The NBA is back like it never left. In this case, it kind of never did. The 2019-20 champions were crowned in October, and the 2020-21 trek to the next title officially starts this month…

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
New Orleans Pelicans receive: James Harden
Houston Rockets receive: Brandon Ingram, Kira Lewis Jr., Jaxson Hayes, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 second-round pick (via CLE) and 2025 first-round pick (via MIL)
If James Harden has his way, his ticket out of Space City will include a direct flight to a ready-made contender. His list of preferred landing spots includes only the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
That makes sense from Harden’s standpoint as a ring-less 31-year-old. But which of those clubs possesses the kind of long-term assets Houston is undoubtedly seeking? Contenders have win-now supplies, and the Rockets sans Harden might not be playing win-now hoops for years to come.
For Houston, then, it makes sense to scour the alternative trade routes. That’s how a team like New Orleans could enter the equation. The Pelicans could not only deliver a young cornerstone in 23-year-old All-Star Brandon Ingram, but they could also send back several scratch-off tickets in the form of future draft picks and recent lottery selections Kira Lewis Jr. and Jaxson Hayes.
Why would New Orleans part with this many assets? Two reasons. For one, it’s James bleepin’ Harden. The last three scoring crowns are his, as was the 2017-18 MVP and 2016-17 assist title. He’s a walking top-10 offense, a ticket to the postseason and a chance to contend.
Secondly, it’s never too early for a team like the Pelicans to work on convincing a young standoutin this case, Zion Williamsonit’s worth sticking around. As The Athletic’s David Aldridge noted, an aggressive move for Harden could be the best way to deliver that message:
“The best chance to keep a guy like Zion happy, it says here, is to give him the best chance to compete immediately in the West. That means you have to be good enough to beat the Lakers or Clippers, or Nuggets or Jazz. You didn’t even make the playoffs last year. Harden not only gets you to the playoffs, he gives you a real chance against the elite teams in the West.”
While Aldridge advised against the Pelicans trading Ingram, it’s hard to see a deal going down without him (unless the Rockets are huge Lonzo Ball fans for some reason). Ingram’s future is intriguing, but Harden’s present is incredible. Put him on the floor with Williamson, Ball, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe or JJ Redick, and this club could skyrocket up the standings.