Monday, October 29, 2012

Thunder Trade James Harden to the Rockets Three Days Before NBA Season Starts

Oklahoma City won't have this beard to trim around any more. (

On Saturday evening, James Harden's trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets shocked even Kevin Durant, one of Harden's teammates in OKC and in London with this summer's Olympic gold-medal winning incarnation of Team USA.

Let's set things straight, though:  Harden's was not entirely a surprise. The timing — three days before the start of the NBA's regular season was unexpected, certainly, but Thunder GM Sam Presti's dream of building a championship team entirely through the draft was inherently flawed.

If the point of participating in the draft (rather than trading away picks for used assets) is to get young players that fit or can be molded to fit into a preset system and thrive in their surroundings — which, by the way, is the point — then the OKC front office did exceedingly well. In all probability, they defied the odds by drafting talents like Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden in consecutive years (2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively).

Finding athletes that complement each other in such a way that, after playing together for a relatively short amount of time, they are contending for titles is not easy business, so kudos to Presti and his team for doing just that. But the problem arises when this kind of farm system works too well and too many individuals are expecting to be paid like superstars, no matter their actual status.

That's exactly what happened with the Thunder. Too many cooks in the kitchen or what have you. Extending Durant was a must. He's a three-time All-Star, a scoring champion three times over and he competes for the MVP award year in and year out. Westbrook's extension makes sense, too, given his scoring acumen and ability to incorporate others into OKC's game plan, although some critics are quick to decry giving a maximum contract to a sometimes streaky (read: moody) point guard with a ceiling that may be out of reach. Even Serge Ibaka's extension was a no-brainer — he's the sturdiest stanchion in the defense, plus he's young and still very coachable, having only been playing competitive basketball since 2007.

Consider what other contracts the Thunder already had on the books past 2012-13 and Harden's impending unrestricted free agent status next summer, and the Bearded One was left as the odd man out — a position the Rockets became accustomed to after purging the best-known names from their roster to make room for a legitimate superstar, only to be shrugged off by the best of this summer's free agency class, namely Dwight Howard.

Whether or not Houston now has that kind of centerpiece is debatable. Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award for 2011-12, but has only started seven games during his three years in the NBA. In those games, the Thunder have gone 4-3, counting losses to Miami's newly formed Big Three in '11-'12 and the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin-propelled Los Angeles Clippers last season.

That record does not accurately reflect Harden's overall sterling body of work. In each of his three campaigns, Harden has played increased minutes in successive seasons and produced a better field goal percentage and defensive rebounding numbers each go round. Likewise, the stats in his assists column has improved year-to-year, spiking last year at 3.7 apg — up 1.6 assists from the season prior.

Harden's advanced stats also reveal the damage Harden does to competitors. His win shares per 48 minutes played showed up at .230 last season. To put that into perspective, it more than doubles the league average of .100, eclipses Westbrook's .163 and equals Durant's .230 WS/48. Other than his lanky teammate, only LeBron James and Paul recorded better numbers.

WS/48 encompasses a player's contributions over an entire game, but against's league-standardized per-minute production of 15, Harden shines again with a 21.1 regular season PER.

Harden's ratings in the majority of these and other notable categories dip slightly during the playoffs, with his WS/48 dipping significantly to .184 last season and .188 for his career during postseason play.

Still, that's more than what the Rockets had in the stable after jettisoning premier forward Luis Scola and point guards Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic. Their offseason addition of former New York Knicks pointman Jeremy Lin comes complete with its own questions, but Lin is also capable of putting up almost-All-Star numbers while incorporating his teammates. While that will behoove Harden, the Thunder transfer is also capable of creating his own shot, having made 309 baskets throughout all of last season and only being assisted on approximately 50 percent of them.

Harden's going to get his baskets regardless. Given his scoring prowess, there is even a chance that he rivals Durant for a scoring title. The Rockets are young — the franchise's oldest player is 30, and no one else is over 27 —and there are other players who can score, but they don't even approach Harden's ability to fill the bucket.

Harden, creating. (
A starter's role is different than a sixth man's, and being cast as a leader is another beast entirely. The bench squad in OKC accepted Harden as the go-to guy and perusing Houston's roster, there is no reason to believe any Rocket will question His Beardness.

Point blank: the Rockets had to make a move like this. Lin is a good, potentially great pick-up, but Harden is a proven talent that was ready to ascend from a reserve to be one of the first players on the floor every night. 

There are few players worthy of the maximum contract Houston has promised to deliver Harden. That gesture alone speaks volumes, however, and if Harden delivers he could stand as bait to draw other notable free agents to the Texas town that is now his home base.

That likely hinges on several seasons, but the early months of 2012-13 will assuredly be a test for the Rockets. Lin is coming off knee surgery and Harden has less than half a week to become acclimated with his teammates, coaches, playbook and surroundings. It takes time to develop the chemistry that worked so well for Harden and his Thunder cohorts.

In fact, the team Harden leaves behind is expected to take the brunt of the force from this seemingly instantaneous trade. According to writer John Schuhmann, OKC head coach Scott Brooks entrusted Harden to lead the charge without Durant or Westbrook for 7.5 minutes per game last season. That is a big chunk of time — undoubtedly enough to affect the outcome of a contest. Whether or not Brooks can find anyone on the bench to command that kind of time as the on-court focal point is a question. 

Veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin, obtained from Houston in Saturday's deal, is a logical option but he is not nearly as efficient as Harden. Fellow trade acquirement Jeremy Lamb has upside as a two-guard, but is just entering his rookie season, as is OKC-drafted small forward Perry Jones III, who recently starred at Baylor. Backup point guard Eric Maynor has been good in the preseason, although the fact remains that he had knee surgery in January, although he knows the system and was a reliable chemistry guy before the injury.

There's that word again. Chemistry.

The combined impact of Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward heading to Houston cannot match the fact that the Thunder traded away their third — second, some would argue — best player, an offensive firecracker that will see more touches this year, as scary as that may be for opponents. They could have held onto him longer, until the trade deadline or next summer, when another franchise would have almost certainly offered him a maximum contract if he avoided in bumps in the road as he rode out '12-'13 with OKC.

But the front office sold high, before the season even started, getting two players, two first-round drafts picks and a future second-rounder for someone touted as one of the league's best shooting guards.

It's a mastermind move, really, the more I think of it. The Thunder will grab a high seed in the Western Conference playoffs on the strength of Durant and Westbrook, even if it falls outside of the top two, in which they were projected to land. The trade leaves Houston satisfied, but scrambling, dropping games early because of a new addition that happens to be a major cog in the Rockets' machine still getting used to his environment. That will not last forever, and the Rockets should win some games coupling Harden's offense with head coach Kevin McHale's sermons of defense.

At best, the Rockets grab a mid-seed in the playoffs — a seed the Thunder more than likely can avoid by landing higher in the bracket. That sounds preferable to racking up regular season wins, swinging the same deal just before the trade deadline and letting Houston sneak into the postseason with a 7- or 8-seed, set to face a Thunder team that Harden knows front and back. And, who knows? Maybe Harden's a little disgruntled and comes into the contest firing at free rein. It has the makings of an upset scenario.

Of course, those last two paragraphs are merely machinations from my mind. Those ideas? All hypothetical. But it is certain that after striking out more than once, Rockets GM Daryl Morey is happy to have a young scorer to build around and that Presti is having machinations of his own about how to cultivate those draft picks into proper pieces to surround Durant and Westbrook once they reach their respective primes.

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