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Monday, August 08, 2016

Implications of the NBA's Summer of Discontent

This has been a very interesting NBA offseason in terms of moves made, moves not made and the ongoing results of moves made in recent years.

It would have been a lot of fun to watch Golden State battle Oklahoma City at least one more time in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, Kevin Durant--whose Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes but failed three times to deliver the knockout blow--joined forces with the players who had just dashed his championship hopes. Kevin Durant has every right to leave Oklahoma City but that does not mean that he was right to do so or that it is wrong to articulate thoughtful disagreement with his choice (a level of discourse that does not include calling his move "wack" or burning his jersey). Durant's departure is the equivalent of Julius Erving joining the Boston Celtics in 1981-82 after his Philadelphia 76ers squandered a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Erving led the 76ers back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1982 and the 76ers decisively won game seven in Boston after allowing the Celtics to win two straight games to tie the series.

Durant's conduct prior to joining the Warriors is disingenuous. Supposedly he had no plans to leave Oklahoma City but just wanted to see what options existed. I don't buy that story. You don't go to the Hamptons to be wined and dined by suitors unless you have a wandering eye. Paul Newman once said that he saw no reason to go out for hamburger when he had steak at home. The whole Hamptons business is even more pathetic when you consider that the Thunder owner and other team personnel crowded into a low budget hotel because all of the other hotels in the region were booked. After spending nearly a decade with the Thunder, Durant could not find room for his colleagues at his sprawling place? Or he could not tell them, "Guys, go back home. I've made my decision"?

Durant has said before that the grass is not always greener on the other side. He was critical of LeBron James' move from Cleveland to Miami, sending out this tweet after the "Decision": "Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these people."

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. The odds are that the Warriors will win at least one championship with this newly assembled super team: they are absolutely stacked with talent, they are well coached and they replaced arguably the weakest link in the starting lineup that won the 2015 championship with a four-time scoring champion/one-time former MVP. However, injuries, chemistry issues or some other unforeseen circumstances could intervene. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a title. Philadelphia's "Wonder Five" blew a 2-0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals and the 76ers had almost completely overhauled their roster by the time they made it back to the Finals in 1980. Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton led the Lakers to the 2004 Finals but lost to a younger and more cohesive Detroit team. Each of those super teams had flaws that are clearly evident in retrospect, even if the flaws may have been less obvious in the moment, while the Warriors are young, unselfish and have no obvious flaws other than a lack of size/rim protection--but nothing is promised or guaranteed regarding an 82 game marathon followed by the grueling race to 16 postseason wins.

Whether or not Durant wins a championship in Golden State, the disappointing thing about this is that the budding Warriors-Thunder rivalry could have been one for the ages if they faced each other in the playoffs at least one or two more times. The Thunder with Durant had a better chance of beating the Warriors than any other Western Conference team. It is wrong to suggest that Durant had to leave because the Thunder did not have enough talent to win a title. Oklahoma City has the second best regular season record in the NBA since 2012 (i.e., after the supposedly disastrous James Harden trade). The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals four times in the past six years. They beat the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 playoffs and after that they had the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination. The Thunder's failure to beat the Warriors stems, in no small part, from Durant's woeful play in clutch moments of that series, including 1-7 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of game six at home.

So this is not about the Thunder front office failing to surround Durant with enough talent.

It would have been nice to see Durant respond to the loss in the 2016 Western Conference Finals by working on his game and his mindset during the summer so that he could start the 2016-17 season with a new sense of purpose. That is what Larry Bird did after his Celtics missed the Finals in 1982 and 1983. He emerged as a three-time MVP and he added two more championships to his 1981 title. That is what Magic Johnson did after his gaffes in the 1984 Finals led some to call him "Tragic" Johnson. Johnson won championships in 1985 and 1987-88, along with three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90). That is what Isiah Thomas did after the Pistons came up short versus the Celtics and then the Lakers in 1987 and 1988. Thomas led the Pistons to back to back championships in 1989-90, winning the Finals MVP in 1990.

Durant has the right to leave. He did not handle the situation optimally but he also did not turn it into a farce and a circus like the one LeBron James created six years ago. As a fan of the sport and of competition in general, I just wish that Durant had tried at least one more time to beat the Warriors.

While the headline story is Durant's departure, the biggest subplot is how this will affect the arc of Russell Westbrook's career. One might have thought that Durant's departure guaranteed that Westbrook would either be traded or else leave Oklahoma City of his own volition but instead Westbrook signed a two year contract extension with the Thunder. Westbrook displayed a very Kobe-esque way of thinking: I am not going to run from this challenge but I am going to go into battle with my teammates and do my best.

Westbrook could put up some historic statistics this season: 30 ppg, 10 apg, 8 rpg is not out of the question. The Thunder are no longer championship contenders but with Westbrook putting up Oscar Robertson numbers they should be a solid playoff team.


Whatever criticisms can be made of Durant's decision, his primary motivation does appear to be winning. In his opinion, going to Golden State is his best opportunity to win a championship and he does not care what ex-players, media members or fans think about his choice.

In contrast, at every turning point of his career, Carmelo Anthony has chosen money over winning.

While Kobe Bryant has been criticized for the big contracts he received at the end of his career, those deals were lifetime achievement awards from a franchise that can afford such beneficence in no small part because Bryant played a leading role on five championship teams. The Lakers had enough money left over to acquire a big-time free agent even after paying Bryant but no big-time free agents want to play for the Lakers--and since that remains true after Bryant's retirement, we can shut down the idea that Bryant's presence/shot selection scared off stars in their prime who feared that their numbers would dip while playing alongside Bryant and we can lay the blame where it belongs, namely with Jim Buss, who has mismanaged the franchise since his father's death.

In contrast, Anthony's huge New York contract is not a reward for winning and it is an impediment toward acquiring the help that he needs to win--and make no mistake that Anthony would need a lot more help to win a championship than Bryant did or LeBron James does.

Anthony engineered his departure from Denver in such a fashion that the Knicks had to gut their roster to acquire Anthony; as a result, two years after Anthony left Denver the Nuggets posted their best regular season record since the NBA-ABA merger. Meanwhile, the Knicks have been going nowhere fast for years but Anthony's primary concern is staying in the media capital of the world, where he can maximize his earnings on and off of the court. Like Durant, Anthony has the right to make that choice but after Anthony's career ends with no championships he will not be deserving of any sympathy in that regard.

Speaking of Anthony's Knicks, "stat gurus" (and many others) lambasted Isiah Thomas' front office work with the Knicks but the real problem is James Dolan. Thomas was a solid personnel evaluator in Toronto and a solid coach with the Pacers. Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, as is Phil Jackson. Thomas, Brown and Jackson each failed to get the Knicks anywhere close to championship contention. No one has been able to turn the Knicks around under Dolan's ownership and that trend will likely continue.

Phil Jackson's attempt this summer to build Chicago East in New York with the acquisitions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah inspired Rose to make a delusional comment about the Knicks being a "super team" like Golden State. The Knicks are probably not even a top four team in the East. Noah seems to be done physically, Rose is a solid player but does not seem likely to regain MVP status and Anthony is not the right guy to lead a championship quest.

Jackson's tenure in New York thus far has been long on Charley Rosen ghost written aphorisms and short on actual results but the Zen Master is laughing all the way to the bank; neither the Bulls nor the Lakers gave him the Kobe Bryant-lifetime achievement award contract but Dolan has done so. Jackson's ability as a coach to take a group of men and mold them into champions is undeniable but Jackson's ability to construct a championship roster from the ground up is unproven.


Charles Oakley once said of the post-Jackson/Jordan/Pippen Bulls, "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."

The Dallas Mavericks never had a dynasty, nor are they a "coffee shop" now but Mark Cuban's decision to break up the 2011 championship team did not turn out very well. Cuban is widely praised as an innovative owner. While he has clearly received a significant financial return on his investment in the Dallas Mavericks, under his direction the team has made some odd personnel decisions. In the wake of Dallas' lone championship, Cuban broke up the team's nucleus and the franchise has never been the same. A lot has been said about the supposed value of breaking up a team one year too early as opposed to one year too late but the great danger in messing with championship chemistry is that you might never find the right ingredients at the right time again.

Would the Mavericks have definitely repeated as champions if he had kept the roster intact? That is the wrong question. The right question is, "Did the Mavericks have a better chance to win a championship by sticking with proven winners or by trying to get younger with an eye toward landing a big-name free agent?" Free agents are not flocking to Dallas. Cuban would have been better served standing pat to make a run at the 2012 title. If the Mavericks fell short, then if Cuban so desired he could have broken up the team after the 2012 season and the Mavericks would not be any worse off than they are now--but at least they would have taken their best shot at capturing a second title.


The Mavericks have faced the San Antonio Spurs six times in the playoffs, with the Spurs winning four of those series. On two occasions, the Spurs went on to take the NBA championship after eliminating the Mavericks. Tim Duncan played a key role in that rivalry and his retirement merits its own special article.

Many teams fall apart after their superstar retires (or even slightly before he retires, if the superstar has declined significantly and/or is plagued by injuries). The Spurs will no doubt miss Duncan--particularly as a leader and as a defensive anchor in the paint--but they are well positioned to continue to be a championship contender with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and free agent acquisition Pau Gasol leading the way while veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fill lesser but still important roles. The Spurs went 67-15 last season. Gasol is a better offensive player than Duncan was at this stage of Duncan's career but Gasol is not as good defensively; assuming good health and expected performances from the rest of the players in the team's rotation, the Spurs should still be a 60 win team this season. Gasol is at his best when there is not pressure on him to be the number one option; he thrived with the Lakers as a second option behind Kobe Bryant and he is perfectly suited--in both skill set and temperament--to fit in with San Antonio's philosophy of sharing the ball and not relying on any one player to carry the load.


It has become rare for a superstar to spend his entire career with one franchise the way that Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant did. Although there were some rocky moments in Dwyane Wade's relationship with the Miami Heat, it seemed likely that Wade would be a one-franchise superstar. Instead, Wade's ego clashed with Pat Riley's ego and Wade will now finish his career in his hometown of Chicago. Such late career transitions do not automatically end badly but they rarely end spectacularly well, either.

Wade and Heat President Pat Riley have butted heads for years, though in the past they always mended fences (at least publicly). When Wade refused to sign an extension with the Heat several years ago but asked Riley to add some talent to the roster, Riley very publicly told Wade to either re-sign with the team or keep his mouth shut about how Riley ran the operation. The Cleveland Cavaliers let LeBron James run the ship and that approach has led to one championship (albeit after James learned under Riley for four years in Miami) but Riley has won seven championships as a coach/executive by doing things his way.

Wade took less money to enable the Heat to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh but it is not like the Heat put a gun to Wade's head; Wade knew that the only way he was going to win another championship was to bring in at least one more superstar, so he made the necessary choice to facilitate that process. The end result was that Wade added four Finals appearances and two championships to his resume, which not only raises his status in basketball history but also increases his marketability (hence enabling him to recoup at least some of the salary that he voluntarily gave up).

Wade is still a very good player. He was arguably Miami's best player during the 2015-16 regular season, though the "stat gurus" may disagree with that contention. Wade performed even better during the playoffs, leading the Heat in scoring and assists while ranking third in rebounding. However, Miami was not quite a championship contender even with Wade playing as well as he can reasonably be expected to play at this stage of his career. Therefore, Riley was correct to prioritize the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside (the young big man who could become the franchise's cornerstone player if he continues to develop his game and his maturity) and the pursuit of a free agent star to help Wade carry the load. After signing Whiteside and failing to attract Durant or any other star, Riley turned his focus to Wade. The Heat's final offer to Wade was perfectly reasonable considering Wade's age and performance level but by that point in the process Wade's pride prevented him from returning to Miami. He felt disrespected and shunned, even though Riley was actually doing the best job he could to put the pieces in place for Wade to win a fourth championship. Wade is not going to win a title as a fading star in Chicago. What is the Bulls' track record of building championship teams since the departure of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? Refer to the Charles Oakley quote above.

These situations are not easy to handle for either side. After the 76ers seriously considered trading Julius Erving to the Clippers near the end of Erving's career, Erving almost signed with the Utah Jazz as a free agent; Erving's pride was stung--just like Wade's is now--but Erving wisely took the longer view of things and he enjoyed a farewell tour as a 76er that became the model for all such farewell tours to come. Erving played for two franchises during the wild and woolly ABA days but he spent his entire 11 year NBA career with one team. Whether or not Wade ever admits it, when his Chicago days are done he will look back and wish that he had stayed with the Heat.

Maybe Riley could have or should have handled the public process more smoothly. Maybe Wade should have a more realistic understanding of how the business of basketball works. I have thought about this situation a lot and I have concluded that both sides had legitimate arguments in their favor; Riley is not a bad guy here, nor is Wade. That said, the best solution would have been to put the egos aside and enable Wade to stay with the Heat for life. Wade's last years in Chicago will probably not evoke the dreary ends of the careers of Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays but they also will not likely add much to his legacy.

The final outcome is not optimal for either party: the Heat are now in danger of missing the playoffs completely without Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson (not to mention the uncertain health status of Chris Bosh), while the Bulls will be lucky to make it past the first round. Instead of Wade taking a victory lap in Miami, he will end his career as no better than the second option on a new team that will not win a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 PM



At Monday, August 08, 2016 10:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Great overview, David! A few assorted thoughts-

* I am not sure OKC is a playoff team. I have questions about their defense without Durant/Ibaka as well as their floor-spacing. If Oladipo and their other primeter guys can make their shots they will at least be good on offense, but I am not sure of the viability of starting Westbrook/Kanter together against any team that can run a competent PnR- and all of the teams they have to beat in the West are on that list.

What is not in question is that Westbrook will put up absolutely cartoonish stats. It will be interesting to see whether or not they translate to wins, as the last time he did was in this situation- when Durant (and eventually Ibaka) went down in 2014- his team went near or just over .500 (I don't recall the specific numbers or how many of their wins Durant played on) and missed the playoffs.

* The Warriors probably won't win this year, but they probably will win eventually. Durant is a meaningful upgrade on both ends over Harrison Barnes and while Zaza is not as good as good as Bogut, he is both faster and less injury prone; give the Warriors Zaza for the last two games of the 2016 Finals and perhaps they win another title.

* The Heat's biggest mistake this season was not working things out with Luol Deng, who was their second best player (at least after the All-Star break) last season and the kind of veteran presence a team full of youngsters needs. He was also the rare stretch 4 who could competently defend/rebound the position. Additionally, he wanted to stay; I understand why the did not prioritize him over Wade, but they had the camp room to retain both he and Whiteside and perhaps they should have tried to convince him to wait a few days before signing that Lakers deal to see if they could match it. Deng is only 31, and still very good on both ends, while Wade is three years older, no longer plays hard on defense, and cannot shoot from outside in an increasingly perimeter oriented NBA.

The Heat also need to figure out the Bosh situation ASAP, as they cannot continue to live in both worlds and expect to win anything, or build anything.

Assuming Bosh does not come back (or that he and Whiteside start together, which is 99% likely if he does), they also failed to address their biggest roster need, namely someone who can competently play 15 minutes off the bench at center. If they'd had a David West or Festus Ezeli type last year they likely could have beaten Toronto.

* The Knicks will make the playoffs. They will not do much more than that.

* You didn't mention the Jazz, who I think will be a dark horse Western contender this year. I don't expect them to win the conference but would not be surprised to see them in the Conference Finals, or it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they make or even win the Finals. They lack a top-tier creator on offense, but they have excellent rim protection, rim protection, and pretty dang good shooting, as well as some decent depth.

* Cuban should definitely have kept the Mavericks together.

* I'll save my Duncan thoughts for that article, but I do think the Spurs will slip a bit this year, as Duncan's role was as important off the court as on it. I see them at about 58 wins, probably a 2-4 seed, and expect them to lose in the 2nd or 3rd round again.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 7:26:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Nick, do you remember that Westbrook was also injured on and off that year? Just checking you factored that into your analysis of his season without Durant because that may change your mind, or not. If Westbrook has a healthy year I think OKC are a lock for the playoffs and could push the second round. Remember Lillard last year? Small guard teams are dangerous in today's NBA.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 10:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea Andrew, I thought Lillard sucks. How'd he take POR to the 2nd round and play GS competitively?

OKC surely won't win a title with their current roster, but it's a solid roster. Westbrook was a legit MVP candidate in 2014, as was Kobe in 2013, and both their teams weren't contenders. I would've thought OKC should've done better in 2014, but Westbrook was still awesome and missed several games as well.

The last time Durant played with Westbrook for a stretch was the 2013 playoffs, where OKC struggled to make the 2nd round and then were bounced. Durant led SEA to 20 wins in 08 without Westbrook. When Westbrook first became a star in 2011, OKC won 55 games, and became contenders for the first time.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:01:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't really think Portland is an apt comparison, though they certainly surprised me last year. They've got tons of shooting and a bit more depth than OKC does, as well as one of the strongest home courts in the league. While they are weak defensively on the perimeter, they don't start anyone on the interior that's as vulnerable as Kanter.

Looking it up, the 2015 OKC Thunder went 30-31 without Durant, 18-13 without Westbrook. My point wasn't that one is better than the other though (though I obviously think Durant is) but that the current OKC roster may not be constructed to maximize Westbrook's strengths or hide his weaknesses; with Ibaka/Adams on the floor it was difficult to attack Westbrook in the PnR, but he and Kanter got eaten alive all season. On the offensive end, he's perhaps the best drive-and-kick passer in the league right now, but you still need guys who can make those shots; Durant, Ibaka, and Waiters were their best perimeter shooters and all three are now gone.

I am not saying they won't make the playoffs, but I am not as convinced as David that they will be a "solid" playoff team. They will need to make their open shots and figure out some way to guard the Pick and Roll when Westbrook/Kanter or Westbrook/Ilyasova share the floor.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Assuming reasonable health for the overall roster and at least 75 games played by Westbrook, I see OKC being well above .500 and not fighting for the last playoff spot in the final week of the season. The year that OKC missed the playoffs they went 45-37 and tied for the eighth spot, missing the postseason based on a tiebreaker. Durant was hurt and Westbrook was coming off of a serious knee injury. Westbrook is healthy now and the Thunder know that they will be without Durant (as opposed to losing him to injury), so they can adjust their rotation and playbook accordingly. Obviously, losing Durant is a huge blow. MVP-caliber players are typically worth 15-25 wins but the mitigating factor here is that Westbrook is also an MVP caliber player. When Jordan retired the Bulls replaced him with Pete Myers, added rookie Kukoc to the roster and only dropped two wins in the standings. If not for a horrible call at the end of game five versus the Knicks, they likely would have advanced at least to the ECF. OKC is not as talented (or well coached) as the 1994 Bulls but I don't believe that the Thunder will fall all the way to the Lottery. Their problem, assuming that they make the playoffs as I expect them to do, will be shot creation in the fourth quarter of tight games but the funny thing is that this was a problem even with Durant on the roster. Maybe now that Westbrook is the clear #1 guy the execution will somehow improve.

The Heat had a bad offseason both in terms of personnel and public relations.

I don't like the Jazz quite as much as you do but I agree with your contention that they are a potential "dark horse contender," which I would define as a team that can win a first round series and at least scare GS or the Spurs in the second round. I would be shocked if the Jazz make the Finals this year, though.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If OKC can finish sixth and face LAC in the first round then OKC might have a puncher's chance to reach the second round, as you suggested. Right now I expect OKC to fight hard but lose in the first round but the scenario that you mentioned is plausible.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct to note that OKC's rise coincided with Westbrook's emergence. The same dynamic was true of Jordan and Pippen.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


If they still had Ibaka I would 100% agree with your expectation, but they do not, and I expect their defense to slip. They lost 2 of their best 4 players and did not add anyone who is as good as either of them. As mentioned above, I also worry quite a bit about their floor spacing unless Oladipo and/or Roberson can become consistent long-range threats.

They should be a great rebounding team, though. I expect them to end up somewhere in the 7-9 range if healthy.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 3:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OKC was 5-11 sans RW in 2015(I included game 2 of the season when he got hurt and played less than 9 minutes).

Durant was probably still better than RW when healthy through 2015. I'd take RW in 2016.

OKC will probably make the playoffs, but that's about it. It's not just losing Durant. What did they do other than that? They lost Ibaka as well, and their new additions won't help much. Nobody's winning with that cast, but I'm interested to see how they do.

POR's cast was pretty much garbage last year. They started off terribly, and then caught fire. They must've had great chemistry, because they had no business doing as well as they did, though they were fortunate to face a limping LAC squad in the 1st round. Nick is very low on Lillard, and even if your analysis of Lillard is 100% correct which it might be and that's not really what I dispute(though your absolutes of some players being complete zeros on defense is puzzling), it should be a red flag on how you rate players, along with Irving. Even if both of them are completely one-way offensive players while being tiny nba players, they are both clearly AS-caliber players. Irving played like a legit MVP in the finals. It is refreshing to see Lillard do as well as Aldridge last year team-wise after he left for supposedly greener pastures, even if just for a year, and Aldridge was clearly the #2 in SA last year.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 3:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I was thinking 6th or 7th so we probably are not that far apart. I reserve the right to change my opinion by the time I write my season preview if there are injuries, roster moves or other unexpected changes.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 3:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with your take on KD and Westbrook.

Lillard had an excellent year and looks like he will be a perennial All-Star. Irving played better in the Finals than many previous Finals MVPs did but LeBron James was incredible, particularly in the last three games.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 5:31:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@Nick, you have a point about OKC especially defensively. But, to say they didn't add anything isn't really true. Shooting-wise, they added Ilyasova, Alex Abrines, and Sabonis. They still have Morrow and Singler (who was horrible last year but is a career 37% from 3) and they've got some young bucks like Payne and Huestis that looked good in limited minutes. Roberson started hitting threes in the playoffs, which was one of the key reasons the Thunder went as far as they did. He's only 24, and while he won't get the wide open looks he was getting playing with KD and Westbrook, it's not unlikely that his outside shooting remains improved.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 6:14:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I never believe in Rookies until they prove they can shoot, and if last year is anything to go off, Donovan is hesitant to play them anyway. I think I mentioned Ilyasova earlier, but he's not starting for them and will likely make up for whatever he adds offensively with what he gives up on the other end.

As I said above, if Roberson and Oladipo can make their shots, they should be fine on offense, but I'm skeptical that either can. Roberson got hot for a few games, but went 32% overall for the playoffs, so I'm going to need a bit more than that to become a believer.

At Monday, August 15, 2016 8:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a shame. If OKC hadn't low-balled James Harden, OKC would have multiple championships by now. Instead, because of the stinginess of the owners, they never even got back to the finals, and now Durant is gone, too.

I feel badly for the fans.

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 1:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Harden did not want to be the third wheel in OKC. He is not Manu Ginobili or Klay Thompson, guys who will sacrifice personal glory to win rings. He is Marbury or Melo.

What set OKC back the past four years was injuries. When healthy, they were as good as any team in the league, as we saw when they dismantled the Spurs and nearly took out the 73-9 Warriors.

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But still not good enough to make the finals again, and not as good as they were in 2012, and that's with Durant/RW improving since 2012, naturally.

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 12:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


When Durant and Westbrook were healthy (2014 and 2016) in the playoffs, the Thunder advanced to the WCF. The only other teams with two CF appearances in the past three years are Cle and GS. Harden was not missed and if he had been there he would have had a toxic effect on team chemistry, as he has in Houston.

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 3:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, making the Finals is better than making the WCF.

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Agreed--but OKC has arguably been the third best team in the league during that span (at least when KD and Westbrook) were healthy. Add Harden (which might have led to the subtraction of Ibaka due to small market payroll considerations) and I am not convinced that OKC would have done better. Harden is a poor defender and poor leader. How many guys like that play prominent roles on championship teams?

At Tuesday, August 16, 2016 6:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyrie is a poor leader and a poor defender, and he certainly played a prominent role on a championship team. (Same could be said of Kevin Love, albeit to a lesser extent.) Shaq was a poor leader. It's not clear to me that Lebron was a good leader early on in Miami. Both of the last two guys, of course, are in a different category than Harden as pure players.

We'll never know if Harden would have been "toxic" with Durant and Westbrook around to rein him in. Fact is, they made the finals with him, before any of those three were even in their primes. And fact is, he didn't walk: OKC traded him after refusing to pay him the market rate.

They wouldn't have needed to get rid of Ibaka, as it happens. (And the ownership, which has minted money, could have afforded the luxury tax for a couple years even if that had not turned out to be the case.)

Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka win multiple championships. Instead, OKC has none. Ownership screwed up badly, and because of cupidity. They deserved to be staying a budget motel begging Durant to stay.

At Wednesday, August 17, 2016 1:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As you rightly suggested, Shaq and LeBron have abilities that at least to some extent counteract the leadership deficiencies they displayed (though both players would have won more titles if they had been better in this regard).

Kyrie Irving is not a great defender by any stretch of the imagination but he is not as awful as Harden, either. I am not sure about Irving as a leader; I see some good things and some not so good things, so the jury is out for me in that regard. Harden, on the other hand, has demonstrated that he is a me-first, no-defense player who chafed at being the third option in OKC and who has been a very toxic influence in Houston. OKC traded him because he would not accept fair value and they knew that he therefore would walk when he could, so they got maximum value for him at the time (or they tried to do so; whether or not they did is a topic for another day).

It is easy to say in hindsight that they could have kept Ibaka but that was far from obvious at the time and his rim protection was more important than Harden's role, which could and has been filled by other players.

I don't know that Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka win even one championship, let alone multiple ones. Shaq could get away with his deficiencies as a leader and a defensive player and he could get away with his lack of work ethic in terms of conditioning because he had the ability to be a dominant postseason performer in spite of all of those things.

Brooks was benching Harden for Fisher in key moments (precisely because of Harden's deficiencies and the fact that he is not dominant enough to make up for them in other ways) and Harden did not like it one bit. Whether or not Brooks handled this correctly is also a subject for another day but the reality is that Brooks was not going to give Harden the role that Harden wanted: Harden wanted to be the number one option and contend for the scoring title but in OKC he was always going to be no more than the third option. Harden choked in the Finals. All of his shortcomings were becoming very apparent, which is why OKC did not want to break the bank to keep him. Houston signed him and, as I predicted at the time, they have a string of first round losses to show for it (a trend that figures to continue).

Ginobili made All-Star teams and won rings because he knew his role and accepted it. Klay Thompson is on a similar path. Harden has that Marbury/Melo/Arenas mentality: "I am the MAN and I want to show the world that I am the MAN, even if I never win a championship." That is why Marbury fled from being second to Garnett, that is why Melo forced the Knicks to gut their team to sign him for max dollars and that is why Arenas did all of the nutty things that he did (though Arenas seems to have other, deeper seated issues that go beyond basketball). Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are future HoFers, but they were smart enough to figure out that playing alongside KG with everyone giving up some shine was the way to win a title. Harden has not figured that out and that is why 10 years from now media members will be trying to pump him up as one of the greatest players to never win a title, when the reality is that he is a third banana who wants to be top dog (pardon the mixed metaphor).

At Wednesday, August 17, 2016 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But, Harden didn't need to be a leader as 3rd-4th wheel on OKC. He's been a top 5-10 player for at least a couple of years since leaving OKC and is now a perennial AS. Guys like that play huge roles on championship teams every year or would if given the chance. In 15 years before Harden joined HOU, HOU made only 7 playoffs winning 1 series total. They've already made the playoffs each of his 4 years there including a trip to the WCF, all of this without a championship caliber roster. He's no Kobe or James, but he's certainly accomplished a lot so far, regardless if he's an awful leader or not. I don't care for the guy, but he deserves a lot of respect.

Ginobili only made 2 AS teams. He was never as good as Harden either. Harden's in a tough position. He's too good to be relegated to 3rd man or 2nd man for that matter, but he's not good enough to be #1 man in a normal situation. I don't know why you would fault someone for wanting to be the best. Harden doesn't want to accept being 2nd best, what exactly is wrong with this? It's a similar mentality as Kobe, except Kobe was obviously much better. I don't think Thompson is better than Harden, but I think Thompson would better a fit 2nd or 3rd man role than Harden would, regardless if Harden would accept this role or not. I think Harden would've been fine being #2 in OKC, but he was certainly way too good to be #3 while coming off the bench as well.

Pierce, Allen, and KG were all on the downside of their careers when they won, and none of them were superstars at the time. Obviously, they needed to take lesser roles offensively, which I'm sure Harden would in 5-6 years from now as well if put in a similar situation. Plus, none of them needed the ball constantly to succeed. RW, Durant, and Harden all need the ball a lot to maximize their abilities. Big differences between both situations.

The thing you constantly forget or don't recognize is that Harden was huge for OKC reaching the finals. Without him, they don't make the finals in 2012. Sure, he played subparly in the finals for them as a 22yo non-starter not in his prime, and as a 3rd wheel coming off the bench, his play should've been good enough for OKC to win if OKC was truly that great, which I'm still not convinced they were. They were certainly one of the top teams with Durant there for a few years, but they kept underachieving, and couldn't make the finals again without Harden.

At Wednesday, August 17, 2016 9:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Wow, this thread came back to life. My unsolicited two cents:

* OKC was right to get rid of Harden, but arguably could have gotten more for him (though Steven Adams has turned out great, it's likely they could have gotten a pick to get him in a second deal if they really wanted him). They weren't winning anything with him, though, as he's nigh-unplayable defensively and his offensive strengths are less valuable on a team with Westbrook/Durant to carry the load.

* On no planet is Harden better than prime Ginobili, except perhaps as a pull-up three point shooter. Ginobili was a better passer, ball handler, finisher, defender, and spot up shooter... and was leagues better than Harden at even Harden's trademark skill, flopping like a soccer player, a category in which Manu may well be the GOAT.

* It is impossible to say for sure how toxic Harden would have been, but I tend to side with David here, given his frequent and ludicrous comments ranking himself as the best or nearly the best player in the league when that's pretty obviously not the case. His inability to coexist with Dwight also isn't great; Durant and Westbrook are both weird dudes (though in different ways than Dwght), and Harden is a weird dude who thinks he's better than those other two weird dudes, so... I see that going poorly.

* OKC in 2012 is a weird animal that doesn't make a ton of sense; Westbrook and Durant hadn't peaked yet, the West was weird that year, and the league wasn't wise to Harden's bullsh*t until Miami exposed him in the Finals. I don't think for a second it was a replicable blueprint, though.

* I'm not sure if OKC was better or worse with/without Harden, but I think in either scenario they would need a greater amount of luck than the average title team needs in order to win a title. The should be commended for pushing the Warriors the way they did, but a lot of things went right for them in that series and they still couldn't finish. Adding Harden- whose teams are often better when he sits- probably doesn't change that math.


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