October 28, 2012 by shivusharma
Saturday Night, we learned that James Harden, the 3rd head of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Three-headed monster, had been traded to the Houston Rockets. Houston gave up Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first round draft picks, and one 2nd round draft pick, to acquire last year’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Harden’s current deal was set to expire at the end of the season. From the end of last season, until now, OKC and Harden’s people had been working to a find a way Harden could re-sign for max money. After the Thunder signed Serge Ibaka to a four-year $52m extension though, Harden’s departure from OKC became a real possibility. Apparently the Thunder offered Harden up to four years and $55.5m, which is $4.5m shy of Max money. After seeing fellow running-mates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook accept Max money to stay in OKC, Harden felt he was worth the same, and declined OKC’s offer.
It seemed as though from the very start, OKC was not prepared to keep James Harden for the max amount. Despite the fact that OKC came within a few games of winning the NBA finals, management chose not to keep the core of their team together. The strange thing is how poor the timing of this deal was. Why wouldn’t OKC keep Harden for the season and give the Harden-Ibaka-Durant-Westbrook nucleus one more shot at the finals? If they went this route, they could’ve amnestied Kendrick Perkins’ contract (saving about $9m in cap space) and attempted to re-sign Harden at
season’s end. If they were unable to cut a deal with Harden, or match another team’s offer in restricted free-agency, they could’ve worked out a sign and trade that would have netted them assets. This is why the timing of this deal is so puzzling. Other options were on the table.
Whether this was the right choice or not, will be determined by how this season plays out. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that OKC has loosened their grip on the Western Conference throne. Let’s take a look at who won and who lost from this trade.
James Harden – Harden wins because he is going to get a fat pay day. The Houston Rockets will not hesitate to lock him up, and give him the $60m max offer he was looking for. Some people will take shots at Harden for arguing over $4.5m, but they are dumb. Why should he have taken less money when more money was on the table somewhere else? It’s his future after all. The bad guys are the OKC Thunder management. They had the means to offer him a max offer, and chose not to.
OKC Thunder in the long-term – This is a great deal for the Thunder in the long-term. They get two 1st round draft picks, one of which that will probably end up in the lottery. Jeremy Lamb is a promising young player, who should develop into a great shooter and versatile perimeter defender. With the Thunder’s track record in player development, Lamb should undoubtedly produce great returns. Overall, OKC maintains their youth without sacrificing any financial flexibility.
Houston Rockets – The Rockets have been piling young assets and
expiring contracts for this very reason. Grabbing Harden is a huge win for a franchise that failed to acquire Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in previous chances. The off-season signing of Jeremy Lin will bring huge attention to Houston’s team. Pairing him with a scorer like Harden, who can also create for his teammates, is a great fit. With promising rookies like Terrence Jones and Royce White, the Rockets have a bright future. They have youth to build around and a great combination of assets and cap room to acquire another big piece.
Los Angeles Lakers – the Lakers win because their toughest opponent in the western conference just got worse. Defensively, having to deal with Harden, Westbrook, AND Durant was a huge challenge. All three guys could create offense on their own. One of the advantages Harden gave the Thunder was how well he was able to create easy offense for their bench unit. This is especially relevant, because the Lakers’ bench units have not been effective over the past few seasons. I think the Lakers now nudge slightly ahead of the Thunder in the western conference rankings.
Oklahoma City Thunder (short-term) – the loss of Harden will put added pressure on a few other team members. Russell Westbrook will need to become a better decision maker and facilitator of offense. Harden was adept at using his penetration and vision to find open teammates. This talent will be sorely missed on the team’s second unit, where Harden was the primary orchestrator. It will be interesting to see how Coach Scott Brooks decides to use Kevin Martin. My guess is that Martin will come off the bench, with Thabo Sefalosha remaining in the starting lineup for his defense. With Durant and Westbrook in the lineup, Martin is essentially just a long-range bomber. He is very similar to Ray Allen, in that he needs offensive sets called for him. Martin must run off of many screens to get freed up for shots. This could be useful when he is with the bench unit, but when he is playing with the starters; he is a downgrade from Harden. While Harden wasn’t a great defender on the perimeter, he wasn’t horrible either. Martin is a notoriously poor defender at his position, probably one of the worst. Hopefully Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III will come along sooner rather than later, to give the Thunder some much needed depth.
Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook – Both of them reached the western conference finals in 2011 and then the NBA finals in 2012 with the same core supporting teammates. With the smell of a finals victory on the horizon, management shook up the chemistry of this young team by
trading away Harden. One of the biggest things OKC had going for them was that they had three all-stars who were all in their mid-twenties and had already been through so much together. That type of chemistry can’t be taught, it has to be built. Durant and Westbrook are great enough players to overcome the odds that are stacked against them, but the road has just become harder instead of easier. Let’s say the Thunder don’t win the title in the next two years. Don’t we start talking about Kevin Durant the same way we talked about Lebron before he finally won? That type of pressure is enormous, especially the way today’s media machine works.