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Monday, October 29, 2012

Quick Thoughts on the James Harden Trade

When 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden balked at receiving anything less than a max contract from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti shipped Harden to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a second round draft pick and two first round draft picks, one of which originally belonged to Toronto and is thus virtually certain to be a Lottery pick. Houston General Manager Daryl Morey apparently thinks that he has made off like a thief in the night, convinced that Jeremy Lin (who Morey's Rockets first cut before later signing him to a huge contract after Lin's brief celebrated run with the Knicks) and Harden are superstars in the making--but if there is a thief here, it is Presti, who preserved salary cap flexibility while converting the third best player on his team into an excellent rotation player (Martin), a 2012 Lottery pick (Lamb) and two more first round picks that (considering Presti's past record) will likely be turned into rotation players either directly through the Draft or indirectly by being packaged in a later trade. Here are some thumbnail points to consider about the Harden saga:

1) Harden was the Thunder's third best player. It makes no sense to pay the third best player max money; Harden is not worth max money and the extra cost would not just be a financial burden for Thunder ownership but also greatly restrict Presti's ability to improve the roster in the next few years.

2) If Harden had accepted the Thunder's very generous offer, he could have become this decade's Manu Ginobili--a respected member of a championship team who likely would have made the All-Star team more than once while never having to fully carry the load. He would have still received a ton of money and--like Ginobili and Lamar Odom--he would have been called one of the league's most underrated and unselfish players.

3) Harden is a very good player but all of his weaknesses will be exposed in Houston if the Rockets expect him to be a franchise player. Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

4) Harden, like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili, is precisely the kind of player who many "stat gurus" overrate. Players who are second or third options can be very "efficient" because of the context in which they accumulate their statistics. Harden and Ginobili benefit from playing limited minutes, from often facing second team players and from facing first team players who have logged heavy minutes against other first teamers; they also benefit from not having the nightly responsibility to shoot 20 times while dealing with double teams. Gasol was a solid first option in Memphis for several years but he could not lead the Grizzlies to a single playoff win, never mind winning a series. Being the first option wore Gasol down mentally and physically but when he arrived in L.A. he proved to be a great second option to Kobe Bryant on two championship teams. Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding immediately improved when he became a Laker because the defensive attention that Bryant attracted gave Gasol a free run at the hoop for easy baskets and second chance opportunities. The problem with many "stat gurus" is that they just crunch numbers without considering such contextual details and this leads to ridiculous assertions about Gasol being more valuable than Bryant and Harden being more valuable than Russell Westbrook.

5) It is not a coincidence that "stat guru" Daryl Morey desperately tried to bring Gasol--a declining player who was never a franchise player even at his peak--to Houston to be the team's centerpiece and that, failing to accomplish this, he shifted his sights to Harden. Morey undoubtedly believes that his numbers show that Gasol and Harden are franchise players.

6) There is a big difference between building a real life NBA championship team versus impressing gullible media members and some NBA fans who fancy themselves as experts based on the data they import into their homemade spreadsheets.

7) Here are some statistics that likely will not be mentioned at the much ballyhooed annual "stat guru" conference: three and 9-10, the Rockets' Lottery appearances and playoff record respectively during Morey's five years in Houston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:23 PM



At Monday, October 29, 2012 11:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can not believe this happened. I really thought the Harden would be willing to take slightly less money to stay in OKC. This does not see like the burden of being a small market, but rather the burden of good team management resulting in the cutting of ties with a quality player who would not budge on his contract request.

I am very disappointed. As a third option, Harden is a nearly unstoppable X-factor, a do-it-all wing player who can guard three positions. As a number one option I worry about his impact. In the Finals he had such a tough time guarding Lebron at one end and scoring on the other, and that was with Durant and Westbrook on the floor shouldering some of the load! When you are paid max money you are expected to excel in such role, even when you support isn't star-studded like the Thunder.

I was hoping the Finals would be something from which he would come back determined to prove himself with his same team.and when you are paid max money you are expected to excel in that role.

Can you imagine how much more OKC (the city as well as the team) would have loved him if he had been willing to take a bit less to stay? They would have had a James Harden Beard Day. I wonder if he would have taken the Thunder's final offer if he had known that they weren't bluffing.

Presti knows what he is doing. I don't doubt the Thunder will turn this into a positive. I do doubt this was the best move for Harden's career.

Great article. The NBA preview was excellent as well. How do you think this affects your rankings in the short term?


At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 12:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This trade does not change my rankings but if Kobe Bryant's foot injury turns out to be serious (i.e., causes him to miss a substantial number of games and/or limits his effectiveness during the season) then I would move the Lakers down and rank the Thunder as the West's best team.

At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 12:59:00 AM, Anonymous Michael Joseph said...

If the Thunder had won the championship and/or Harden hadn't completely disappeared in the Finals, do you think that Sam Presti would have acted so quickly in moving him or maybe even given him a max deal, even though he isn't a max player?

I don't think they were going to give him a max deal either way, but I’m sure that his disappearing act in the Finals made this an easier decision for Sam Presti.

At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 5:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael Joseph:

I try to not get too bogged down in hypothetical scenarios about events that have already happened but it seems obvious that Harden's poor performance in OKC's Finals loss did not help his cause to get a max deal. However, in general I think that Presti has a long term plan regarding what kind of roster he wants to build and how much he wants to spend to build it, so unless Harden won the Finals MVP while carrying OKC to the title it is possible that Presti's offer would not have changed that much. The reality is that anyone who understands basketball realizes that Harden is not an All-NBA First Team caliber player and thus should not get a max deal equal to the deals given to Durant and Westbrook--and that is why Presti got rid of Harden and Morey scooped up Harden while calling Harden a "foundational player." We will see exactly what kind of foundation Morey builds in Houston with Harden.

At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:25:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Morey certainly relies on his stats too much, but he at least understands real-life basketball isn't the same as looking at a spreadsheet. I've heard him talking about how ridiculous some of these statheads are a few times. With that being said, Harden will likely get a 5 year, $78 contract, which is less than Gay's contract. I would say both of those players are about equal, not great contracts, but those teams aren't getting Kobe or Lebron or Durant, so what are you going to do? You have to try.

The thunder already have 2 max contracts, so yea makes little sense to give a 3rd unless he's certainly worth it. But, I don't know that any team could support 3 max contracts, maybe the lakers only. Even miami's 3 guys didn't all get max contracts. But, OKC is certainly still spending the money on their players. As we've seen, even with the smallest nba markets, like OKC and CLE, once they get the star(s), they will spend to try to get a championship team.

What I don't understand is why did the thunder offer almost a max contract, still seemed like they offered too much, and then only give Harden 1 hour to decide. It's like they didn't want him all along, but then if he accepted, they're stuck with him, seems strange.

Harden will probably make at least 1 AS team during his career, but so far has 0 appearances. I find it really bizarre how so many people think the thunder are so stupid. I think they certainly took a step back now, and it might pay off for them in the future, and they're lucky to have 2 top players locked in for years who are both still very young, but last year might've been their best chance. But, it'd be hard to keep durant, westbrook, ibaka, and harden, so it seems like the trade them made was a very good one.

With respect to Morey, who I don't think is anything special, what else could he have done to do better? You criticize him for going after star players, but if he can't get the star players, how are his teams supposed to win? You don't win the playoffs without at least one star, and you're not going very far without multiple stars. And now that he at least has a borderline AS player, a huge improvement over Martin, and Harden is still very young, they can at least build around him.

I'll be interested to see how Harden's efficiency is this year. The statheads seem to think that if you're first option instead of 3rd option and shooting more will result in the same efficiency as before.

I still don't understand the Lin fascination. He had a great opening stretch, and then faded quickly, and could've even suit up for the playoffs. The guy was a nobody, can't even make an nba squad, and then does awesome for a few games, great story, but I can't see him being very good.

At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:53:00 AM, Anonymous LakerFan in Jamaica said...

David, you're one of the few writers I've seen who likes this trade for OKC. Most people seem to think they lost out by not being able to re-sign Harden, but I completely disagree.

When I first read about the trade, my first thought was that OKC made out like bandits. I really like Chandler Parsons' game, and Jeremy Lamb, plus 2 future 1st rounders (one a lottery pick) plus Kevin Martin's huge, expiring contract? I would have done that deal too!

I understand the triple punch Durant, Westbrook and Harden provided, but imo, Harden was always the weakest link in that chain. If someone had to go, he would've been my choice. Sam Presti is a genius at evaluating and drafting good talent, so I can easily foresee him building a deeper, more rounded team than OKC was before. As a Laker fan, that's a scary thought! But OKC fans should be pleased.

At Tuesday, October 30, 2012 5:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Granted, Harden had a wonderfully efficient season in a plush role. But would it be wrong to call Ibaka the 3rd best member of the Thunder? Long-term fit, scarcity definitely go in Ibaka's favour (certainly Presti agrees), but as to determining the better player?

Also, I don't think that Morey is quite as stupid as you suggest to be taken in by Harden's glowing stat line. Given the difficulty he's had in building around a number of non-stars, and attempting to secure one, it seems the new plan will is to make a reinvigorated push next offseason at a big-time free agent.

At Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that Morey seems to be more reasonable than many of the "stat gurus" but my larger point is that the media gives him a free pass--or even showers him with adulation--while relentlessly criticizing other GMs. Isiah Thomas still gets criticized and he is not even an active GM anymore. There is something very personal and very subjective about the way that many members of the mainstream media cover the NBA.

The long answer to your question about what I would do differently than Morey could fill an entire article and perhaps I will write that article later this season. The short answer is that I would not overpay second or third option players as if those players are number one options, which is what Morey wanted to do with Gasol and what he has now done with Harden. I also would not have amnestied Scola, who was Houston's best player last season and thus had some trade value.

The simple fact is that many members of the media keep insisting that Morey and other "stat gurus" enjoy some kind of inherent advantage over other league executives but Morey's record in Houston is very ordinary--and both of Houston's playoff appearances in the Morey era came with rosters that he did not build. The teams that Morey has built have missed the playoffs for three straight years.

Bill Walsh once said that it takes three years to build an NFL champion from the ground up if you have the right owner, the right GM and the right coach. He took over a 49ers team that had just gone 2-14 and he won a Super Bowl three years later. I realize that it is three decades later and that the NBA is a different league but I think that the general principle holds true that if a team has a good owner, a good GM and a good coach that it can be turned around in three years. Morey has fired two coaches who made it to the NBA Finals with other teams and the Rockets have the same owner that they had during their championship run in the 1990s, so perhaps lack of performance by the GM has something to do with Houston's three straight trip to the Lottery. Also, I think that it is ludicrous for Morey to call Harden a "foundational player" and to suggest that free agents are going to flock to Houston to play with Harden. Let's see, a free agent could go to Miami and play with LeBron, or L.A. to play with Kobe (or Chris Paul if Paul stays with the Clippers) or OKC to play with Durant but instead that free agent is going to go to Houston to play with Harden? That makes absolutely no sense. I understand that in the press conference after a big trade the GM has to be positive and upbeat but when you say things that are extremely silly you lose credibility among people who are not silly.

At Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Laker Fan in Jamaica:

Upon further review it turns out that Parsons was not included in the final deal (OKC received a second round pick instead) but I still think that OKC made out very well.

Unless Harden truly becomes a "foundational player"--i.e., a perennial All-Star who also makes the All-NBA Team--this deal is not good for Houston.

At Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One could perhaps make the case that Ibaka was more valuable to the Thunder than Harden was but determining the ranking of OKC's third and fourth best players is not the point of this article; the point is that Morey and other "stat gurus" place a higher value on players like Pau Gasol, James Harden and Manu Ginobili than would someone who watches basketball with understanding. The Spurs never offered Manu a max deal and Manu was smart enough to understand his limitations, stay in San Antonio and win multiple championships.

Morey apparently thinks that Harden is the big star that he can build the team around. What great player is going to go to Houston to play a supporting role to Harden? The idea that Harden's presence somehow makes Houston such an attractive destination is delusional. It is interesting that you don't hear OKC's players complaining too much about what happened--and that is because OKC already took a similar action with Jeff Green and made it to the Finals after trading him rather than overpaying him. As TNT's Kenny Smith pointed out, the reason that Harden became a sixth man in the first place was that he was not good enough to beat out Green when Green played for OKC. The players in the league understand the true pecking order even if the "stat gurus" do not.

I have nothing against the intelligent use of statistics or any other information but I bristle at the idea that "advanced basketball statistics" represent some kind of quantum leap in our understanding of the sport. Andrew Bynum in Philly will be another interesting test case, because the "stat gurus" love him while intelligent basketball observers question his decision making, his maturity and his ability to stay healthy. I don't see Bynum as a franchise player but several years ago at least one "stat guru" insisted that Bynum--who was still a part time player--was better than Kobe Bryant!

At Saturday, November 03, 2012 1:53:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

I was going to post earlier and dispute this article, but Real Life kept getting in the way.

Basically, the gist of the counter-argument was that 15 other teams would've paid Harden the max. I felt that the Thunder had all the options and could've waited till the offseason to make a move. They did not have to trade him this quickly.

Now that there are two games under James Harden's belt, and if Harden keeps up this all-pro play, say, 25 ppg on good percentage, and maintain the Rockets in playoff contention, will you offer a mea culpa?

At Saturday, November 03, 2012 2:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

I think that 15 is a high number but maybe you meant that as hyperbole (like saying a million other GMs would have offered Harden the max). In any case, we can agree that Houston was not the only team that would have been willing to offer Harden the max--but what does that really prove? Joe Johnson and Rashard Lewis are just two of the many players who received max deals at some point in their careers without being franchise players. GMs have been wrong about such evaluations with or without the use of "advanced basketball statistics." My larger point is that there is no evidence that Morey's use of "advanced basketball statistics" has given the Rockets any kind of tangible advantage over teams that don't use his numbers or teams that use different numbers. To cite just two examples from Morey's career, he touted Battier's value and then let him go essentially for nothing and he let Lin go only to now reward Lin with a big contract. In each case were Morey's numbers wrong the first time or the second time?

Perhaps OKC could have kept Harden for this season and then decided what to do with him later but I think that the deal Houston offered was too good to pass up. Also, Harden's situation could have become a distraction and OKC may not have been able to get that same deal next summer because they would have less leverage (Houston could just wait and try to sign Harden on the open market).

Regarding Harden specifically, it is foolhardy to make long term conclusions based on a small sample size. If we make such projections now, the Lakers will go 0-82, the Heat will go 41-41 and Harden will astound himself, his family and his closest friends.

Harden is a very good player. I have never suggested otherwise. Very good players are capable of playing great for a week or even a month. Houston gave Harden a max deal for five years and Morey called him a "foundational player." In order to live up to that contract and those words, Harden must become an All-NBA First Team player multiple times. My opinion is that Harden will max out as a two to three time All-Star.

I could be wrong. Perhaps Harden will be this generation's Paul Westphal, a reserve player for a deep team who became an All-NBA Team performer after being traded. If that happens, then clearly my assessment of Harden is wrong. I will not jump to conclusions after two games, nor would I have been declaring myself proven correct if Harden had played terribly in the first two games.

At Saturday, November 03, 2012 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I agree with you that Morey's approach is not entirely comprehensive, because that reduces a qualitative game into mere quantification analysis.

But I think the Thunder should've kept Harden around because they had all the cards - he was a restricted free agent. They could've offered him the same contract, but add a 15% trade kicker, or wait till summer and see who offered a contract, then match it and trade it.

Harden would not have become a distraction (given a recent profile) based on his history, and the chemistry of the Thunder would've been kept intact.

Martin is a solid player, but I suspect he lacks the intangibles Harden brought as a playmaker. Now the Thunder will have to depend on Eric Maynor for playmaking during the clutch, and that means Martin sits.

I will revisit this in a few months.

At Saturday, November 03, 2012 1:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It does not seem like OKC would have wanted to match the inevitable max deal that someone would have offered Harden, so they would have had to either trade him (presumably for less than they got in the Houston deal) or let him walk without getting anything back. If OKC had kept Harden his contract situation certainly would have been a distraction for the team, as we have seen in recent years with Cleveland, Denver, Utah and Orlando. The two teams that came out best from that group are the two that traded their max player early in the process (Denver and Utah) while Cleveland and Orlando tried the wait and see approach and got much less in return.

Martin is not quite as good as Harden but he can adequately fill the sixth man role, Lamb has potential and those draft picks could prove to be very valuable in their own right or as part of another trade down the line.


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