Since Kawhi Leonard left a championship team behind and signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, there has been a superstar void in Toronto.
Fans who daydreamed about the possibility of Giannis Antetokounmpo in a Raptors uniform have to move on (for now) after the two-time MVP signed a five year supermax extension with Milwaukee. The most available superstar at the moment is James Harden, who has very publicly requested a trade from Houston. Harden isn’t the first star player to force himself to a new team while under contract, but he has taken the concept of disgruntled superstar to another level.
Harden didn’t arrive at training camp on time, instead partying in Atlanta and Las Vegas before finally showing up to Houston and proceeded to throw a ball at a teammate in practice. Last week, he received a $50,000 fine for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols while attending another party unmasked.
Two reasons have been presented as to why the Raptors shouldn’t trade for Harden. First, his off-court behaviour has been completely irresponsible during a pandemic. Second, he has spent nearly the entire decade with an organization who has catered to his every need, and it would run counter to what Toronto wants to build long-term. The first reason should be enough to not pursue a trade for Harden. Travelling around the country, partying unmasked and not adhering to COVID-19 protocols means Harden is putting the lives of others at risk. The second reason is a bit trickier.
The idea of superstar fit assumes that there’s some idealistic version of the world where a superstar, who clearly wants out of one situation, will fit seamlessly into the one he is forcing himself to. This version of the world doesn’t exist. The Raptors should know this better than anyone. The championship banner hanging at Scotiabank Arena (and a replica one in Tampa Bay) is a reminder of how successful the Leonard trade was. But the Raptors took on significant risk, not knowing whether he would even report to training camp, with question marks hanging over his health status, and catering Leonard’s regular season workload based on a meticulously designed load management schedule. It all came together in the postseason and ended with a championship. In retrospect, it is easier to remember the results over the arduous process of integrating Leonard.
The bigger roadblock with a Harden-Raptors trade might be timing.
When Masai Ujiri traded for Leonard, the roster had reached their ceiling, especially in the playoffs. Toronto was in a position to trade for Leonard and assume the risks. The 2020-21 version of the Raptors are in a different spot. Their most important player, Kyle Lowry, turns 35 in March and is a free agent this summer. They just lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency. The ceiling of this current group hinges on the internal improvement of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Acquiring Harden would mean trading at least one of them. He would represent an upgrade on the court, but the Raptors would still need to make further changes to the roster to open up a new championship window.
On Saturday, Harden made his season debut and put up 44 points and 17 assists in 43 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, reminding everyone why a team will eventually trade for him and reap the rewards of his basketball talents.
The Raptors might not be that team, but it’s important to remember this: when the next star becomes available in the trade market again, the same questions surrounding superstar fit will still exist.
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