Sunday, October 28, 2012

Instant Trade Analysis: James Harden to the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets get: G James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, G/F Daquan cook, G/F Lazar Hayward

Oklahoma City Thunder get: SG Kevin Martin, SG Jeremy Lamb, two 1st round picks (via Toronto and Dallas), one 2nd round pick (via Charlotte)

The writing was on the wall, but typing it out is still shocking: reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden has been traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets. The former Sonics dealt one of the key pieces that built them up into a Western Conference Champion and supposed future perennial title contender not as a basketball decision, but one that was almost 100% business.

The back story is the Thunder front office wasn't willing to offer James Harden a maximum contract, which was about $60 million over four years. The closest they got was approximately $55 million over four years, which Harden and his management promptly rejected Saturday morning. The deadline for negotiating an extension with the OKC super-sub is Wednesday, and if not signed by then, Harden would become a restricted free agent next summer. Knowing that the team probably wouldn't be able to get their reserve shooting guard to change his mind over the course of the season (they had been negotiating with him all summer long), GM Sam Presti worked out a deal with the Houston Rockets, and hours later, Harden was an ex-member of the reigning Western Conference Champions. That simple.

Harden can now sign a contract anywhere up to five years, $75 million, an extra year he couldn't have gotten with the Thunder (a team can only dole out one five year contract under the current CBA--which was what the lockout was about last year--and they already used it on Russ Westbrook's maximum extension). Rockets GM Daryl Morey will ink Harden to the deal before Wednesday, but at this point it's just a matter of whether it will be four years or five years long.

So the question here is...why would the Thunder make this move?

  1. They didn't want to pay the luxury tax
    Had the Thunder given Harden the deal he wanted, the team would have had to pay over $30 million dollars in luxury taxes yearly, with the amount increasing every consecutive year they were over the cap. Though the Thunder franchise is profitable, far be it for me or you to say "you dole out $30+ MILLION a year". It's just not that easy.
  2. After watching Jeremy Lin and Tyson Chandler walk away from New York and Dallas, respectively, GM Sam Presti didn't want to lose Harden for nothing
    The only redeeming "basketball" related function of this deal is that OKC did get some value out of letting their third-best player go. SG Kevin Martin is still an above-average player, though statistics suggests that he's already past his prime as a 29 year-old. However, he's only two seasons removed from a 23 ppg season, while shooting 38% from distance. after the aborted Pau Gasol/Chris Paul trade last December, Martin was more checked out than 50 Shades of Grey in the Westchester County library. He'll be the new sixth man for the Thunder, and should be able to replicate some of Harden's production. However, he's not a great passer, doesn't handle the ball really well and defends like he's got steels rods from his ankles to his fibulas. This is a huge departure from Harden's playmaking, handle and defense. Kevin Martin is a good player, but he's replacing a top-25 NBA player. It's a significant drop-off. However, his contract is expiring after this year, and I wouldn't expect him to be re-signed. The capped-out Thunder won't really be able to take advantage of any space Martin's deal will give them on payroll.

    The other pieces OKC got are similar to Martin's acquisition; solid, but not overwhelmingly great. SG Jeremy Lamb was the 12th overall pick in June, and has garnered comparisons to 2-guards ranging from Hall of Famer Reggie Miller to...Kevin Martin.Well, it's good to know that after Martin leaves, they'll have another younger, cheaper, less ugly version of him still around. Lamb's defensive potential is far more vast than Martin's and reports out of Rockets camp was that he looks like he'll be able to contribute right away. He may turn into a steal for the Thunder down the road, but obviously he's no replacement for Harden. In terms of picks, the Thunder got a "guaranteed" lottery pick from Toronto (from the Kyle Lowry deal), and will probably be able to cash in a top-12 pick next June, as well as a 2nd rounder via Charlotte and a pick from Dallas that's top-20 protected (from the Derek Fisher/Jordan Hill deal).
  3. OKC had to choose between Harden and Serge Ibaka...and they chose correctly
    The sordid truth here is that the Thunder could have extended Harden...if they traded away Ibaka or amnestied Kendrick Perkins. However, Ibaka, the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, is the key to their entire defensive scheme. Subtracting him would be similar to taking Kevin Garnett out of Boston or Tyson Chandler out of New York--the entire system would fall apart. Removing Harden out of the offense? OKC will survive. Harden changes the Thunder from being merely great offensively to excellent offensively, but Ibaka changes the defense from adequate to excellent. Presti made a tough decision, but made the right one.
  4. So why didn't the Thunder amnesty Kendrick Perkins?
    In the words of a devastated Thunderstolt, who was six deep watching his Oklahoma Sooners lose at home to Notre Dame last night when I spoke to him, "as long as Dwight Howard is in the Western Conference, Kendrick Perkins will be in Oklahoma City". The Thunder need Perkins' body and more importantly willingness to bang inside with the big man corps in LA. He's always guarded Gasol as well as any man in the L, and should be able to do at least a serviceable job against Howard. As easy as it would have been to cut Perkins and his salary from the payroll, taking away his defense at this point would have been foolish.

  5. Now the Thunder have the cap flexibility to extend Eric Maynor
    A more minor point, the Thunder now have the ability to extend back-up point guard Eric Maynor. He's coming off of ACL surgery, but the early word is that he looks like he's back to his usual solid form. Without Maynor, the Thunder would be moving forward with Boston College's finest Reggie Jackson (a shoot-first guard) or another cheap solution at point. 
What happens now is that the Thunder have to adjust their style. They've still got two of the best five players in the league, which I'm sure people are discounting, but they go from being almost unstoppable in crunch time to merely very difficult to beat. The enduring memory I have of the Thunder last playoffs is Harden, Westbrook and Durant dropping jumper after jumper, with Russ periodically slamming the lane and making circus shots in Kobe-esque fashion. That's not going to happen anymore. Defenses can't contain three deadly offensive players, but two? That's do-able. From now on, the Thunder are going to have to rely on their ability to stop oppositions, not just outscore them. As Thunderstolt so astutely pointed out in his preview of OKC's 2012-2013 season, there has to be a bigger onus on Westbrook and Durant to lock down opponents in the fourth quarter. Similar to the suffocating perimeter defense Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play, the Thunder have to be willing to use their length, strength and athleticism outside of the paint to force turnovers and block passing lanes. Harden gave them the luxury of being able to save their energy a bit more on defense with his playmaking and shooting, but in replacing him essentially with Kevin Martin, they have to be relentless on the other side of the ball. 

The main question, more than how this will affect the Thunder going forward, is whether or not they should have made this deal in the first place. In my point of view, no. As I've read so many people write already, the point of competing in the NBA is to win a title. The Thunder had a Championship-caliber team and dismantled a winning formula. OKC should have expected improvement from the trio of Harden, Westbrook and Durant after a summer playing with the Olympic team, all while thinking of their Finals loss to US teammate LeBron James. If I were Sam Presti, I would have had to let this ride out, even if that meant losing Harden for nothing next summer.

But...that's not to say that the Thunder can't win a title this year. They can still win the NBA title. What it will take is exactly what I just wrote: they're going to have to have a wholesale change in on-court philosophy in regards to the two All-Stars now shifting focus to being the type of on-ball defenders their 2012 Finals opponents were. If Westbrook, Durant, Sefolosha and Kevin Martin can pressure opposing teams, then they'll still be able to defeat teams like the Lakers and Heat. Coach Scott Brooks may have made these changes already knowing full well that Harden could be dealt, but from what I've seen in the preseason, the 2012-2013 version of the Thunder wasn't going to be wholly different than the 2011-2012 version. I just don't believe that such a radical sea change in how the team plays basketball when the season starts in just a few days is possible. Improbable, but not impossible. At this point, the Lakers are the favorites to win the Western Conference, but evidenced by a 0 for the preseason, they still have a lot of work to do before they're a fully functional machine.

For the Houston Rockets, this deal was a slam dunk. After years of acquiring assets for a great player, they finally got one in James Harden. No, he's not an All-Star in the mold of Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard, but Harden's potential as a multi-time All-Star is far more vast than say, Jeremy Lamb's, Kevin Martin's or even Kyle Lowry's. He'll be the primary offensive option in a Jeremy Lin-led offense, and flanked by Royce White, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik, should be able to make these players better with his court vision and leadership. Additionally, he'll be able to take up back-up minutes at point guard in Lin's stead, sparing a minutes from the Chinese-American point guard. I don't think the Rockets have the depth to make the playoffs this year, but they certainly have the pieces to make another big trade. Watch out for Daryl Morey...he's very, very sneaky.

I don't think this is a trade that the Thunder had to make, but for doing so, they got a decent haul in return for someone who's sure to be an All-Star down the road. There's no doubt in my mind that they should have ridden out Harden's contract, though it could have potentially served as a distraction for the team. However, this isn't the end of the Oklahoma City Thunder, title contenders. With some changes from within the team, they could still be in the championship hunt, as early as this year. But at this late date, it's pretty improbable. GM Sam Presti did the best job he could, and the result is the Thunder taking a year or two off from being title contenders and staying financially viable for not just the long term, but also short term. They still have two of the best five players in the NBA, which is a "bad situation" that any franchise in the league would take.

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