A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

MVP/Power Rankings Monday: The 10 Best Points I Can Make About the James Harden Trade

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BOOM! James Harden to the Rockets. Trades like this simply don’t happen often. Harden is 23, has All-NBA talent and was very controllable by the Thunder. Therefore, it’s really fun to talk about.

Here are roughly the 10 most insightful points I could make:

10. The Veto strikes again – Fun game, what happens if David Stern doesn’t block the Chris Paul to the Lakers deal? Paul obviously is on the Lakers, the Clippers either still in NBA hell or peeking their head above with an 7th/8th seed. Does the Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum trade still happen, or do one of the Magic, Nuggets or Sixers go “Eff that, I’m not letting the Lakers have a dynasty”. If so, Howard is on another team as well. Either way, both Paul and Howard’s career paths and probably at least 1 title are affected. Then there’s Anthony Davis likely being on a different team than New Orleans. Davis could end up having an iconic career for the Hornets, changing that team and the one that would’ve gotten him if not for the veto. Finally, James Harden ends up on a team that isn’t the Rockets if not for this and if he breaks out to be a franchise star, the veto changes an era for Houston. And the Thunder assuming they trade Harden, get very different pieces for him – these pieces possibly changing the title picture in upcoming years. The Veto had a massive butterfly effect on the league.

9. The brilliance of the Omer Asik signing – The second most important piece on the Rockets now isn’t Jeremy Lin, it’s Omer Asik. Asik looks to be one of the best defensive centers in the league immediately for the Rockets. Getting a true defensive anchor at C is very hard, some teams go decades without one. The brilliant part of this signing is it happened while Houston had gone all in on trading for Dwight Howard. They had the foresight to have a plan B if they didn’t get Dwight and the balls to sign Asik as a backup C again if they had secured Howard. I suspect many teams would’ve been too blinded by the thought of Howard playing center for them, to consider signing Asik at the same time.

8. The Rockets still have huge cap flexibility and assets – As has been noted in a few places, the Rockets’ are looking at max free agent capspace next year. If Chris Paul leaving the Clippers becomes a real possibility, the Rockets will be involved trying to get him. Josh Smith and Al Jefferson are other plausible targets. Capspace is also valuable in a trade – Perhaps Memphis wants to get out of Rudy Gay’s contract next summer. With capspace and young players to trade, the Rockets are an ideal trade partner.

Speaking of young players, aside from Lin, the Rockets do have other enticing pieces like Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich and Scott Machado. Aside from giving Harden talent to work with, the Rockets just proved building up a store of trade assets is always a good strategy if another star becomes available.

7. Is James Harden the next Steve Nash? – Many have compared Harden to Manu Ginobili and Joe Johnson for his style of play. I’ll throw another name: Steve Nash. Not because of style of play, but because Nash left the Dallas Mavericks and a superstar (Dirk Nowitzki) and on his own team, became his own superstar enough to  compete with and beat Dirk in MVP races. Could Kevin Durant and Harden be the next Dirk and Nash?

6. Don’t sleep on the Mavericks’ draft pick – While I believe the Thunder made a mistake with this trade for reasons I will outline next, one piece that’s underrated is the Dallas Mavericks’ draft pick. The Mavs pick is top 20 protected from 2013 through 2017, then unprotected in 2018. In other words, the Mavericks need a top 10 record in the league from 2013-2017 to give up that pick. They finished tied for 13th last year and about 3 games behind 10th, while this season they’re a sure thing to not be top 10, due to Dirk’s knee surgery setting them back at the start of the year. In 2013-2014 Dirk will be starting his 16th season and they’ve been long, playoff-extended ones. If he declines sharply from this point on, there’s a very good chance that the Mavs have been knocked on the mat and aren’t getting up – that they aren’t getting back to that top 10 record in the league status. If so, by 2018 they’ll still be owing that pick to the Thunder or whoever owns its rights by then. The Thunder could be getting a top 10 or even top 5 pick from the Mavericks in 2018. While Jeremy Lamb and the Toronto lottery pick are the blue chip pieces in the deal, I personally believe there’s at least a 50% chance the Mavericks give up that pick in 2018, a post Dirk Nowitzki year, which would make it a blue chip asset/draft pick as well.

5. Jeremy Lamb’s draft position is misleading – Lamb may only be a 12th overall pick, but everyone knows he’s much more talented than that. Like Andre Drummond and Perry Jones III, he dropped in the draft due to concerns about his motor. The Thunder have the infrastructure to develop him right, like they will Perry Jones III. It would make sense to me if the Thunder saw Lamb as having the value of a top 5 pick and a player who’d eventually be thought of the way James Harden is now and that this was the key to the trade, that eventually they’d have a 3rd star replicating Harden’s long term place on the team. It might take a few years but Lamb should be a monster on the Thunder. He is made to score 20-25ppg in the NBA due to his speed, length, shooting ability and scary feel and ease to playing the game.

4. Strike while the Iron is Hot – The major issue I have with this trade for the Thunder, is that the bottom line is their chance to win the 2013 title just significantly declined. True contending seasons are incredibly rare and almost priceless. There’s very few situations where I could see trading a title favorite season for one with a smaller chance at winning it all, as justified. Very similar to how Dallas gave up on being a contender in 2011-2012 by letting Tyson Chandler go. When teams get that close, to me they have to go all in while they have the chance. This is a year the Thunder will never get back if they go on to lose in the playoffs.

3. Kevin Martin issues – Kevin Martin is a nice fit for the Thunder offense because of his shooting and spacing. There’s some serious issues he brings to the team, though. One, he’s literally the worst defensive SG in the league. The 3 teams the Thunder have to beat for the title, the Heat, Spurs and Lakers are rolling out Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili. Those just happen to be the­ 3 best offensive SGs in the league. Guarding the best offensive SGs in the league with the worst defensive one is a questionable plan. Secondly, the damage Martin does is just as much if not moreso on help defense. Playoff series are swung by a few plays. A slow close-out on Ray Allen or Ginobili leading to an open 3. A slow rotation leading to Tony Parker or Lebron driving into the paint and getting a lay-up, or getting fouled and causing Serge Ibaka to pick up his 2nd foul and sit on the bench. ­Kevin Martin only has to screw up a few plays on help defense to cost the Thunder a game they can’t afford to lose in the playoffs.

Here’s another problem: Martin has played 6 playoff games total and it was with the 2005-2006 Kings, where he was a supporting player. He has never seen playoff games with the importance and intensity as the Thunder would be having against the Lakers, Spurs and Heat. What if Kevin Martin doesn’t have his playoff sea legs, like Mo Williams didn’t two years ago when the Cavaliers lost to the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals? James Harden has made the playoffs in 3 seasons and has lost in the Western Conference Finals and Finals. He’s gotten his sea legs and his reps, he knows what it takes in those situations. One can argue the Heat beat the Thunder in the 2012 Finals because they’d been there before and used their loss as a learning experience, to make sure it didn’t happen again. While Westbrook and Durant will be more ready for the Finals if they make it again, losing James Harden’s experience and replacing him with a playoff newbie Kevin Martin, as well as Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III if they rely on them this year, could one of the biggest drop-offs of all.

2. What it really comes down to: Serge Ibaka over Harden (& my fake Ibaka trade) – What doesn’t makes sense to me in this story is the idea Harden wanting 5 years 60 million and the Thunder offering 5 years 54, making the Thunder go “Crap, we can’t afford him at that price, gotta trade him!” It’s only 1.5 million more a year. They could have easily found a way to shave that salary in other ways. It looks like a red herring to me. What I believe is that the Thunder decided they couldn’t keep all of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka financially. Partly by the owners not wanting to pay that luxury tax and partly because Sam Presti wanted the extra cap flexibility. Having Durant, Westbrook and Harden on max contracts while staying under the luxury tax was feasible, they’d have added up to 45-50 million salary together, leaving plenty of room under the roughly 70 mil luxury tax to fill out the roster. It’s only when Ibaka’s 12 million a year+ contract is added that long term, they couldn’t keep all 4 without paying the tax. So they were to make a choice. They extended Ibaka in late August, indicating perhaps that this decision was made a long time ago – it would be Ibaka they kept, to anchor their defense while their stars Durant and Westbrook carried the offense. Harden would be traded. Perhaps they planned on it being a year after his extension, but eventually he would be dealt.

I can’t get behind this decision because I believe Harden is clearly the better player. As for defense, if the 4th through 15th roster spots were spent on defense, the Thunder could’ve made a defensively strong team.­ Having offensive stars give them the luxury of filling a roster with defensive specialists and playing 2-3 solely defensive players in the lineup at all times.

While James Harden was to get more in a trade than Serge Ibaka, Ibaka still could’ve gotten the Thunder an excellent return. For example, I have to think that on draft night the Kings are a lock to trade the 5th overall pick for Ibaka, if offered – giving the Kings a perfect Demarcus Cousins defensive compliment and a badly needed young leader on that end, who doesn’t need shots on offense. Then with the 5th pick, the Thunder could have taken Thomas Robinson or Andre Drummond, plugged them into Ibaka’s slot in the lineup as the athletic, young power forward who plays off the ball offensively. Robinson and Drummond’s rookie contracts at 3-4 mil a year compared to Ibaka’s new deal solves much of their long term luxury tax blues. To me it’s a no brainer which is a lighter drop-off between Harden to Martin/Lamb/draft picks and Ibaka to Robinson. The Thunder with Robinson instead of Ibaka have just as strong a shot at the title this year and as strong an upside. The Thunder with Martin instead of Harden may never be the same.

1. The Timing Is All Wrong – But here is my #1 problem with the trade for the Thunder. Why now? As far as I can tell, the Thunder could’ve maxed out Harden, played out this season and then dealt him a year from now – and it wouldn’t have cost them ANYTHING! Since Ibaka and Harden’s contracts don’t kick in until 2013-2014, there are no luxury tax savings benefits to removing his salary this season compared to the next. Barring injury, the Thunder would get just as much return in a trade for Harden a year from now, if not more if he had stepped up his game to yet another level. If “Harden might get injured if we keep him” is a problem, why not consider the possibility that Westbrook or Ibaka get injured this year, making it more prudent that they keep Harden. The biggest reason I can think of the Thunder moving now instead of later for Harden, is the opportunity cost of keeping Harden this year. Meaning the Thunder will have a year of listening to trade offers for Martin and their young pieces and will have more free agency options next summer. It’s possible they also are simply such huge fans of Jeremy Lamb that they couldn’t risk letting him slip away, but there’s a strong chance Houston would’ve traded him for Harden next year. Ultimately, my best guess of what happened here is the Thunder simply got too cute. They clearly have massive faith in their drafting and development skills and are drooling at the thought of how Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Toronto’s draft pick next year will compliment Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. What I believe they missed is the value of the contending for a title THIS year and how important it was for them to take that shot while it’s still there. What they give up this year may never be gotten back again. I can’t claim credit for being the first to say this phrase, but it’s true: The Thunder need to win a title in the Kevin Durant era or else this trade will go down as a catastrophic failure. This is the fork in the road. Morpheus held a blue pill and red pill and said if you take the blue pill, you can have Westbrook, Durant and Harden but be forced to fill the roster with small contract cast-offs their entire career. But if they took the red pill, they could have Westbrook, Durant, greater depth to build the roster built through Ibaka, Lamb,  Jones III, more draft picks and much greater cap flexibility. The upcoming years will determine if the Thunder made the right decision. I would’ve taken the blue pill.

By Julien Rodger

Twitter: @ASFW_jrodger

Email: julienrodger@gmail.com (Send me a question, I’ll answer it in an article or do a mailbag if I get enough)

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One Response

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  1. Great stuff as always, Julien. As far as doing the trade now, I think, watching how the Dwight Howard situation played out, has made GM’s a bit skittish about prolonging the process. While there’e no way this situation could have gone that badly, it would probably have become a distraction over the course of the season. Also, say they had matched any RFA offer. If everyone knows they don’t want to be a Taxpayer, that does diminish their trade leverage. And one other possibility is that they feared Houston would partner up with someone else.
    I wish I understood why they believe Ibaka is the more valuable player long term. Seems to me, that while Ibaka’s blk/min are impressive, his overall skill set is easier to replicate. Wondering if you know how Ibaka’s overall defense ranks among other PF/C. And do you think Harden’s much lauded efficiency takes a huge hit as his usage increases, and does that make him less valuable, as the Wages of Wins guys tend to argue. I saw one local OKC beat writer make the argument that Harden was over-rated and didn’t deserve a max deal because he was doing most of his damage against other bench players.
    It looks like they intend to bring Martin off the bench, do you think this in any way mitigates his awful defense?

    Michael

    October 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm


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