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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



At Thursday, January 09, 2014 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ll never understand why people are trying to elevate James Harden to some kind of legendary status. Could it really be because of the beard? I certainly hope not. You once made the comparison between him and Monta Ellis circa 2009-2011 and it was a very apt one. I don’t remember anyone calling Ellis a “foundational” or an “elite” player during that time, in fact, I recall a lot of NBA analysts admonishing him for being an overrated gunner who shoots too many threes and for being a below average defender. I’m sure that many of those same people have nothing but breathless praise for James Harden.

At Friday, January 10, 2014 10:47:00 AM, Anonymous JLK1 said...

David, haven't posted yet this basketball season, but as football winds to a close the NBA takes center stage. I hope all is well with you, and I look forward to your insight as the season goes along.

On a side note, whatever you think of Bill Simmons, his extended interview/podcast with Julius Irving was a fantastic listen and I recommend it.

I wouldn't put too much stock in Morley's public statements calling him a foundational player. Morley is certainly a bright guy and he uses his public statements to raise his own profile, motivate the fan base, and to send messages to prospective free agents. I'll take your statement that he's a very good player and agree with it. He's not a good defender and that's his main flaw as I see it. Chandler Parsons is a fine player but they really need an elite wing defender to pair with Howard. Someone like Iguodala would be perfect.

Even so, I'd like to see them make a healthy playoff run with Howard/Harden and the role players they have. Although raining 3 pointers is a nice underdog strategy that might win a game or two, they can't rely on streaky 3 point shooting to win a 7 game series.

At Monday, January 13, 2014 9:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I cannot speak for the people who have incorrectly elevated Harden to elite status but it is a very puzzling phenomenon. I suspect that certain media members simply have favorite players and/or favorite story lines.

At Monday, January 13, 2014 9:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for your kind words.

Someone else brought the Simmons podcast to my attention and I agree with you that it was interesting--but I think that Erving is a great interview subject regardless of who is asking the questions.

I understand that there is a PR aspect to Morey's comments but I also think that one loses credibility among knowledgeable people when one makes incorrect and/or exaggerated statements. If I were a free agent I would not be impressed by a GM saying that Harden is a "foundational player." Morey has received a lot of hype and I actually think that his approach to "advanced basketball statistics" is much more nuanced and reasonable that, say, a guy like Berri's is, but the bottom line is that the Rockets have not accomplished much of note since Morey has been running the operation.

"Stat guru" lovers like Simmons regularly bash many traditional-minded GMs and coaches around the league but they give Morey a pass because they agree with his approach.

At Monday, January 13, 2014 7:22:00 PM, Blogger Adam said...

Regarding the whole 'foundational player' quote out of Morey, I would guess a part of that is just his job of selling his decisions to his bosses and the public at large, not to mention doing everything to flatter his new player and make him feel welcome. Can you imagine if he announced, 'Yes, we have acquired a very good player who will improve our winning situation fairly moderately despite several weaknesses in his game? I'm pretty sure that wouldn't sell very well for anybody.

Considering the Rockets have been stuck in limbo for so many years, I don't think too many players were busting down the doors to play in Houston, despite the great tax situation. The flattery looks like it worked for notoriously thin skinned Howard as well.

Really enjoy your writing; keep up the good work.

At Tuesday, January 14, 2014 12:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Morey could have just said something along the lines of, "We are very excited to acquire James Harden, a player whose playoff experience, three point shooting touch and ability to draw fouls fits in perfectly with our team philosophy."

Harden was the third best player on the Thunder, so it does not make sense to act like he suddenly became one of the five best players in the entire league.

In a New York Times article a few years ago, Morey suggested that "advanced basketball statistics" had provided a method for containing Kobe Bryant--a theory that looked silly after Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg versus the Rockets while shooting .530 from the field during the 2008-09 regular season as the Lakers swept the season series 4-0. Bryant scored 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting in the Lakers' 4-3 playoff series win over the Rockets that year. The Harden quote makes about as much sense as saying that the Rockets had figured out how to stop Bryant but many media members adore Morey and/or "advanced basketball statistics" so few people challenge such statements.

At Tuesday, January 14, 2014 5:27:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'm not a Morey apologist (he's said and done a lot of dumb things), but I think there's something to be said for the last two years or so of his tenure. Sure, Harden and Howard are both overrated, but they're also both much bette than what he gave up to get them. That team is clearly still another two or three pieces away from meaningfully contending, but in a two year span they've made the jump from "fringe playoff team" to "if everything goes just right and somebody important gets hurt, they could sneak out of the West and lost to Miami/Indy".

The West is really weird right now as there isn't a true top dog, with OKC/SA a couple inches above LAC/HOU (GSW float based on how injured they are this week), but none of those teams look *that* much better than each other, and none of them currently look like a threat to a Miami or an Indy.

One last thing, worth noting, is that Simmons has been increasingly critical of Morey over the last two years, and has pointed out on at least a couple of occasions that all Morey's stat-hyping has yet to yield any meaningful results. Simmons is by no means a journalist, and doesn't claim to be, but he's not exactly a total nincompoop either.

At Thursday, January 16, 2014 2:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


James harden is a great two option on a title team and a top seven player in nba. He not elite cause he not first team,all nba or mvp canidate yet but he better than u giving credit for. Ur first commentator said monta ellis lol. Monta wasnt a all star or all nba player nor ever lead a team to playoffs and was a innefient chucker. James harden really is none of those things so idk wat he talking about the beard is a beast and okc will miss him again in the playoffs with a healthy westbrook or not.

At Thursday, January 16, 2014 3:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


So far, Harden has been a good number three option on an NBA Finalist and a solid number one option on a fringe playoff team. There is no reason to believe that he is a top seven NBA player. If you think that he is a top seven player, then tell me which player and/or players you would remove from the following list:

LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Tim Duncan
Russell Westbrook
Chris Paul
Blake Griffin
Tony Parker

Those guys each made the All-NBA First or Second Team last season--and here are some other All-NBA caliber players this season who did not make the First or Second Teams last season: Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry and Dwight Howard. Dwyane Wade is old and injury-prone but I'd still take him over Harden. I did not have Harden as even an All-NBA Third Teamer last season; my 2013 All-NBA guards were Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry and Tony Parker.

At Thursday, January 16, 2014 3:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Duncan and parker not been better than harden this year nor has dwight and i giv him the slight edge over curry so lebron Durant paul westbrook george griffin maybe. Love aldridge u can make a case that it james is better than the rest of the guys on the list u named

At Thursday, January 16, 2014 5:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Duncan and Parker are the two best players on the team with the best record in the West. Harden scores more than either of them but Duncan and Parker each have a greater impact because of their overall skills and savvy.

Curry shoots, passes and defends better than Harden.

Love and Aldridge are both significantly better than Harden. No GM in his right mind would take Harden over a top notch big man.

At Thursday, January 16, 2014 9:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


U said steph curry and defense in the same sentence? Curry only shoots better than harden. James bigger faster more athletiv better rebounder scorer and can create his own shot better. Love is better, aldridge idk bout that he plays no d james a better scorer and passer aldrige only got size on james.

Maybe howard

To me tp and duncan aldrige wade curry wade james has edge over

At Friday, January 17, 2014 9:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I see that you have already moved Harden down from "top seven" to ninth, so at least we are making progress.

No GM in his right mind would take Harden over the other players I mentioned, at least in terms of current impact; Harden is obviously younger than Duncan but if we are just talking about current playing ability/impact, Duncan is superior. Duncan anchors the Spurs' defense and he is also a key factor offensively because of his postup ability, his faceup shooting and his passing, particularly to cutters and spot up shooters.

At Sunday, January 19, 2014 1:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At the end of the day duncan parker wade howard have not outplayed james harden this year. Curry been as good as harden i give the slight edge to harden because he can create own shot better knack to get to free throw line size and speed. Harden not a one option on title team but he is a legit number 2 option on title team. He not jus a allstar like ur saying he legit second team all.nba player.

At Sunday, January 19, 2014 10:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Harden was the number three option in OKC and the Thunder still did not win the title with two All-NBA First Team caliber players, so there is no reason to believe that Harden could be the second option on a title team. He is not as good as any of the second option players on recent title teams.

As the first option in Houston, he led the Rockets to the eighth seed last year and it seems unlikely that the Rockets will get a top four seed this season. OKC has been just as good, if not better, without him and Houston has not markedly improved with him, so there is no evidence that he has the impact that one would expect an elite player to have. Take Curry off of GS and the Warriors would be significantly worse. The same is true with the other players I ranked ahead of Harden.

At Tuesday, January 21, 2014 3:48:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...


All nba teams mostly do have credibility. The best of the best usually get selected. Just because a player never gets selected to a all nba first team doesn'tdefine their ability. The players elected normally are the best at that position. In some cases it could just go to a guy who had the better year.

Duncan was selected first team all nba at the center spot in 2012-2013. But to be honest Duncan didn't perform at an all nba first team level/superstar level. He was very good on a deep well coached spurs squad. Since Dwight was having an off year someone had to take that firat team spot. Duncan really wasn't any better than Howard. His team was better.

Amare Stoudemire was first team all nba in 2007. But I never considered Amare a top ten player at any point in his career.

This just shows you that all nba teams can't always measure a players ability and impact.

James Harden is no LeBron James or Kevin Durant. He's borderline superstar type player.
I think its ok he is a top ten player.

Stephan Curry just like Harden is not really a true franchise player.

Duncan is not top ten.


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