Shear the Beard – Analyzing the Harden Trade
Well, that sure came together quickly. After an offseason full of questions about the future of James Harden in Oklahoma City, Sam Presti and the front office of the Thunder moved swiftly on Saturday night, trading the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to the Houston Rockets after he turned down the Thunder’s final extension offer. The most stunning aspect of the deal was not that the Thunder might not be able to keep Harden – the future financial costs that they would be looking at because of the new CBA have been discussed ad nauseum. Yes, some people have doubted the true financial strain that giving Harden a max would have put on the Thunder as a small market team (See: Bill Simmons), but everyone knew that there was a chance that James Harden would leave OKC.
Rather, it was the timing that surprised most people. Instead of putting off the problem until next offseason, and giving this core one more shot at the title, Presti decided to move Harden when his value was highest and maximize his return while still giving the Thunder a chance to jell before the postseason. The results: The Thunder ship out Harden, Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks, and a second rounder. Let’s take a look at how the trade left both teams.
The Thunder undoubtedly lost a little bit of their luster by trading away one of the key pieces on a team that made it to the NBA Finals last year. Harden was a great fit for OKC, as his passing and scoring provided a little bit of everything that the offense needed to become a potent and efficient juggernaut. He was a great floor-spacer (shooting 39% from 3 last season) and could take pressure off of Durant and Westbrook and give them more room to create and get their own shot. When the offense stalled, or Westbrook got a little out of control, they could turn the ball over to James to create from the pick and roll or get to the rim. He was also remarkably efficient at all of those things, as he had the second highest true shooting percentage in the league (.660) because of his proficiency at shooting 3′s and getting to the free throw line. In essence, he was the perfect third option for OKC, a team that managed to be incredibly efficient offensively without a low-post presence that could get easy buckets.
That being said, the Thunder will survive without him. Kevin Durant already began his emergence as an all-around playmaker instead of just a scorer, increasing his assist totals from the year before (2.7 to 3.5). OKC is also getting Eric Maynor back from injury, and many have touted him as the best backup point guard in the league. Finally, despite a rough year last year in terms of creating buckets for his teammates, Russell Westbrook has shown in the past that he can get assists when he wants to, as he averaged over 8 of them per game in 2009-10 and 2010-11. With all of these options and developments, Harden’s ballhandling might not be quite as necessary as it was last season.
The Thunder also brought in a player that replicates many of Harden’s other skills. Kevin Martin slipped a little last year, but he is a career 18.4 PPG scorer who gives them good spacing and efficient offense. Like Harden, Martin shoots and makes a lot of threes and free throws. His career TS% (.595) would have placed him 12th in the league this past season, and this should continue or even improve as he plays next to two offensive juggernauts in Westbrook and Durant. He should thrive as the 6th man, coming off of the bench with Eric Maynor and having the offense run through him, and can come in during crunch time when the Thunder go small to give them a pressure release. It is true that he is not a very good defensive player. Like, at all. But Harden was never a lockdown defender, either. There will be some issues on this side of the ball, and it might force Scott Brooks to play Thabo Sefolosha alongside him in small lineups late in the game, but they have plenty of time to figure out his limitations and adjust. Also, they still have that Ibaka guy back there to turn away anyone who gets by Martin on the perimeter. Finally, Kevin Martin gives them a huge expiring deal that should greatly improve their cap situation going forward.
The rest of the package that OKC received is enticing in its own right. Jeremy Lamb is an intriguing talent that just went 12th in the draft, and was very highly touted coming out of the University of Connecticut. He offers a very smooth offensive game and a lot of defensive potential. With the rest of their talent on the wing, the Thunder can give him time to develop and acclimate himself to the NBA, and work on making his 3-point game more consistent. The best case scenario has him developing into the shooting guard of the forseeable future, either starting alongside Westbrook and Durant or being the centerpiece of the 2nd unit who comes onto the floor in the 4th, a la Harden. The worst case scenario is probably a solid “3′s and D” rotation player.
The picks that OKC got from Houston are vital to a team that needs avenues of adding cheap talent in the future. They will still be over the cap for the time being, and their own pick is often at the bottom of the first round. There will not be a Perry Jones III sitting there every time, and the Thunder know it. The main chip is Toronto’s first rounder in 2013, which, as John Hollinger pointed out, comes with some interesting caveats:
“Houston creatively protected the pick on the low side, so that if it’s anywhere from 15 to 30 it pushes to the next year — the first time we’ve seen a team do this. In doing so, the Rockets basically guarantee themselves a lottery pick from Toronto at some point in the next half-decade. This pick is likely to be the centerpiece of any potential trade Houston puts together for its elusive superstar, although the Raptors are likely to be juuuust good enough that it lands around 10th in 2013.”
I forget where I read it, but I think that Toronto gets to keep the pick if it is in the top 3, so the front office of the Thunder will be watching the Raps closely this year. They also get a first rounder from Dallas, which originally was a 2012 pick that went to the Lakers in the Lamar Odom deal, and then made it to Houston in the Derek Fisher-Jordan Hill swap. Apparently there are some protections on it (Man, the Lakers really wanted to get Odom out of there ASAP), so it’s unclear when it will come to the Thunder. But if the Mavs go into a downward spiral as Dirk ages, it could be a coup in the future.
In terms of the other players that the Thunder gave up, Cook was in and out of the rotation last season, and was likely going to get squeezed out further with the return of Maynor. Cole Aldrich was probably going to be the 4th true big man, but he did not have an impressive summer league or preseason, and the Thunder have already shown the willingness to go small rather than have crappy bigs on the floor. They already have a solid defensive rotation in Perkins, Ibaka and Collison, and Kevin Durant and Perry Jones III have the versatility to step in as stretch 4′s.
All in all, it was a fairly substantial haul that immediately clears up all of the lingering questions surrounding the Thunder. They will have the rest of the season to integrate Kevin Martin into their offensive game, and won’t have to hear questions about Harden’s future throughout the season. None of that changes the fact that the Thunder are unarguably worse than they were a few days ago, and it remains to be seen how this will effect the locker room chemistry, but the front office made their decision and moved quickly. Harden was not going to help them guard Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, which was always going to be the biggest hurdle to the Thunder making it back to the Finals. I still see the Thunder as title contenders, and teams would be wise not to start underestimating them. Last time I checked, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook still play for this team, and can very well still lead the team to the promised land.
The Rockets take a gamble of their own with this deal. After an offseason of GM Daryl Morey trying to throw out everything that wasn’t nailed down, the Rockets are starting to actually develop an identity for the upcoming season, but a lot of it is based on speculation. Is Jeremy Lin the virtuoso that took over MSG last season while Carmelo was out? Or is he the turnover-prone guard that got destroyed by Miami’s defense in the playoffs? Will Omer Asik’s monstruous per-minute numbers from the past two seasons translate when he gets a full 36 as the starting center? This is similar to the question that Houston faces about Harden. Can he be the same player that he was in limited minutes? Or was his performance a product of coming off the bench against the second units of other teams and other teams focusing on Westbrook and Durant?
For all of these questions, the answer might be a little of both. For my money, I think that both Harden and Asik are the real deal, and Lin will be a serviceable point guard. On paper, the Rockets now have a scoring option to put alongside Lin. Even if Lin regresses a bit, it should still give them an efficient offensive back court, with a lot of ballhandling. Both are comfortable in the pick and roll and finishing around the basket, and they both get to the line a lot, which should make Houston a solid offense in general. The defense is a little suspect, but they have Asik to patrol the paint and gobble up defensive rebounds, and even after giving Harden a max extension, they will have enough cap space for a max deal in the offseason. A situation to watch is Atlanta. If Dwight doesn’t like it in Lakerland, the Hawks could make a run at Dwight and CP3, as both will be free agents this summer. That would leave Josh Smith (via free agency) or Al Horford (via trade) as the odd man out, and either would be an excellent fit with Houston. Regardless of whether they do it with their cap space or with the large number of young assets they still have, adding another marquee player would really put the Rockets in the position to make noise.
In terms of what they gave up to get Harden, it was a pretty big deal but not back-breaking. Martin was unhappy and was almost certainly going to leave in the offseason. His expiring deal was an enticing piece to waive at other teams without flexibility, but there likely wasn’t a player on Harden’s level that was going to become available during the season. Giving up Lamb is also tough, but he was not going to be able to succeed right away, and he fits much better as a complementary piece with upside than as a future franchise centerpiece. If I was Morey, I would have harped on the Thunder’s lack of front court talent and tried to substitute one of their 37 power forwards (Terrance Jones, Royce White, Marcus Morris), but you still do a Lamb-for-Harden deal 100 times out of 100.
Now, when you combine the Lamb and Martin AND all of the picks (including a second rounder from Charlotte which is probably more valuable than a late first-rounder because of the lack of guaranteed money), the Rockets might have overpaid a little. But after being left at the altar so many times (Dwight, Pau, Bynum), they finally had the opportunity to get a potential franchise changing player. Given the freedom and opportunity that comes with being the offensive focal point, Harden could develop into the best SG in the league as the careers of Wade and Kobe wind down. While they will likely still be in the bottom half of the Western Conference, they can show a bright future to potential targets because they are still a very young team with flexibility, and now have a marquee name that is already in place.
The Rockets are not finished yet, by any means. They need to continue to use their assets to get more top-shelf players, and keep building on a promising but uncertain future. But after bottoming out in terms of talent, they have begun the slow climb back up, and Harden was a great first step.
(All data came from basketball-reference.com).