I was not expecting this at all. After reportedly turning down a 4-year, 55-million dollar deal, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded 2012 Sixth Man of the Year and Gold Medalist James Harden to the Houston Rockets along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 first-round picks and a 2013 second-rounder. NBA players took to twitter to express their shock with this blockbuster deal. After all, it was almost a foregone conclusion that James Harden was going to be a integral part of a potential Thunder dynasty alongside Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and newly resigned Serge Ibaka, right?
There are many ways to look at this trade but I will start off by saying I think this is as rational a blockbuster move as I have seen since Deron Williams was traded to the then New Jersey Nets in February 2011. I give kudos to both teams as I think both the Rockets and Thunder made out very well in this trade. How the Thunder arguably got more in return for James Harden than the Orlando Magic received for Dwight Howard still boggles the mind but I digress. Harden chose long-term financial security and a chance at being “the guy” on his own team over being third on the food chain on a squad that was three games away from winning a championship. I will break down what this deal means for James Harden, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I can’t knock a man for looking out for his long-term financial security and I applaud James for getting the max deal he feels he deserves. Much like Joe Johnson when he asked the Phoenix Suns not to match the 70-million dollar contract the Atlanta Hawks signed him to in the summer of 2005, Harden wanted a bigger role elsewhere. With that being said I believe unless the Houston Rockets have other big moves planned going forward, Harden will realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It will be very different for James being the focus of opponents on a nightly basis and I absolutely expect Harden’s shooting percentages (49.1 percent from the field, 39.0 from downtown) to take a dip.
However there is some hope for Rockets fans that Harden can shoulder the bigger load. In the 526 minute sample where James Harden played without Kevin Durant on the court, he averaged an insane 34.7 points per 40 minutes. Harden became much more aggressive off the dribble with Durant out, with his free throw attempts leaping from five per 40 minutes to more than 13 (Bradford Doolittle/ESPN).
James Harden intends on signing a max contract with the Rockets and though I expect his percentages and efficiency to drop, with more minutes he should score more and should build on an impressive 2011-2012 campaign where he averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 31.4 minutes. A 20, 5 and 5 stat line should be attainable for “The Bearded One” as the Rockets will need him to perform at an All-Star level if they want to contend for a playoff spot.
After years of accumulating assets only to be turned down in numerous overtures for star talent, GM Daryl Morey finally found his guy. Morey was fed up of being in the NBA’s middle class and knows that in this day and age you need stud talent to win in this league. With acquiring Harden, him and Jeremy Lin will surely form one of the most intriguing back courts in the game. Will they be a hype machine that doesn’t produce at all? Will they propel to Rockets to the playoffs? Who knows? if nothing else the Rockets faithful have much reason to be excited for the 2012-13 season and beyond.
I was talking with my brother about it last night and I still don’t understand why the Rockets haven’t been able to get a big-name superstar in recent years. Houston isn’t like Salt Lake City or Cleveland where athletes rarely play there by choice (though money does talk). Its the fourth biggest city in the country so there is plenty to do in terms of nightlife, the women are beautiful by all accounts, there is warm weather year round and no state tax. Add to that a now promising core of Harden, Lin, and Omer Asik along with other young pieces that could turn out to be solid players such as Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson, and Marcus Morris the Rockets should be a player in a loaded 2013 free agent class.
I truly respect Daryl Morey’s aggressive nature when it comes to making moves and I believe the Harden acquisition should pay huge dividends, particularly in the long-term. I doubt Morey is done in his quest to add another star talent and when he does, they will be a force in the Western Conference sooner than later.
Oklahoma City Thunder
I would like to squash one myth before talking about how this trade affects the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is not a sob story about how the Thunder couldn’t “afford” Harden, because if OKC really wanted to they could have signed Harden to a max extension but chose not to. Its debatable whether Harden is worth that money but that is why the games are played and he will have his chance to prove his worth. The Thunder are a marketable and likable team that has made significant money over the past three seasons and have yet to pay the luxury tax. There is a 0 percent chance that owner Clay Bennett will sell this team any time soon because of the revenue they have brought in and will continue to bring in so long as they are a championship contender. The Thunder have a great home court with their fan base that has sold out every game for the past four seasons and have an equally strong bandwagon following. Does that sound like a team that is struggling financially?
While it may be sad to see James Harden leave all of a sudden, the Oklahoma City Thunder fared about as well as they could if they didn’t intend on keeping him after this season. The Thunder elected to maintain financial flexibility, acquiring Kevin Martin who is in the last year of his contract paying him more than 12 million this season and a potential heir apparent at shooting guard in Jeremy Lamb. They also acquired two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick so they can continue to restock their team with young talent. This trade while it may not be received great by the Thunder faithful is a micrcosm of what makes Sam Presti such an excellent general manager.
People forget that Kevin Martin has been one of the most prolific scorers in the league over the past seven seasons. He has averaged 18.4 points over his career and this total is skewed due to limited playing time in his first two seasons. Much like Harden, Martin does a great job getting to the foul line and is a career 86.5 percent foul shooter so he makes defenses pay for fouling him. While he is a sieve defensively and isn’t as proficient initiating the offense, Kevin Martin should be able to match much of Harden’s scoring production and be a welcome addition to the Thunder bench.
The piece that I’d be most excited about as a Thunder fan however is Jeremy Lamb. I liked him a lot coming out of UConn and the guy can flat out score. He has plus athleticism and has a ridiculous 6’11” wingspan which should be helpful defensively. Lamb shot 47.8 percent from the field last season and scored 17.7 points a night as a sophomore. While I don’t believe he will ever be a first option on a team, he won’t have to playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Lamb’s ability to move without the ball should make things easier for the Thunder offense.
OKC made this deal with an eye towards the future and were able to save money while not dropping off significantly in talent. Depending on how well Sam Presti uses the three draft picks he acquired in the deal and I wouldn’t bet against him finding another gem, the Thunder may have made themselves an even more dangerous team in the long term.