by A.J Coltrane
I emailed a guy who lives in Oklahoma City a day after the Harden trade. He goes to OKC games, and I was interested to hear how he felt about the move. He basically said that if Harden didn’t want to be there and wanted to go somewhere else for more money, then fine, they didn’t want him there anyway. It reminded me of a popular opinion here in Seattle when Alex Rodriguez decided to chase the money to Texas. A lot of people said “That’s how it is? Fine, screw you, go away.” I’d guess that would be a common feeling around here again with respect to Harden.
I was thinking about how I’d feel about it if the team was still here. I think I’d be cursing Clay Bennett for being too cheap or too undercapitalized to pursue a championship. Teams go over the salary cap and pay the luxury tax all the time in similar situations. Bennett has decided that he’s not going to be the owner of one of those teams. I don’t think that you can ever *really* fault an athlete for chasing the money. It’s a business. The Durant/ Westbrook/ Ibaka/ Harden core may or may not have been the answer, but is the new core the answer? My main concern would be that they’re resetting the clock on the team, but Durant is a free agent in three years, and then who knows what will happen? If and when he leaves it’s over, probably forever unless the Thunder luck into another franchise player sometime in the distant future.
Bill Simmons hates the trade. The title of his piece is “The Harden Disaster“. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Forget about worrying whether Harden is a max player (and by the way, he is — 15 teams would have given it to him), or why Harden didn’t play better in the 2012 Finals (um, James Worthy sucked in the 1984 Finals and turned out fine), or if it meant something that Harden didn’t just blindly take less than what he’s worth (when he had already sacrificed minutes, numbers, and shots to succeed on that team). Oklahoma City significantly hindered their chances of winning a title — not just this year, but every year. And they did it because, after raking in ridiculous amounts of money these past four years (including $30-35 million PROFIT during last year’s shortened season), they valued their own bottom line ahead of their title window. A window that included the second-best player in the league, a top-10 player and a top-20 player … all under the age of 25.
But [Harden] sacrificing minutes, shots and numbers for the betterment of the team AND taking a discount? That’s a little ludicrous. This wasn’t about $7 million — the difference between Oklahoma City’s final offer and the $60 million max offer that Harden’s agent requested — as much as Presti respecting Harden’s unique plight. The Thunder couldn’t offer a five-year extension because Durant and Westbrook had already grabbed their two special five-year slots (as mandated by the new CBA). Meanwhile, half the league’s teams would have happily given him a five-year max extension ($78 million), so really, Harden was already taking a discount by not getting a five-year deal.
Also, Harden’s offer never included a hard-core assurance that Oklahoma City wouldn’t use that “discount” against him by eventually trading that enhanced asset (a franchise player now making less than franchise money)1 for a collection of goodies. Remember when Boston talked Rajon Rondo into accepting a five-year, $55 million “discount” — $16 million less than he would have gotten on the open market the following summer — then dangled him for Chris Paul two years later? So much for “taking one for the team,” right? What about Steve Nash signing a two-year, $22 million “discount” extension because Phoenix promised to use that extra cap space to boost a 2010 Western Conference finalist? Remember what happened? They allowed Amar’e Stoudemire to leave, brought in a bunch of Hakim Warricks and Josh Childresses and immediately became a lottery team. But thanks for taking the discount, Steve.
So here’s Oklahoma City offering Harden $53 million for four years and refusing to include a trade kicker — in other words, Sorry, we have to keep our options open, just in case. Harden’s agent justifiably turned them down. The team played hardball. Harden’s agent stood his ground. They threatened to trade him to Houston — which was, in retrospect, their biggest mistake because that meant Harden had a five-year, $78 million offer with no state income tax suddenly waiting for him — and at that point, this was done.2
And here’s where the narrative became a little funky. See, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Oklahoma City, the tiny small-market team that couldn’t afford to keep its three best players. We’re supposed to ignore their staggering profits since they hijacked the Sonics from Seattle in 2008 (by my calculations, somewhere north of $75 million, at least). You know what the biggest advantage is for any professional baseball, basketball or hockey team? Selling out your building way ahead of time. When you lock up your season ticket base, luxury suites and sponsorships during the spring before your next regular season, that’s 90 percent of the battle — now you have guaranteed income, you don’t have to waste resources on a swollen sales staff or various marketing campaigns, and you can bank the interest from that money instead of crossing your fingers and hoping that revenue shows up later. Yeah, Oklahoma City is never getting the television money of the Lakers or Knicks, but so what? You really think their situation is THAT far off from teams like the Celtics or Sixers?3
For Oklahoma City, the Harden trade wasn’t about losing money … it was about continuing to make money. Huge, huge difference. The Thunder realized that, as long as two top-12 players (Durant and Westbrook) were under their control, they would keep contending, keep selling out and maintain a certain level of relevancy. And by rebooting with the assets from that Harden trade (Kevin Martin’s offense as a one-year stopgap, Jeremy Lamb as a long-term replacement, Toronto’s guaranteed lottery pick and the other picks as potential trade chips), they could brainwash their fans on the whole “this is a marathon, not a sprint” spiel.
That’s a longer quote than I intended, but it’s all relevant. The piece is a terrific read.
In the previous post I had mentioned that the deal hung on the progression of Ibaka and Lamb. Zack Lowe calls Ibaka “The most important player in the league“. Excerpt:
It was true before the James Harden trade, and it’s probably even more true now: Ibaka is the most important player in the league. The Thunder have made a long-term bet that two wings and one big man is a better big-money core than three wings and a patchwork of cost-effective bigs. The Harden–Russell Westbrook–Kevin Durant trio would have always presented some redundancies, but they are all more or less sure All-Star talents. Ibaka, despite the astounding shot blocks and bogus runner-up finish in last season’s Defensive Player of the Year voting, isn’t at that level. He has to at least approach it for the Thunder to remain title contenders this season and going forward.
Ibaka had 28 assists last season. That is not a typo. He assisted on just 2.5 percent of Thunder field goals while on the floor, the fourth-lowest mark in the league among guys who played at least 1,000 minutes. He almost makes Tyler Hansbrough look like a good passer. Yes, Ibaka’s job on this team is to finish, but even finishers luck into more assists than this, especially when featured so often on pick-and-rolls. Ibaka is chronically missing wide-open shooters in the corners and guys under the rim in order to take less efficient 2-point jumpers:
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Ibaka were more comfortable catching in this area, taking a hard dribble, and exploding to the rim. He’d get more free throws doing that, and he showed flashes of this kind of game in the playoffs, including a nifty pump-fake-and-drive move that fooled both San Antonio and Miami a few times. But this stuff is in the early stages. Ibaka barely gets to the line at all; among 75 players who finished at least 50 possessions as the roll man in a pick-and-roll, only eight drew shooting fouls less often than Ibaka, according to Synergy.
And that’s what would terrify me if I were a Thunder fan. Despite having two parents who were Congo-national-team-type-players, and despite starting playing basketball at an early age (as the 3rd youngest of 18 kids), Ibaka is *still* incredibly raw. Will he ever figure it out? Maybe. Reggie Evans never really did. Theo Ratliff was usable but wasn’t great. What if that’s Ibaka’s peak — Theo Ratliff version 2.0? Some blocks, a few boards, a little scoring. Durant/ Westbrook/ “Ratliff”/ with Jeremy Lamb as a shorter Tayshaun Prince. Is that good enough?
Possibly, maybe, but probably not.
Finally, a really cool “heat chart” showing Harden’s shot selection and efficiency as compared to Kevin Martin’s