Sometimes one trade is all it takes determine the fate of a franchise. Some moves are more obvious than others. Lakers getting Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown is one of those moves. Some moves are not as obvious. The draft day trade that sent Kevin Love to the Timberwolves and allowed the Grizzlies to build a team that revitalized Zach Randolph’s career is an example of one.
The James Harden trade is a huge deal for Oklahoma City, and with ‘No Shave November’ coming up, it’s very possible that Thunder fans will grow James Harden tribute beards for one of the most dynamic players in the franchise’s young history. In my whole-hearted opinion, this is a great trade for Houston, and a lateral move by the Thunder, but with huge potential to become great.
I’ll start with what this trade means for the Rockets, the team that the general public cares about less. While I think the Rockets will finish the season floating around .500, many people have them dwelling near the bottom of the Western Conference, if not the league. This trade is a clear improvement for the Rockets, who have gotten their hands on the best acquirable player in the league below the age of 25. Huge props are given to Daryl Morey for having the initiative to pull the trade off.
On court and chemistry wise, Harden is a great fit. The Rockets went from having their whole season rely on Jeremy Lin to having him split the duties with the league’s best young shooting guard. Harden’s strengths and weaknesses complement Lin better than Chris Tucker complements Jackie Chan in Rush Hour. Jeremy Lin’s turnover problem last season, had to do with his incredibly high usage- his actual turnover ratios relative to the amount of possessions he had is comparable to other good to great NBA point guards. With James Harden in the mix, Harden becomes the secondary ball-handler that Lin never had to take some pressure off the young point guard.
As a result of this trade, the Rockets have now assembled a reasonable young core that could really be pushed over the top by a good draft score, with the obvious prospects being big men Nerlens Noel and Cody Zeller.
For the Thunder—the trade is a bit of a head scratcher for many NBA fans. From a financial standpoint, we can tell why the Thunder made the trade. They needed financial flexibility, and they saw Harden as the most expendable of their core of four players. A contract they were willing to pay was offered, and as soon as Harden declined, the Thunder were quick to cut ties. Great move in the sense that they weren’t dragging the Harden saga out, eliminating any ‘Melo Drama’ or ‘Dwightmare’ scenarios, and now they are fully committed to moving forward without him.
In reality, or at least what I think happened, the Thunder offered Harden a contract, Harden and his agent wanted more. Harden wanted to be in a Thunder jersey all along, and felt that the feeling was mutual with the organization. The Thunder gave James an ultimatum, stating that if he didn’t take this offer they would trade him. Harden and his agent read this as a bluff and played on, but it was no bluff, and now the Beard is headed to Houston.
Which sucks for Harden, maybe not that much for the Thunder. Putting finances aside, there are a few reasons why James Harden was expendable. As the Thunder’s sixth man, Harden was the third gear on offense. Harden ran the pick-and-roll masterfully and was able to get other teammates involved. He is great at getting to the rim, and is a great knockdown shooter.
There has been a lot of talk this offseason that Westbrook improved his game by tightening up his shot selection, and that Kevin Durant is expanding his offense by being more of a facilitator. If Westbrook and Durant have improved their playmaking abilities, the need for Harden diminishes, as that was his greatest skill. The only part of Harden’s shoes that need filling up now is scoring, and Kevin Martin could become a much more potent scorer than Harden within the Thunder offense. Martin is a guy that could be classified as a pure shooter, and he will give the Thunder someone who can knock down threes at a high volume. Whereas Harden made almost 2 a game last season, Kevin Martin could easily go into the realm of making 4 threes a game. Missing Harden’s presence is still a huge blow to the Thunder, who have relied on him to close out many basketball games, but they aren’t losing as much as others think they are. The Thunder might have utilized Harden’s potential to around 70% of what he’s capable of. 100% of Kevin Martin is comparable to 70% of Harden.
So from a basketball perspective in the short term, it appears to be a lateral move. We can’t forget the inclusion of Jeremy Lamb, who might have the potential to grow into a Harden-type player over the course of the next few years, and the draft picks were part of the package. Financially the Thunder are now in better position to secure Ibaka and maybe pick up some veteran free agents along the road.
But what does this mean for their championship hopes?
There’s a saying that goes “You can never have too much talent.” Going way back to the Bad Boys Pistons years, there is an eerily similar situation to the Harden trade. In the 1985-1986 NBA season, the Pistons dropped their first round series against the Hawks. In the 2009-2010 season, The Thunder were bounced in the first round against the Lakers. The next season, the Pistons acquired prolific scorer Adrian Dantley. He became a go-to option on offense, and the Pistons saw themselves competing in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the 2010-2011 season, Harden started to embrace his role as a Sixth Man, and with a new dimension to the Thunder offense, Oklahoma City became a host of the Western Conference Finals.
In the subsequent season, Dantley and Harden both found themselves helping their teams to the NBA Finals, but the season ended with them watching the other team celebrate. Although they didn’t win, there was a lot of positive momentum. The Bad Boy Pistons and the Thunder were knocking on a championship’s door.
The 1988-1989 NBA season saw the Pistons trade away Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre midseason. Hated rival Michael Jordan was quick to note that the Pistons were now missing a vital part of their offense. In the Pistons locker room, the trade was not well received. Joe Dumars lost his favorite teammate; John Salley lost his mentor; and in their first season playing at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Pistons fans lost their fan favorite. Their leading scorer was gone for a guy that ended up becoming their third option on offense. Even the biggest Mark Aguirre fan would have told you that at that point in time, in terms of straight talent, the Pistons were not getting “better” with that trade. But because the trade happened, the pieces fell together. Rodman saw an increase in minutes and was able to defend at full force and clean up the glass. Joe Dumars found a bigger role on offense, stepping up his scoring and assist numbers with the increased offensive responsibility. After the Pistons dropped their first two games with Aguirre in the lineup, they went on to go 30-4 to finish the regular season, then went 15-2 overall in the playoffs, and of course, captured the NBA championship.
Looking back, Pistons fans think they still could have won it all had Dantley stayed, but whatever happened happened, and no one can argue with the two championships that happened as a result of the trade. Call this Harden trade addition by subtraction, maybe even getting rid of dead weight—the Thunder are a successful organization dedicated to winning. If Joe Dumars had a Twitter back when the Dantley trade happened, he might have tweeted “Wow” as well. The only thing that Kevin Durant and the Thunder can do right now is continue to play hard, and hope that with a shakeup like this, it will allow the right pieces to fall in the right place, at the right time.