October 28, 2012

Thunder, Rockets swap big names.: Unable to agree on a contract extension with James Harden, OKC sends him to Houston along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Haywood. In return, the Thunder acquire Kevin Martin, rookie and 12th overall draft pick Jeremy Lamb, and three future draft picks. The Rockets have already announced plans to offer Harden a 4-year, $60 million extension.

posted by Ufez Jones to basketball at 11:44 AM - 21 comments

More reaction:

Deal the Beard: What Just Happened?

One thing's for sure: I was completely, totally, unequivocally wrong about this situation. I felt like I had a good read on it, but nope, not at all. When news broke of the Thunder offering Harden a $52 million, it struck me as nothing but good news. Oklahoma City and Harden were talking, an offer was on the table and if The Beard was truly serious about all the talking of "sacrifice" and staying with the Thunder, then a deal would get done.

At the very worst, a deal wouldn't get done by Oct. 31, Harden would become a restricted free agent while the Thunder played out the season contending for a title and then revisit it all in the offseason either matching a max offer or signing and trading him then. Or letting him walk. But at the least, it was going to be one more shot with The Beard.

Instead, a haymaker has been thrown at the chemistry and make-up of the roster. Gone is the Sixth Man of the Year. Gone is the guy that scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to beat Dallas in Game 4. Gone is the guy that knocked down the dagger in Game 5 in San Antonio. Gone is that beautiful mass of hair on his face.

OKC Thunder stay true to themselves
According to sources with knowledge of the team's thinking, the Thunder believe their players will ultimately support the controversial decision to send Harden to the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster deal that breaks up the core that reached the NBA Finals last season.

The Thunder maintain a philosophy that the individual sacrifices for the whole. In this case, that would have meant Harden agreeing to accept less than the maximum amount for a four-year extension, which was $60 million. Reportedly the Thunder's final offer was in the range of $55 million for four years.

Over the past few days, as extension talks reached a climax ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline, sources said, Thunder GM Sam Presti informed Harden that if he was not willing to accept a franchise-favorable contract, such as the kind that Serge Ibaka accepted recently, after other Thunder players had done likewise, then Harden would be traded. This was made clear in discussions with Harden and his agent Rob Pelinka, sources said.

posted by Ufez Jones at 11:48 AM on October 28, 2012

I think it is unfortunate, but it is hard not to trust that Presti knows what he is doing here.

posted by bperk at 12:57 PM on October 28, 2012

The timing on this announcement is really curious, given that probably 80% or so of the OKC sports-watching public were watching OU get beat by Notre Dame last night as this went down.

Also, I'm not saying Aldrich is anything special by any stretch, but the Thunder are now a (somewhat likely) Perkins-injury away from starting Hasheem Thabeet at Center. That can't exactly be a real source of optimism for their fan base.

posted by Ufez Jones at 01:42 PM on October 28, 2012

Hasheem Thabeet is a pretty cool name, though. So, not all bad would come from your scenario.

posted by NoMich at 02:13 PM on October 28, 2012

Would Aldrich starting at center be a source of optimism? Either way you'd see a lot of small lineups with a Durant/Ibaka frontcourt, which is probably optimal if you're playing the Heat but trouble if you're playing the Lakers.

posted by tron7 at 02:38 PM on October 28, 2012

A lot of spinning going on from Presti's camp, but I cannot see how this is a good deal for OKC. I have heard arguments that Kevin Martin is "stylistically" similar to Harden (efficient scoring guards who are not great on defense), allowing OKC to keep playing Thunder brand basketball. But style does not win you games and Martin is not nearly as productive as Harden, who was one of the most efficient guards in NBA history last season and is only just entering his prime.

So Martin's main value is as an expiring contract. Combine that with Houston's draft picks and it looks like what Presti essentially did was trade Harden for the opportunity to maybe, hopefully land a Harden-level player for a rookie contract in the next few years and fill out the roster with other pieces.

That is a big maybe. Harden, even with his recent rise in popularity, is severely underrated. He is not a top 30 player. He is a top 10 player and maybe higher given how weak the 2-spot is in the NBA right now. And again he is just entering his prime. So maybe Presti did his best with a bad situation (ownership not willing to pay the luxury tax), but maybe he should have traded Westbrook when he had the chance.

And can we really blame Harden? He saw his draft classmates Eric Gordon and Brook Lopez lock up max deals last year and they are nowhere near his level. And he had no guarantees from OKC that they wouldn't move him after he took less money.

As for Houston, Harden immediately moves them out of lottery territory (making those draft picks they gave up much less valuable). If Lin is the real deal (I think he is) and Asik is as productive in a feature role as he was in Chicago, I have no problem seeing this team winning 50 games this season and steadily improving as their young players develop.

posted by acerock at 08:26 PM on October 28, 2012

(Welcome to SpoFi, acerock)

But...guh-huh? Did you just call Harden a top-10 player in the league? That's crazy-talk. Top ten SG? I could see an argument for that (but I'd rather see him getting starting minutes before making that claim), but top-10 overall is flat nuts.

If you're gonna lay the over/under on Rockets wins this year at 50, I'll take the under. Not so much because I don't believe in their line-up (frankly, I have no idea what to expect out of them), but because the West has so many quality teams. They're not all contenders, but there are plenty of legit line-ups.

Let's say it takes 46 wins to get into the Western Conf Playoffs. Assuming health, I don't think it's a stretch to say that the Lakers, Thunder, Nuggets, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Clippers get in easily. That's six spots gone. After that you've got two slots to fill out the bracket with Utah, Dallas, Houston, Portland or maybe a wild-card younger team like Minnesota or New Orleans. It's going to be tight going into April.

posted by Ufez Jones at 09:09 PM on October 28, 2012

Crap, sorry tron7. Forgot to respond to you:

Would Aldrich starting at center be a source of optimism?

Of course not, but given the number of teams in the West with legit big men (especially in tandems), I think it's probably better to have 75% Perkins and two lousy back-ups than 75% Perkins and one lousy backup. The Grizzlies and Spurs also spring to mind as teams that could easily take advantage of that lineup. It's been a big hole for OKC for the past few years (Nazr was probably their best backup for a while, and he's gone now) and given they're weaker there now than they've been in a while, I expect they'll make at least one more move to bolster that spot.

posted by Ufez Jones at 09:16 PM on October 28, 2012

Thanks! Been lurking for awhile. Allow me to lay out my argument for Harden as a top 10 player. First let's get the consensus top 5 or so out of the way.

Lebron, Dwight, Chris Paul, Durant, Wade, maybe Kevin Love or Rose. Already we're arguing on who gets in. Tyson Chandler? Joakim Noah? Bynum? Griffin? Iguodala? Even Kobe gets a question mark. Carmelo is not in this conversation. And we're not really seeing guards in the conversation. Ginobili and Parker maybe but probably not. Westbrook maybe? I think you'll find plenty of people in OKC who would rather have kept Harden over Westbrook.

All I'm trying to say is that when you break it down, Harden as a top 10 NBA player right now and for the foreseeable future is not crazy-talk, especially when you look at who is starting at SG for NBA teams right now. And look at the "advanced" stats. He's firmly in the top 10 even in somewhat limited minutes. (This is a separate argument, but Hollinger's PER's fatal flaw is that it underrates efficient scorers and overrates volume scorers.)

Totally see your point about the Rockets. I guess 50 is a best-case scenario, but I think Harden (and Asik) makes them at least relevant.

posted by acerock at 09:34 PM on October 28, 2012

Harden isn't a top 10 player. You've got Durant, Kobe and Lebron leading the league in scoring. You have Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum leading in rebounding. You have Rondo, Nash, and Chris Paul leading in assists. Add in one of several good all around players that start every game in this league like Deron Williams and you're at 10. I might not have Nash or Bynum in the top 10 but you can replace them with someone like Derrick Rose or Tony Parker. I still think Parker has a bigger overall impact on a game than Harden does.

posted by insomnyuk at 10:04 PM on October 28, 2012

All I'm trying to say is that when you break it down, Harden as a top 10 NBA player right now and for the foreseeable future is not crazy-talk

I think Harden's win shares will take a dive on a Houston team that needs him to shoot more than 10 times a game. It's easier to be efficient on a team that you're the third offensive option on; when you're asked to create shots, see more D attention and take on a bigger role, you become a volume/low efficiency guy. Kobe with 10 open looks is a different player.

Point being, it's easier to be efficient when you have Durant and Westbrook on the court drawing defensive attention and allowing you to get better shots. In Houston, he's now the man.

posted by dfleming at 10:11 PM on October 28, 2012

I think Harden as a top ten player is pretty crazy talk.

Lebron, Dwight, Chris Paul, Durant, Wade, maybe Kevin Love or Rose. Already we're arguing on who gets in. Tyson Chandler? Joakim Noah? Bynum? Griffin? Iguodala? Even Kobe gets a question mark. Carmelo is not in this conversation.

Good list, but I'd add Rondo, Westbrook, Gasol, yes Ginobli and Parker belong, and Carmelo is most certainly in that conversation and Kobe does not get a question mark - not yet. He may not be the most "teamy"of guys, but his scoring prowess is undeniable. Bynum and Griffin are in there because it's easier to replace scoring than rebounding We haven't even mentioned the old guard of still great players like Nash, Duncan (who was really good last year - look at those numbers), Pierce, Garnett and Nowitzki.

The advanced stats also have Ryan Anderson as a beast along with Al Jefferson, Lamarcus Aldridge and Greg Monroe - and they're all good, but they're not great.

Harden had a great regular season, no doubt, but let him do it more than once before we start crowning him as literally one of the best in the game. And he went missing in the playoffs at crucial times (though I think that's largely growing pains).

All in, I think Presti did pretty well here. Martin plus two first rounders (and I think Houston is more than a potential lottery team) is a good haul. Better than what Orlando got for Dwight.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 10:14 PM on October 28, 2012

Harden was a good fit in OKC and their style masked his deficiencies. He was offered a contract for more than his market value and turned it down. OKC got a proven (college, at least) prime time player in Lamb and a few high draft choices.

Might take a while for OKC to adjust but better in the long run. Never good having your 4th or 5th best player with an attitude that he's number one.

posted by cixelsyd at 10:22 PM on October 28, 2012

Another, different, advanced stat the places Harden firmly in the top 10. Again this is not just per minute, but cumulatively. Even in limited minutes, he adds more "wins" to a team than guys like Kobe, Dirk, Nash and Parker over the course of a season.

Not that the stats make the argument by themselves. I can see Harden becoming less efficient with more defensive attention. But its not like he was just spotting up for corner threes and being left open all the time. He was a creator and he took over games regularly. Took them over. Like, there were times in the playoffs when he was the best player on the court with Durant and Westbrook out there.

So, yeah, I think its possible that he gets "exposed" in Houston. And I realize that he is not a consensus top whatever guy. But that is why we are having this discussion. I think we will see OKC take a big step back this year and Houston surprising some people.

posted by acerock at 10:53 PM on October 28, 2012

Also, let me put out a hypothetical. This speaks to the line of argument that Harden is displaying a bad attitude or is selfish for not sacrificing for the sake of the franchise.

Think back to before the summer. If, say during the height of Lin-sanity, there was an NBA team that had a core trio of James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik, would you say that this team had an attitude problem? That this was a collection of selfish players? I think that would be laughable.

Why is it that by default it is the players who should sacrifice money to keep a team together, rather than a billionaire who owns a professional sports team who should sacrifice money (luxury tax) to keep a team together?

The Harden and Lin deals, for example, are perfect examples of this. The contracts OKC and NY offered them, respectively, would NOT have given these teams more flexibility to put together better rosters -- it only makes it so that they wouldn't have to pay the luxury tax.

posted by acerock at 11:07 PM on October 28, 2012

The idea that Harden is selfish for turning down the Thunder's offer is absurd.

Another, different, advanced stat the places Harden firmly in the top 10.

Wages of wins ranks him lower. Offensively and per-minute he's rated highly but his defensive rating pushes him way down the list. Though, most advanced metrics I've seen love the guy.

Anyway, I don't think it's crazy to put him in the top 10 given how good of a year he had last year. Though, he's only done it for a year, with a limited role, and gives you very little on defense. There's just too many known quantities who have played at a similar level for longer periods of time for me to put him in the top ten. He's definitely showed that he has the potential to be an elite player.

Like, there were times in the playoffs when he was the best player on the court with Durant and Westbrook out there.

Lebron taught me that if you stink in the NBA Finals no one will remember that you were amazing in the Conference Finals.

and Carmelo is most certainly in that conversation

I don't think Carmelo is in this conversation. Shot selection is a skill and one that Carmelo just doesn't have. If we are talking top ten gifted players then he is right there but he just loves shooting those long contested twos and it just doesn't matter how good you are, you're not going to shoot a good enough percentage from there to make it a quality shot.

Back to the trade. If you think that you have to trade Harden, and this is something I disagree with, then I think they got about as good as they could get. I don't like it because the Thunder are going to be worse this year than they would have been with Harden. When you're that close to a championship I would rather see the team hold onto it's talent and deal with future when it gets here. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if Martin reverted back to the high efficiency scoring numbers he put up in his early years now that he's a third option. I... I really don't know what to make of this trade.

posted by tron7 at 01:24 AM on October 29, 2012

This really is kind of a lovely natural experiment that tests some of the theories basketball nerds love to argue about:

How important is a system in basketball? Does it matter that Kevin Martin is a really nice fit for Scotty Brooks' system? How much? At the one extreme, if the system or Thunder style of play was all that mattered, you'd predict that Martin would contend for sixth man of the year and that Harden would regress to a mediocre player.

Somewhat relatedly, how important is being versatile? How important is being really really good at one thing? Harden basically has one elite skill: he scores a lot of points and doesn't have to take a lot of shots to do it. Defensively he doesn't really scare people (though I think he is underrated here too: for his career he gets a decent amount of steals and rebounds, though he fouls a lot. There is a reason they put him Lebron in the finals - how well he, or anyone, could have done with that assignment is up for argument). He's a good but not great passer. This kid Jeremy Lamb is supposedly more versatile and arguments are being made about him being able to "bridge the gap" between Sefolosha and Harden/Martin for Brooks. How important is that flexibility?

posted by acerock at 01:55 AM on October 29, 2012

When I read the title of this thread, I imagined a dialogue: "Okay, now YOU be the Thunder and I'LL be the Rockets!"

posted by lil_brown_bat at 08:30 AM on October 29, 2012

This kid Jeremy Lamb is supposedly more versatile ...

Harden is effective when he dominates the ball and can use his size and quickness against smaller (guards) or slower (forwards) defenders. For whatever reason the same advantage becomes his disadvantage on defense.

Lamb, in college anyways, was not great in offensive isolation situations. When allowed to play off the ball in a motion offense he's a deadly offensive force. He can score inside, outside or on the break. Similar style to Jamal Wilkes but quicker.
A good defender, but he needs to add some bulk for the NBA.

posted by cixelsyd at 10:10 AM on October 29, 2012

How important is a system in basketball?

That's not quite what I was referring to with Kevin Martin as a better fit. I was just reading Zach Lowe's Grantland piece and he makes my point:

Harden is a very good shooter, but his best skill is ballhandling and playmaking on the pick-and-roll, and he was never going to be able to use that skill to the optimal degree on the same team as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There's a reason Harden came off the bench, propping up strong second units while scoring more and shooting more accurately than he did while playing alongside either Durant or Westbrook, per NBA.com's stats database.

posted by tron7 at 12:08 PM on October 29, 2012

Shot chart from Grantland comparing Harden and Martin. The gist of it is that most of Harden's shots are the most efficient shots you can take: layups, dunks, or threes. This is why I think Harden is a lot closer to the top 10 than Melo is and it's what I mean when I say that shot selection is a skill. If Melo shot only threes, layups, and dunks I think he might possibly be the best offensive player in the league. It's a shame, he can get those shots too. The phrase, "settling for a jumper" was made for Carmelo Anthony.

posted by tron7 at 04:38 PM on October 31, 2012

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