Monday, October 29, 2012

Ball So Harden University

I loved James Harden in college.  Even while donning that tacky maroon and gold Arizona State uniform, he played with the smoothness and savvy of a 10-year veteran instead of just an underaged sophomore.  Though his Sun Devils team exceeded expectations, they never made any serious noise in the madness that is March, but I had a sneaking suspicion that his game would translate perfectly into the NBA.

I hated James Harden last year.  The Miami Heat are my most hated team in all of sports, and I spent the first week of the 2012 playoffs crunching numbers trying to figure out which Western Conference team had the best shot at making sure LeBron James stayed crownless.  The Mavericks and the Jazz weren’t making it out of the first round.  The Nuggets were coached by George Karl.  The Clippers had no post presence and were coached by Vinny Del Negro.  The Lakers had no offensive identity, and the Thunder had zero offensive-minded bigs to attack Miami’s greatest weakness (and not to mention that OKC also had Russell Westbrook as a key decision-maker).  So all my hopes and dreams in the 2012 NBA season rested on the shoulders of the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies.  The Spurs had the best coach in the league in Gregg Popovich, a young, lengthy defender in Kawhi Leonard, shooters at every position, and the often-overlooked Tim Duncan down low.  The Grizzlies had a pair of big men that would’ve thrown Chris Bosh around like a velociraptor chew toy.  Long story short, the Grizzlies lost a nail-biting series to the Clippers, and James Harden hit the biggest shot in the WC Finals against the Spurs with a cold-blooded three-pointer in the waning moments of game 5.

Of course, Harden went on to struggle mightily in the NBA Finals, but the defeat wasn’t his fault -- it was inevitable.   It definitely wasn’t his fault that he was often given the defensive assignment of LeBron.  For as much as I hate flopping, I can’t even blame Harden for trying, as it was truly his only option guarding the monster MVP in the post.  The Thunder had zero chance of beating the Heat; it was just a matter of how many games it would take before they folded.

But the writing was already on the wall, championship or not.  The timer was ticking down.  The Thunder had invested heavily in Westbrook and Durant, and you didn’t need a mathematician to tell you that GM Sam Presti would have to choose between James Harden or Serge Ibaka.  I started asking anyone who would respond for their thoughts on the matter.  If you were Presti and could only pay one, who would it be?

I said Serge Ibaka.  In a world where quality big men are so far and few between, I-blocka is only 23 and still raw.  The man only started playing basketball a few years ago.  Read that sentence again.  Most importantly, Serge fulfills a role on the Thunder that is harder to replace.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not taking anything away from James Harden as he was the best playmaker on the team, but it’s no secret that his playing style did not fit perfectly with OKC’s other two stars.  Harden excelled coming off the bench because he could run the show, and the bottom line for the Thunder was that it would be much more difficult to replicate everything that Serge brings to the table.  (Note: not a blanket statement for every team, just specifically the Thunder.)

Naturally, the Oklahoma City would have loved to keep both players, but where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, and the team showed its true colors by giving Serge Ibaka a 4-year, $48 million extension.

This is the part of the story where people chime in and blame James Harden for his selfish lack of loyalty to the team that drafted him.  Westbrook, Harden, and Durant were the most tight-knit trio of teammates in the NBA, so he should have sacrificed for the team, right?

Don’t make James Harden out to be the bad guy.  This is the abbreviated sequence of events:
1. The Thunder made it rain for everybody else on the team first, including the aforementioned deal for Ibaka and a 5-year, $79 million deal for Westbrook.  
2.  The Thunder approached Harden with a 4-year extension in the $54 million vicinity, knowing full well that he would get a max offer worth over $20 million more from multiple teams if he were to get traded or hit the open market.  
3.  Harden turned down the offer because it was less than his market value.  
4.  The Thunder traded Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and picks.

It’s important to note that we’re not just talking about a discount of a couple million dollars here.  We’re talking over $20 million.  And I hate to be repetitive, but that OKC team did not have a shred of a hope to ever beat the Heat, assuming they even made it back to the Finals again.

My thoughts on the trade?  Well, I’m a numbers guy, so let me try to explain it the way I see it.  Looking ahead to the 2013 summer free agent market, I am convinced that Daryl Morey and the Rockets would have offered James Harden a max deal regardless.  On the court, he should be a great fit with Jeremy Lin, as the two of them are two of the best pick-and-roll players in the game.  In addition to his offensive prowess is his defensive talent -- the Rockets were prepared to begin the season with a Lin/Martin backcourt; think about how every other team must have been salivating at that matchup.  Harden is not big enough to guard LeBron (who is?), but he holds his own against other wing players his size.

So let’s pretend it’s next summer, and the Rockets offer James Harden a max deal.  What are the odds he actually chooses Houston over the other suitors, notably the Phoenix Suns or the Dallas Mavericks?  Given our recent track record, I would say I’m being generous with a 30% probability, with a 50% chance of him landing in Dallas.

And now let’s rewind to the present day.  Morey has until the Wednesday deadline to sign Harden to a contract extension, which hopefully is in the 95% probability range.

The million dollar question: Is that extra 65% likelihood of James Harden being a long-term Houston Rocket worth losing Jeremy Lamb, a Toronto lottery pick, and a Dallas first round pick?  My mind wants to say yes, but my heart still longs for some Lamb.  The cynical side of me is thinking that the Thunder had all the leverage here.  They could have easily tried to make another deep playoff run this season with Harden and still had the same opportunities to sign-and-trade him next year, so the fact that Presti pulled the trigger on this deal days before the start of the regular season must mean that it was, in fact, a hell of a deal that the Thunder couldn’t pass up.

But then I remember my mantra when it comes to all things Houston Rockets: IN MOREY I TRUST.  Acquiring James Harden now should lock him up for years to come, and if all goes as planned, next summer Houston will still have enough money left over for a big splash in free agency.  It stings losing Jeremy Lamb, but like my elementary school PE teacher used to always say during a game of “around the world” on the blacktop: no guts, no glory.

Daryl Morey obviously has the guts.  Let’s hope that the glory will follow.


How his game will change now that he is basically the focus of the team. Back in ASU and in OKC, he hated being number one guy. He loved that he was number 2 or 3. Hopefully i'm wrong

^ well at least he will share the burden with Jeremy Lin.

So much love for Morey while his results still lack production. Maybe too much love for Morey...

Rebuilding through the draft vs. Trading for a potential all star

One of the few quality clutchfans postings nowadays. I wish i could grow a beard.

Thanks Mok. You made my day

Lamb, with his length and athleticism, will develop into one of the best defenders in the L... since he will be going up against KD everyday in practice.

I'm definitely a huge Lamb and Jones fan so losing either one annoyed me a bit. While I still a bit on fence on the trade, im just wishing we got Collison instead of Aldrich at this point

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