers, coaches and stars should have enough freedom paired with enough structure to allow them to continue to steer the franchise in the right direction.

This end of an era in Houston came about in part because of a lack of cohesion at the top, which trickled all the way down. Hopefully the Spurs, which already seem to know the value of synergy on the court and off, will use what happened to the Rockets as a reminder of what can go wrong when it’s lacking and continue to make sure they don’t make the same mistake.