Dear Bill Simmons, You May Have Bashed the Thunder's James Harden Trade Too Soon

Ben LorimerSenior Analyst IINovember 10, 2013

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder greets teammates Jeremy Lamb #11 and Steven Adams #12 during a timeout against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena on October 30, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Dear Bill Simmons,

For starters, I know that while this is addressed to you, it is sure to get lost in the mail. The odds of you finding this among the millions of Bleacher Report articles floating around the Internet are just as low as finding something positive that you have said about the blockbuster deal that sent James Harden from Oklahoma City to be "the man"-hood in Houston.

However, you were the catalyst for this article, so I thought it would be rude not to frame it as such. You see, as a Thunder fan, I have been drawn to every one of your critiques and cheap shots about the trade like a moth to a flame.

It pains me to see the great Oklahoma City leadership get dragged through the mud again and again, and it hurts when I hear about the supposed poor quality of the players that they got in return. However, I just cannot stay away from them. It's a form of self-torture, really.

For those of you who are not readers of Mr. Simmons, here is a quick breakdown of his argument. It all started just days after the trade was announced, when Simmons penned this article. I will resist taking a cheap shot at the subheading that the Lakers would replace the Thunder as Western Conference royalty. The rest of the article ran through the now-well-established Simmons doctrine on James Harden.

The basis of the argument is this: James Harden was a max-level player, and without getting another one back, the Thunder traded four quarters to the dollar in adding multiple merely good players. Simmons also takes a hack at Sam Presti and the Thunder organisation, claiming that the Thunder could have gone into the luxury to sign Harden and did not because of some sort of financial conservatism or greed on the owner's part.

This brings the argument to its usual conclusion, where Simmons states that the Thunder became "the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only." 

Simmons has some valid points in his argument, but his gaffe in predicting Los Angeles' dominance highlights how quickly things can change in the NBA.

Much as the Lakers went from presumed champions to begging for Dwight Howard, the assets the Thunder acquired from Houston have changed hugely in perceived value in the year since the trade. When Kevin Martin left Oklahoma City, analysts were ready with pitchforks sharpened to lampoon the fact that the Thunder only received Jeremy Lamb and two mid-to-late lottery draft picks for the best shooting guard in the NBA.  

Simmons recently wrote that he would be interested to see "Jeremy Lamb's hilarious attempt to replicate Kevin Martin's numbers last season (good luck)" and "Steven Adams vindicating his lottery selection by becoming the greatest bench celebrator in recent league history." While this statement was actually in a season-preview article, his statement is very consistent with his attitude toward the trade. 

Moreover, his analysis of Lamb and Adams has already been placed tentatively in the "The Thunder just handed the Western Conference to the Lakers" bin just six games into the regular season.

First of all, Adams is doing a whole lot more than celebrating on the bench, and in his best game so far, against the Detroit Pistons, he was the best big man on the court, outplaying very good players like Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith.

His 17 points were earned from some tough shots, and Adams showed real touch on some floater-hook hybrid shots from maybe six to seven feet out. As usual, he was hustling all over the floor, and his rebounding and shot blocking skills were on full display.

Sure, he still has some defensive struggles, but this is almost always the case with young big men in the league, and given the way that his coaches and teammates have talked about his work ethic, he is very likely to pick it up soon.

What's more, this is not an isolated event. While this is Adams' best game as a pro, he has yet to play poorly since preseason started. Despite how well rookies like Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo have been playing, if Adams gets starter's minutes, there is no reason why he cannot compete for Rookie of the Year honours.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Lamb has been flying under the radar. With the return of Russell Westbrook and the phenomenon that is Adams, most people have just assumed that Lamb has continued his wretched preseason form. This could not be further from the truth, and a look at his numbers suggests that he may even be doing the impossible (according to Simmons) by not just replicating, but beating, Kevin Martin's 2012-13 performance.

Here are both of their stat lines, in both per-game and per-36-minute form. Note that Martin's are for a full season while Lamb's are for five games. This is really too small for comparison, but it's all we have at the moment. All stats below are from Basketball-Reference:

Jeremy Lamb Per Game 2013-140.4870.4381.0001.
Jeremy Lamb Per 36 Minutes 2013-140.4870.4381.0002.
Kevin Martin Per Game 2012-130.4500.4260.8902.
Kevin Martin Per 36 Minutes 2012-130.4500.4260.8902.

As you can see, through six games, Lamb is more than holding his own with Martin. On account of playing 10 fewer minutes a night, his per-game numbers are worse, but they are more or less fighting to a standstill here.

While we will have to wait and see if Lamb can continue his shooting at this level given how poor it was in the preseason, the fact is that he should be putting up numbers like this given his pretty shot and track record of accuracy.

Also, another bow to Lamb's quiver is his defense. I am not saying that he is the next Andre Iguodala, but Lamb is long, athletic and committed, and that in itself makes him a significant upgrade over Martin on the less glamorous end of the floor. With Martin on the floor last season, Oklahoma City's defense had to contort to protect him, and Lamb's extra ability on defense will make things easier for the rest of the team. 

All in all, it seems like at this point Bill Simmons' predictions for Lamb and Adams are very wide of the mark. Given that they are only going to get better over their careers, this already raises the question of whether the Thunder truly traded four quarters to the dollar. I am not saying that they will be better than Harden, but their different skill sets may be more beneficial to the Thunder's title aspirations than another elite perimeter scorer.

But wait, there's more (in true infomercial style). The Thunder have yet to use the final asset that they received for James Harden, the Dallas Mavericks' first-round pick. This pick does have lots of protection, and until 2018 the Thunder will only get their mitts on it if it falls after the 20th selection of the draft.

However, in 2018 it becomes unprotected, and if this scenario plays out, the Thunder could legitimately get a young star if the Mavericks fail to rebuild after Dirk retires. Even if the Thunder get the pick before then, they will be able to add another cheap, young player who can fill a key role like bench shooting, rebounding or a backup point guard.

In the past four drafts, guys like Quincy Poindexter, Greivis Vasquez, Jimmy Butler, Kenneth Faried, Jared Sullinger, Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock and the Thunder's own Reggie Jackson have been taken in that range, and all are at least very valuable bench contributors. Having another player like that on a rookie deal would really help the Thunder maintain a strong bench when the salary-cap squeeze gets tighter.

Having another draft pick is valuable to the Thunder because they are the greatest drafting organisation in the last 10 years. I gave a more detailed assessment of this at the end of this article: Since Sam Presti took over as GM, the Thunder have only really drafted one bust, Cole Aldrich.

They have gotten a whole lot of good players later in the draft, like Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe. If any team is justified in trusting its ability to draft guys to fill out a roster, it is the Oklahoma City Thunder

In summary, I think it is far too early to judge the Harden trade, and especially far too early to call it "the worst trade of the century" (3:12 in the YouTube video) as Simmons likes to do. The fact is that while the Thunder are extremely unlikely to get a player as good as Harden, they do not need to on a team with Durant and Westbrook.

The real reason Harden had a breakout season with Houston was because he got to be the first option, and this would never have happened in Oklahoma City. Harden would never have become a top-10 NBA player and would have failed to maximise his potential as a sixth man.

By trading him, the Thunder added two good young players—one who is perfectly suited to a sixth man role or as a complementary starter, as well as a young big man who looks like he might just become the next Tyson Chandler with a better jump shot—and a future first-round draft pick. These pieces will give the Thunder a better overall roster than if they had kept Harden and sacrificed the quality of their role players.

The simple fact, whether or not Simmons will admit it, is that the Thunder are still a championship contender, have a more promising long-term financial situation and just as bright a future (and a legitimate centre for the first time in Oklahoma City history).

This may be controversial, but rather than being one of the biggest highway robberies of the decade, it could be one of the true everybody-is-a-winner trades. We will just have to wait and find out.


Ben Lorimer


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