Revisiting the James Harden trade

Revisiting the James Harden trade

It was a Friday afternoon here in New Zealand, and James Harden was public enemy number one.

With Kiwi hoops fans waiting on bated breath for the best New Zealand basketball prospect ever to have his name called by David Stern, news broke (courtesy of another #wojbomb) that Steven Adams would be pulling on an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey this season.

Cue former Thunder player James Harden: “Steven Adams loooooooooooooooool”.

Forget for a moment whether or not it was a fake RT or a real tweet which was hastily deleted. For a few minutes in time, Harden was the most hated man among New Zealand basketball fans. But across the NBA punditry, the tweet was a succinct summation of what everyone was thinking.

Harden had just come off a marvellous season in which he averaged 26 points, 5.8 assists and 5 rebounds a game on a magnificent 60% true shooting, earned All Star and All NBA third team honours, and carried the Houston Rockets to 45 wins and a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Thunder had just come off a disappointing second round exit, following a knee injury to Russell Westbrook inflicted by Houston’s Patrick Beverley in the opening round. Kevin Durant was forced to shoulder the entire offensive load for the remaining games, and more than a few armchair GMs began to wonder aloud how the Thunder may have been better equipped to handle an injury to Westbrook if they could plug in a fellow All-NBA guard in James Harden.

That sentiment remained on draft night. Led by Bill Simmons constantly bringing the trade up during his draft day commentary, the discussion centred around how the Thunder eschewed the chance at building around three of the 15 best players in the world (and probably four of the best 40 if you include Serge Ibaka), and instead were left with… Jeremy Lamb (who scored 71 points in total over 134 minutes of playing time last year –or to put it another way, two good James Harden games) and some raw project big man from Pittsburgh who only started playing basketball a few years ago. There really was no other way around it – OKC had lost the trade, and handled a franchise-altering decision in a shambolically catastrophic fashion.

With the benefit of a six game sample size thus far in the 2013-14 season however, the analysis changes.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that the trade looks better for the Thunder now, because in a vacuum, the Thunder still lost the trade. Despite the early signs of promise from both Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, neither of them has the ceiling of James Harden. However, the analysis has become a little more complicated, without a clear zero-sum winner/loser binary when you consider the following factors:

OKC doesn’t ‘need’ another top 15 player to be championship caliber

This much was validated when Kevin Martin provided about an 80% approximation of what Harden provided for OKC in 2011-12 and the Thunder managed to improve both their offensive and defensive efficiency. While the prospect of another star like Harden on the Thunder makes us basketball fans salivate from a historical and legacy standpoint, in practical terms the Thunder still had enough talent to seriously contend for a title. Harden would have been an expensive luxury, which would have perhaps allowed the Thunder to build a dynasty given their embarrassingly rich treasure trove of talent. But there comes a satiation point where once you have two guys who use 30% of your possessions, the next scoring option doesn’t need to be much more than what Harden in 2012 or Martin in 2013 provided.

This is different from saying Harden would ‘never have become this good’ if he stayed at OKC. He was always this good. As a 22 year old, he closed multiple playoff games as the primary creator and as many Dallas Mavericks fans will attest, he was damn good at it too. Harden’s stylistic doppleganger has always been Manu Ginobili – and like Manu, if Harden stayed with OKC he likely would have been a sublimely talented sixth man who could explode for monster games in the playoffs should the matchups provide itself, or if the other two star players are struggling. But he simply would not have had the opportunity to ever use upwards of 29% of the team’s possessions.

To put it another way, Harden would have had to sacrifice for the team and produce at a level below that which he had the ability to do. This is a great luxury to have, but if you’re OKC, why would you pay a guy a max contract to produce below what he was capable of, when you could pay a guy like say Kevin Martin or Jeremy Lamb almost half (or in Lamb’s case, about a sixth of) Harden’s salary to produce the same absolute level of production? Wouldn’t the better use of that asset be to cash it in as a trade chip?

Salary cap considerations

There is a school of thought that if you have four of the 40 best players in the world, the other eight guys don’t really matter. I happen to think there’s some truth to that. However, even the Miami Heat don’t have four players making eight figures a year. The only teams who do boast such a setup right now are based in Chicago and New York City. While you can criticize the OKC owners for moving the team from the 13th largest TV market to the 44th largest TV market then crying poor, that doesn’t change the fact that these are the parameters that GM Sam Presti has to operate in. Given the strict mandate to keep the team payroll beneath the luxury tax threshold, Presti had to choose one of his young stars to deal for cheap labour tied to rookie scale deals. Not only does Presti have Jeremy Lamb locked down for the next three years, but he also has Adams for the next four and another first round pick on the way from the Mavericks when their top 20 protections run out in 2017. By then, Dirk Nowitzki will be 39 years old and that pick may well be in the lottery, meaning the Thunder could in theory let Jeremy Lamb walk that year and still have two first round picks to replace him with. This is wholly consistent with the self-sustaining model that Presti has dogmatically clung on to ever since he took over the franchise.

Those who loved that 2011-12 team would no doubt have liked to see what that core could do in one more year together. But if Harden received a max offer in the offseason (which he almost certainly would have, as both Dallas and Houston had max level cap room and were known to be admirers), and the owners refused to match the offer sheet (which by the sounds of things, would have been the case) then OKC would have been in the lurch. They still would have been capped out, with no flexibility to fill out the rest of the roster with reliable contributors. This offseason we saw the Thunder unable to add any free agents outside of Ryan Gomes – a non-rotation player. The depth around their three core players are almost entirely comprised of guys on their rookie deals. As teams like the Knicks are finding out now, in today’s financial environment teams that have limited flexibility to add talent simply must have draft picks and players on rookie deals to round out the roster, as those are the players which most often outperform their salary.

Defence wins championships

In the 2012 offseason, OKC had two players eligible for rookie extensions: Harden or Ibaka.

Going into that offseason, Ibaka was the poster boy within the NBA blogosphere for being the guy that ‘mainstream’ media overrated defensively because he posted a high number of blocked shots, but was relatively shaky in most of the other aspects of team defence that actually matter. Remember that even as the best shot blocker in the NBA that year, he only ended a possession with a block 9.8% of the time, leaving over 90% of possessions that he was on the floor which are unaccounted for if one was to solely take into account blocked shots. Despite that criticism, the Thunder chose to extend Ibaka over Harden, with the decision in large part emphasizing the need for at least one rim protector in order to be a serious contending team. The alternative had they not done so would be to rely on Kendrick Perkins full-time, who as we all know is not a particularly good professional basketball player at this point. And it’s also disingenuous to suggest that the Thunder could have picked up a young big man like Adams instead, because of course Steven Adams could only ever have become a Thunder as a result of the Harden trade.

Could the Thunder simply have traded Ibaka instead, and settled for a lesser (but still valuable) trade package in return? Possibly. But I think the key point to remember is that OKC knew Harden would be a potential franchise player, and knew that other smart teams who valued analytics valued him similarly. Harden would fetch a trade package worthy of a franchise player, and Ibaka would not.

OK, so Ibaka wouldn’t have returned the same kind of return package to make such a choice optimal. And yes, you can count on one hand the number of big men who can both anchor a defence and space the floor offensively. But what about trading Russell Westbrook instead, once it became clear how much more efficient an offensive player Harden has become? Well again, defence.

While Westbrook is not quite a lock down All Defensive team calibre defender, he has become a solid to above average team defender in ways that don’t garner a ton of attention. He moves his feet and defends the pick and roll really well within their scheme. In their last year together, the Thunder were slightly worse on defence when Westbrook sat, but were six  points per 100 possessions better when Harden was on the bench. Last season it was even more pronounced, with OKC six points per 100 possessions stingier when Westbrook was on the court, while Houston was four points per 100 possessions stingier when Harden was off the court. A lot of that may very well be statistical noise due to the lineup combinations that each player usually plays with. But it certainly corroborates the eye test, where Harden has devolved into one of the worst defensive players in the league while Westbrook has made steady but subtle improvements on that end. Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka has quietly become a guy where the analysis calling him overrated on defence went too far, and now he’s somewhat underrated on that end. Last season the Thunder finished third in defensive efficiency, in large part thanks to Ibaka’s incremental but significant improvements there.

Adams and Lamb can play

The final point, is one that most Kiwis don’t need to be told. Despite scepticism from some of New Zealand’s most-read basketball writers, Adams has surprised a lot of us in becoming such an impactful contributor so early in his career.  He runs the floor like a gazelle, has a surprisingly soft touch around the basket, and is a tone setter off the bench with his energy and physicality. He’s still a little messy in terms of footwork (on both ends) and his hands are a bit of a worry, but he’s already a more useful player than the decrepit Kendrick Perkins, and for a team that has no other avenues to add to their roster he is an absolute godsend on a rookie deal for four more years.

The same goes for Lamb, who had a rough preseason but showed glimpses of his potential in an impressive Summer League stint. Not to get too carried away with Small Sample Size Theatre, but it appears that he’s starting to put it all together so far in the regular season. Averaging 10 points a night on 48% shooting from the floor and 44% from 3, he’s posting a true shooting percentage (61.2%) which would make both of his predecessors proud.  To top it all off, with his mind boggling wingspan he already has a higher ceiling on defence than Harden or Martin ever had.

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In essence, it boils down to what choices Sam Presti really had available to him, and the consequences therein of each.

  • Trade Westbrook
  • Trade Ibaka
  • Trade Harden
  • Hold on to Harden and make one last crack at it before he hits restricted free agency

We can see now that there were some disadvantages for all of those options. In a vacuum, if you offer someone a package of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and another future first round pick for James Harden, the guy with Harden will certainly say no. He’s just too good of an offensive player, and still has a ton of potential to get even better with age.

But teams don’t make deals in a vacuum, and they have different team building goals and constraints which colour their analysis of the decisions they have to make.

Even with all of that in mind, the Harden trade doesn’t look exactly ideal, and no doubt many of their fans are filled with regret at what might have been. In all of his incessant criticism of the Harden trade, Bill Simmons did make one good point – OKC definitely should have tried to include Kendrick Perkins’ salary in the deal. Given the desperation of Rockets GM Daryl Morey to trade for a franchise level player, it’s not difficult to envision him swallowing that deal if it meant the ability to lock down James Harden. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have allowed him the opportunity to subsequently clear out another max salary slot and lure Dwight Howard to Houston, thus creating another rival superpower in the West.

But all things considered, there were more layers to this trade than just the players and assets that changed hands. I’m still not prepared to say Presti made the right move, let alone if he ‘won’ the trade. This is something which we’ll only truly be able to evaluate with the benefit of time. For now though, this trade will not cease to be a fascinating flashpoint of NBA history, which may very well have altered the championship destinies of multiple teams.

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