November 7, 2012 by shivusharma
With James Harden’s explosion upon wearing a Rockets uniform, several pundits are questioning whether the Thunder should have traded Russell Westbrook instead. For a couple years now, we’ve seen how electric, but yet inconsistent, Westbrook could be. To his credit, I don’t think there has been a player who has improved as much as he has from his rookie year. Despite that, the sense that Westbrook’s game is not an ideal fit next to Kevin Durant’s has always been somewhat validated. Westbrook plays with so much emotion that he often goes into “attack mode” too recklessly. Kevin Durant has been phased-out of the offense in late in key games. When Westbrook went off the rails a little bit, or was simply cold from the floor, it was the ultra-efficient James Harden who stepped in and facilitated the Thunder offense. Harden’s ability to both create for others and score when needed often times proved to be a better complement to Kevin Durant’s game.
This is not to say that Westbrook is the inferior player. In fact, I think Westbrook is a better player than Harden and may have more upside than Kevin Durant. At the end of the day though, basketball comes down to synergy. The sum of your parts needs to be greater than the whole. That’s what enabled the Dallas Mavericks to beat a more talented Miami Heat team in 2011. The chemistry and fit that the 2012 Miami Heat were able to realize helped them beat the Thunder in last year’s finals.
The year Harden was drafted; the Thunder flirted with the idea of drafting Stephen
Curry or Ricky Rubio and moving Westbrook to shooting guard. I loved this idea. However, Westbrook expressed his disappointment in that strategy, which led the Thunder to draft Harden. Westbrook would be an excellent 2-guard. He reminds me of a freakish Dwyane Wade. Watching him in the Olympics as well as in all-star games, it is clear that Westbrook could transition very smoothly to SG if he wanted to. Last year, OKC used Harden as the functional PG a lot of times with Westbrook and Durant on the floor, and had great success. Alas, that type of change in mindset doesn’t seem to be coming in the near future. If it were the case, the Thunder could have traded Harden for a PG that meshed better with Durant and Westbrook. Now that Harden is no longer there, the onus is on Westbrook to become a better decision maker and improve his overall true-PG skills. If he cannot do that, I don’t think the Thunder can be better without James Harden this year.
So let’s assume that the Thunder felt that Harden and Durant were a better combo than Westbrook and Durant, and decided to trade Russell Westbrook instead of James Harden. What could they have gotten for him and how would their team look if that happened? Below I’ve outlined some trade scenarios that I think could have happened if the Thunder put Westbrook on the trade block. I have no idea if any of these trades were ever discussed. They are simply a representation of my own thoughts and opinions.
Scenario 1: the Thunder trade Westbrook for another elite-level player
Perhaps this deal was unlikely at the time, but I think it makes some sense for both teams. The Clippers might not be able to keep CP3 around, and even if they do, are they willing to pay Chris Paul his max? Paul can re-sign with the Clippers for 5 years and $108mm. There is no guarantee that he would come back to the Clippers. CP3 has flirted with teaming up with Dwight in the future, as well as playing with the Knicks. He seems ready to build/join a super tem and contend for a title right away. I’m not sure what you think of the Clippers, but I don’t think they can contend for an NBA Title, at least not until Blake Griffinand Deandre Jordan make some serious progress. Chris Paul has no help on that team. An extension would cost the Clippers $20m per year while
Westbrook will be paid $78.5mm over the next 5 years. Bringing Westbrook back to Los Angeles means the Clippers will have another acrobat to pair with Blake Griffin. Those two on the same team would sell out every arena, and in due time, could grow into a championship nucleus that free agents would be willing to come join.
While Chris Paul has stated that he wants to play in a big market, joining the Thunder gives him a better shot at winning the NBA title this year. Let’s not forget that as a member of the Hornets, he played a season in Oklahoma City, while New Orleans was recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and spoke volumes about how much he loved OKC. With Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, you have three guys who will never step on each other’s toes. Paul will get Durant the ball in the spots he likes as well as make Serge Ibaka a threat in the pick & roll. Harden can still come off the bench and fortify the Thunder’s 2nd unit, but the intrigue is in their 4th quarter lineup. With Paul and Harden’s passing ability, the Thunder could have a deadly offensive juggernaut in the half and full court. As for re-signing Chris Paul, the Thunder would have to be willing to go over the luxury tax. That decision would not need to be made until after the finals though, so perhaps an NBA finals victory would lead them to change their mind. If not, Chris Paul could also be sign and traded for a nice haul. Regardless, I think a team with CP3, Durant, and Harden would be the clear favorite in the West, and that’s reason enough to do the deal.
Scenario 2: the Thunder trade Westbrook for a young pieces and cap flexibility
Trade: Russell Westbrook to the Utah Jazz for Mo Williams (expiring), Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter
The Jazz do this deal, because they play in Utah, and it’s nearly impossible to get a superstar-type player to sign their long-term. The allure of Westbrook is that he is already locked up for 5 years at a defensible price. Small market teams will be willing to trade for him, because he is a commodity they can only get through the draft (a process that requires a considerable amount of luck). The Jazz have a gluttony of big men, so they can afford to trade young up-and-comers like Favors and Kanter for an amazing talent like Westbrook. His arrival may also convince Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson to re-sign as well, but if not, those contracts come off the books and the Jazz go into next year with a ton of cap space, great draft standing, and a legit alpha-dog to build around.
Favors and Kanter, in addition to the incumbent Perry Jones III, give the Thunder three
young players that can make Serge Ibaka obsolete when his extension kicks in next season. Ibaka will garner some serious offers if he becomes available and provide more help for the Thunder if needed. With this trade, Harden probably moves into the starting lineup most nights and takes on a more PG type role, with Mo Williams being the functional 2-guard. His range and scoring are a nice complement to Harden’s ability to create off the dribble. More importantly, if the Thunder amnesty Kendrick Perkins they will save nearly $16mm in cap room that they can use to re-sign Harden. The Thunder certainly get worse with this trade, but if you buy that Harden + Durant > Westbrook + Durant, they are better off than what they did with the Harden trade to Houston.
Scenario 3: the Thunder trade Westbrook for more established veteran pieces and cap relief
Trade: Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor to the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Jose Calderon (expiring), and Toronto’s 2015 1st Round Draft Pick
Again, Westbrook is an attractive piece to small market teams, because he is a commodity that they would not be able to lock-up for five years otherwise. Westbrook becomes the clear alpha-dog of the Toronto franchise, and helps lead them to a playoff spot. Toronto does this deal for almost the same reasons that Utah would do the previous trade.
With this specific deal and the forecasted Perkins amnesty, the Thunder save about
$18mm in cap room next year. Lowry is an advanced metrics darling, whose toughness, penetration, and distribution make him a great starting PG. Harden would not need to start most nights, as Lowry has proven to be a more than competent PG. When they are on the floor together, Lowry allows Harden to take on more of a scoring role, similar to how he is playing in Houston at the moment. Terrence Ross provides similar ability an upside as Jeremy Lamb, and Calderon is an above-average backup PG. I think this Thunder team certainly ends up stronger than how they are currently assembled.
Again, with these trades, they are simply my own theories to help provide some context as to what life in OKC might be like without Westbrook, instead of Harden. At least for me, I think if the decision came down to Westbrook or Harden, I would choose Harden based on my analysis.