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Thursday, January 09, 2014

Revisiting the James Harden Trade

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden, many pundits labeled this a move that would help the Thunder financially but hurt them on the court. The financial benefits are unquestionable but there is little evidence that losing Harden has weakened the Thunder's roster; last season, the Thunder posted the franchise's best regular season winning percentage since 1997-98, finishing first in the West. The Thunder seemed poised to make a run to the NBA Finals before Russell Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first round of the playoffs. This season, even though Westbrook has missed 10 games after reinjuring his knee, the Thunder have improved their winning percentage from .732 to .771. It is worth noting that while the Thunder have thrived without Harden they definitely miss Westbrook; they are 21-4 with Westbrook this season and just 6-4 without him, which suggests that if Westbrook had stayed healthy then the Thunder would currently own the best record in the league (they trail the Indiana Pacers by just one game).

Generally, a team that loses a franchise player--whether through injury, free agency or a trade--takes a major step back in the standings. Harden is a very good player but he is not a franchise player, not a guy whose contributions are irreplaceable; the Thunder's record without him shows this to be true and the Rockets' record with Harden further indicates that he is not an elite player, for that is the flip side of this equation: not only have the Thunder thrived without Harden, but the Rockets have not become a powerhouse with Harden. The Rockets had a .515 winning percentage in 2011-12 (34-32 record in the lockout shortened season) and after adding Harden they improved slightly to a .549 winning percentage in 2012-13 (45-37 record in a full-length campaign); the difference between .515 and .549 amounts to three "extra" games over the course of an 82 game season. Harden's arrival did not have much postseason impact, either. The Rockets missed the playoffs in 2011-12 and they sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in 2012-13. Harden's uninspiring 2013 playoff performance hardly lends credence to Houston GM Daryl Morey's assertion that Harden is a "foundational player." This season, the Rockets acquired Dwight Howard, who is without question a franchise player when he is healthy and motivated--but even with Howard playing at an All-NBA level (ranking third in rebounding, fifth in field goal percentage and seventh in blocked shots) the Rockets are currently just the fifth seed in the West, on pace to post a 52-30 record.

Harden produces gaudy scoring numbers but that is because he has the ball in his hands most of the time and he has a green light to shoot; his field goal attempts per minute have significantly increased since the trade. His scoring totals obscure some weaknesses in his game; not only is Harden a subpar defender who also turns the ball over far too frequently for someone whose primary job is to shoot the ball (Harden led the league in turnovers last season and he ranks seventh in the league this season) but he has a very limited scoring repertoire: he is a big guard who rarely posts up and who does not have a great midrange game, so he primarily relies on shooting three pointers and drawing fouls by driving wildly into the lane. "Stat gurus" will tell you that layups, free throws and three pointers are the most efficient shots--and, from a numerical standpoint, that is true--but the practical downside of how Harden plays is that top notch teams can contain him in the playoffs. All you have to do is blitz Harden on screen/roll plays to prevent him from shooting open three pointers and then also sag someone into the paint to take a charge/block a shot when Harden drives. Teams that execute such a game plan can force Harden into high-turnover, low shooting percentage games; we saw this in the 2012 playoffs when Harden shot worse than .400 from the field in 10 of his 20 postseason games and we saw this again in the 2013 playoffs when Harden struggled against his old team as Houston lost 4-2 even though Westbrook missed most of the series due to injury.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 PM