As you can tell from the title, I do not think that the Oklahoma City Thunder's trade of James Harden to the Houston Rockets before the 2013 season was a bad one. While it was a real blow to lose a player with so much talent and chemistry with the team, it made sense then, and it still puts the Thunder in a enviable position after being dumped from the 2013 NBA playoffs following the failure of Russell Westbrook's formerly bulletproof health insurance rating.
There are plenty of reasons for this, and first and foremost is the plain fact that the trade should not be re-graded because of a freak accident. It is not as if Sam Presti traded away Harden knowing that the other two star players he was keeping were Stephen Curry and Andrew Bynum. Before these playoffs Westbrook and Durant had together not missed a start due to injury since 2010, and Westbrook, as everyone knows now following his torn meniscus, had not missed a game since high school.
Therefore, there was no precedent to assume that they would have injury issues last season. While it may seem naive to assume that the Thunder's two key players would not have injury issues, in the modern NBA with a punitive luxury tax, teams cannot afford to pay big bucks to four players.
Additionally, Westbrook's injury was just bad luck. We can argue semantics all we like, but the simple fact is that, like most injuries, this was the product of bad luck. There is no way that Sam Presti could have foreseen this injury, so if anyone agreed with the trade before the injury, there is no reason why they should suddenly be against it.
However, I know that many analysts crucified the trade the moment it was announced. One of those was Bill Simmons. While I think he is the best sportswriter out there, he is dead wrong on this matter. He has criticised the trade, and his criticism intensified when Westbrook went down.
This is quite a knee-jerk reaction to the injury, especially since the trade made a positive influence on the team beyond the simple addition and subtraction of players and draft picks. If you think that Simmons was the only one, check out the video of Skip Bayless (not exactly the cream of the crop) slamming the trade after Harden's first monster game in Houston.
First of all, by cutting the James Harden umbilical cord, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had to up their games in 2013, and they did. It is no coincidence that both Durant and Westbrook put forth their best seasons as professionals. Durant became undeniably the second-best player of his generation, and made it a question of when and not if he will be better than LeBron James in the future.
More promisingly, Westbrook also played really well, scoring with his usual proficiency as well as stepping up his game-management skills. Both also really grew as passers, and both could legitimately play point guard (an especially important skill for Westbrook, given that it is his position).
While this could be explained away as the next progression of their development, the loss of a third ball handler in Harden did force the Thunder duo to run the offense more and shoulder more play-making responsibility. Durant's assist rate grew from 17.5 percent to 21.7 percent, and Westbrook's from 29.8 percent to 38.4 percent. And both did this without increasing their turnover rate, according to basketball-reference.com. They would not have been given this responsibility if Harden remained on the team.
Also, as great a player as Harden is, he always was a third wheel on the Thunder roster. Although Serge Ibaka is a worse overall player than Harden, his interior defense and pick-and-pop jump shot offense meshes very well with the perimeter shooting and slashing games of Durant and Westbrook. Harden, on the other hand, does what Durant and Westbrook do, and arguably all at a worse level.
He is a good shooter at three-point range, but not with the same efficiency as the Durantula. He is also a great scorer at the rim, but he lacks the same blow by explosiveness and finishing skill of Westbrook. In short, his game is an amalgamation of Westbrook and Durant, and would have always been held back in the Thunder squad.
To add to this, the primary explanation from the Thunder as to why they made the trade was because they could not afford to go well over the salary cap to bring back James Harden, or any player for that matter. While I personally think they have more money floating around than they claim to have, the new CBA has made the "championship window" for any team not in a big-time market effectively four to five seasons.
After that, they will simply not be able to afford the star players they need to compete, and the repeater tax will ramp up to levels they can no longer afford. With this in mind, as well as the current talent levels in the NBA, the next few years are not the best championship window for Oklahoma City. The Miami Heat are the dominant force in the league, and almost everyone on the Thunder squad, especially Ibaka and Westbrook, have not gotten to their peak performance level yet.
Was the Harden trade good in hindsight?
Therefore, if the Thunder were to pick an ideal time to blow the budget and go after a championship, it would not be now. In a few years the Heat's Big Three will be dissolved, and the Thunder stars will all be squarely in their primes. Therefore, by not bringing back Harden, Sam Presti has managed to push back the start of luxury tax payments, while also stockpiling future assets to make the Thunder the pre-eminent force in the NBA in a few years.
This brings us the to return that the Thunder got from the trade. Many analysts, including the aforementioned Simmons have panned it, saying that:
"For one thing, they overvalued what they got in return: Kevin Martin (one year of a good shooter and that's about it, as well as someone with no big-game experience at all — as you're seeing this round as he's clanking 70 percent of his shots); Jeremy Lamb (the 12th pick in a nine-player draft); Toronto's 2013 lottery pick (congratulations, you're picking somewhere between 10th and 13th in the worst draft in 13 years); and Dallas's future first-round pick (which better be first overall to make up for this debacle of a trade)."
While I understand that I am nowhere near Mr. Simmons when it comes to NBA knowledge, I feel he missed on this analysis. While Martin was not great for the Thunder in the playoffs and will probably not be back unless he takes a pay cut, I like the rest of the trade.
Jeremy Lamb has legit Sixth-Man-of the-Year potential as a guy who can make it rain from deep (much like Martin) but who can also defend. He is also a good athlete, and, if he develops better handles, he could be a very good player. Also, the Thunder added two draft picks. While none are top-five guaranteed star picks, they do give the best drafting organization ever more shots at getting a star.
If we look at the past Sam Presti picks, we see a litany of great players. If we look at his selections over the years, it looks like this. Note that I am only mentioning the second-round picks if they panned out, since those player are not given guaranteed contracts.
2007: Kevin Durant (2nd), Carl Landry (31st)
2008: Russell Westbrook (4th), Serge Ibaka (24th)
2009: James Harden (3rd), Rodrigue Beaubois (25th)
2010: Cole Aldrich (11th), Eric Bledsoe (18th)
2011: Reggie Jackson (24th)
2012: Perry Jones (28th)
This is an extremely impressive laundry list of picks, with only one bust (Cole Aldrich), three great early picks and a bunch of late picks that have turned into at least great role players. Additionally, it was apparently Sam Presti who talked the Spurs organisation into taking Tony Parker. The man is just a great judge of talent, and giving them extra draft picks seems almost unfair to the rest of the league.
When looking at the trade through this tint, it looks much better. The Thunder do not need another bona-fide star on their roster, they need great complementary players. The sort they have historically taken with mid-to-late first rounders. Those two picks could that make Oklahoma City an unstoppable force in three to four years.
In conclusion, I am still 100 percent behind the James Harden trade. While the Thunder did lose a great young player, the return of draft picks, the added development it created in Durant and Westbrook and the way that it shifted their title window back a few years makes it a good one overall. Now, the Thunder just have to keep clear of any injury bugs.