Still Too Soon to Declare Thunder or Rockets Winner in Harden Deal

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Still Too Soon to Declare Thunder or Rockets Winner in Harden Deal

The easy reaction per Oklahoma City's Wednesday trouncing of the Houston Rockets would be to declare them winners of the controversial James Harden trade. The truth is, a head-to-head meeting between these teams no more determines a trade winner than any other NBA night would. 

Oklahoma City should be favored at home against any opponent, Rockets or otherwise. More to the point, their trade will be judged later, deep into the postseason. The teams involved in this exchange were grasping at different goals. Oklahoma City is a title contender; Houston is trying for a playoff berth.

The trade is further complicated by how James Harden and Kevin Martin mean different time and money commitments. Martin has played splendidly—possibly better than Harden, depending on your metrics, and certainly more efficient. 

While Martin has made the argument that he's a fantastic acquisition for Oklahoma City, there's no guarantee that he'll be in a Thunder uniform next year. His recently fantastic play ironically could make this more of a distant possibility.

The better Martin shows out on a big stage, the higher price tag he commands come next season. Based on how OKC handled the Harden situation, they won't give K-Mart any deal approaching max money. 

We also don't know much about Martin, playoff performer. This is a subjective concern, but I fear that Martin might become exposed in the way Harden was during the finals. Both players rely on a certain kind of forced contact (i.e. "flopping" if we're frank about it), as a means of getting to the line.

Martin is probably even more egregious than Harden in this respect, and one wonders if refs will be as accommodating under those bright lights of the playoffs. No ref wants to play Bennett Salvatore to another guy's Dwyane Wade anymore. 

Perhaps Oklahoma City hit a home run with this deal, and Martin's contribution will put the Thunder over the top. Serge Ibaka could grow as a player, Russell Westbrook might take the added responsibility and become the decision-maker pundits have been asking him to be.

Under these circumstances, the Thunder will have at least "won" in the short term—but we're a long way from even the short term.

As for the Houston Rockets, we can probably judge their trade a bit sooner. Since they had no designs on signing the older Martin for a long-term deal, their goal was to establish a foundation right now. They gambled that Harden was, as Morey put it, a "foundational player" (via ESPN). 

Despite the beard's poor performance in this Thunder game, he's been playing up to his lavish contract. Going into Wednesday, Harden was averaging 25.1 points per game and 5.4 assists. He's also shooting an uncustomarily low three-point shooting percentage, something that should correct itself based on his past, efficient performance. 

Harden does have his flaws to be sure. He's turning the ball over too often and shooting off the dribble a bit too much in Houston's three-point-chucking system. But for the time being, it would seem that the Rockets have done well by this trade. One night on the road doesn't change that appearance. If that appearance changes at all, it will take some months, if not years, to determine. 

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