Re-Assessing James Harden's Decision to Turn Down OKC Thunder

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Re-Assessing James Harden's Decision to Turn Down OKC Thunder
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Is James Harden better off in Houston?

As is the case with pretty much every major NBA move, it's going to be hard to fully evaluate James Harden's decision to turn down the Oklahoma City Thunder for the next couple of years.

There are just too many moving parts here—the players the Thunder received for Harden (and heck, Harden himself) are still developing, OKC has a pick and a $6.5 million trade exception for dealing Kevin Martin that have yet to be used, and the narrative will swing dramatically if either the Thunder or the Houston Rockets win a title in the coming years.

Still, the post-trade outlooks for both Harden and the Thunder as a whole are starting to become clearer, and as such, it's well worth taking a look at how things are working out for both parties.

 

Quick Recap

Last October, the Thunder—fresh off inking Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48 million extension—were looking to extend Harden at a similar rate, offering four years and $52 million, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

Harden turned down that deal and when the Thunder bumped it up a few million and he still wouldn't bite, they dealt him to the Rockets for Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick (via Daily Thunder's Royce Young). One of the first-round picks became Steven Adams, the second-rounder was used on FC Barcelona shooting guard Alex Abrines and the other first (from the Dallas Mavericks) is top-20 protected through 2017.

 

Harden's Perspective

Even the most ardent Thunder fan can't deny that Harden's decision has worked out pretty well for him. As ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss recently pointed out, Harden didn't just pocket an extra $24 million in the trade, he was also rewarded with a massive boost in status.

In ESPN's “#NBArank,” Harden shot up from No. 26 in 2012 to No. 4 in 2013. Among the names listed higher than him in 2012: Deron Williams, Pau Gasol and Tyson Chandler. The only names listed higher than him in 2013: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. Pretty big difference in perception to say the least.

And funny enough, 2013 Harden wasn't appreciably better than the 2012 version. Harden averaged 16 points, four assists and four rebounds coming off the bench for the Thunder, did so with historic efficiency and put up some monster games to boot.

The list of guards who can match 2012 Harden's combination of efficient scoring and playmaking is not long, and every player on the list has had a Hall of Fame caliber career.

Harden's numbers from last season (26 points, six assists, five rebounds per game) are very impressive, but he was less efficient and the statistical jump is really just a result of increased usage—Harden hoisted far more shots and was responsible for providing a much larger chunk of offense. Was he a better player? Probably. But not nearly to the extent you might think.

And as we've learned over the years, perception is important in the NBA. It's why LeBron is constantly bombarded with questions about his legacy and why Harrison Barnes has admitted that part of the reason he returned to college for a second year was to build a better “brand” for himself (via The Atlantic's Jason Zengerle). This stuff matters, maybe even more than we think.

Remember, both the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors allegedly turned down Harden deals before he was eventually shipped off to Houston. Last March, Grantland's Bill Simmons wrote:

Multiple sources have told me that, when Oklahoma City's Sam Presti decided to shop James Harden, Golden State was his first call. He wanted Klay Thompson and a pick. The Warriors would only consider the trade if Oklahoma City took back Biedrins or Jefferson for 2013 expirings, knowing they'd get crushed by the luxury tax in 2014 with Harden's extension plus Steph Curry's extension plus David Lee plus Bogut/Jefferson/Biedrins. At that point, Presti went to Washington (offering Harden for Bradley Beal, and unbelievably getting turned down), then Houston (where the shopping heated up). Presti never ended up calling Golden State back.

If you don't think the Warriors and Wizards would do those deals in a heartbeat now, you're crazy. Harden's reputation has blown up now that he's proved he's a reliable No. 1 option, even if it really shouldn't have needed proving in the first place.

Had Harden chosen to accept a discount to play for the Thunder though, he would have spent the entirety of his career in the shadow of Durant and Russell Westbrook. Strauss compared Harden to Manu Ginobili (not an uncommon comparison), another brilliant guard who will wind up spending his career behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

Strauss wrote about Ginobili and Kobe Bryant and the status difference between the two—both will be remembered as great players, but Bryant will go down as one of the greatest players ever whereas Ginobili, also a Hall-of-Fame lock, doesn't command nearly that much respect. Bryant has been voted to the All-NBA team 15 times. Ginobili has received the award just twice, both times being voted onto the third team.

But that's not at all indicative of how good Ginobili has been, just the role he's played. Ginobili's averaged just over 10 shots a game for his career. Had Ginobili been in Bryant's shoes, taking on a far greater offensive load than the one he's had with the San Antonio Spurs, he'd almost certainly be perceived as a better player than he is now. It's unfair, but it's true.

Harden may have cost himself a few easy rings by turning down the Thunder's offer, but he's making more money and is arguably the best player on a legitimate title contender. Sure, all the extra attention has led to some negative press—he's been picked on for his defense more than a few times. But strictly in terms of his own interests, Harden made the right move. He's been a superstar for a while. Now he's seen as one.

 

OKC's Perspective

First thing's first: As good as this current Thunder team is (with Westbrook healthy, obviously), it's not better than it would have been with Harden.

Lamb and Adams have been wonderful in their respective roles this season (more on that later), and the team is exciting as hell to watch in no small part because of the development of its young bench. But the Thunder would be easy title favorites this season, and for many seasons to come, if they still had Harden.

In 2011-12, when the Westbrook-Harden-Durant-Ibaka quartet was on the floor together, the Thunder scored 114.7 points per 100 possession, per NBA.com. Over the course of a season, that mark would be enough to rank among the NBA's 10 best offenses ever. Keep in mind, this was two years ago when Durant was just 23, Ibaka was 22, etc., etc.

Factor in each player's individual improvement since then, and you could make a case that the Thunder had a real shot at being one of the greatest offensive teams of all time. And considering how strong they've been defensively over the past few years, it wouldn't be out of the question to think they could have been historically good period.

There's a reason that the Thunder were basically penciled in as a dynasty. Even as a very, very young squad, they were unbelievable. There's not a team in the league equipped to defend a Reggie Jackson-Westbrook-Harden-Durant-Ibaka lineup. Even with just a semi-competent supporting cast, the Thunder probably could have cruised to multiple Finals.

And going beyond all that...the Harden trade stings because it was just plain fun to watch Westbrook, Harden and Durant grow together.

It's hard to think back on all the memories those three provided—the 8-0 run against the Los Angeles Lakers, Harden's fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook playing his heart out in Game 4 of the Finals and finally, the Western Conference Finals comeback against the Spurs—and not feel a little bit cheated that it ended so quickly.

With that being said, this year's Thunder have been excellent to the extent that it's worth re-evaluating how well they made out in the Harden trade, which has been widely panned over the past year. It's nearly impossible to get even value for a superstar, but it's starting to look like the Thunder did pretty well for themselves despite that.

There were some concerns about Lamb coming into the season, but he's dispelled those doubts nicely to this point. He's scoring nearly 10 points per game on 56 percent true shooting, including 39 percent from deep. Lamb's most dangerous without the ball, and the Thunder have incorporated him in a lot of fun two-man stuff with Nick Collison—baseline cuts, give-and-go's, etc.—to take advantage of that.

Lamb's been one of the league's most efficient scorers out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). He's got a ton of different floaters, runners and high-arcing layups that he likes to break out when he's around the basket, and while that means he doesn't get to the line often (he only averages a free throw a game), he usually gets pretty clean looks near the rim.

Courtesy of Instagiffer.

Adams might be even more exciting than Lamb considering how dreadful Kendrick Perkins has been this season (seriously, how on earth is that guy still getting real minutes?). Adams wasn't expected to see anything but the bench as a rookie, but he's been a surprisingly solid contributor.

Adams sometimes gets lost on defense—particularly in the pick-and-roll—but he's learning, and every now and then, he makes a play that leaves you wondering just how good he could be on the defensive end in a few years.

For example, in a recent game against the Spurs, Adams jumped to block a driving Danny Green. Green instead dumped it off to Tiago Splitter at the rim, and yet somehow Adams was able to recover, spin around and swat Splitter at the basket (H/T to Daily Thunder's Royce Young).

Courtesy of Instagiffer.

That's something the Thunder haven't seen from their center in...well, ever. Adams has also shown some flashes on the other end. He's not someone you would really want to feed the ball in the post, but he can catch and finish and he's already proved to be a good passer as well. The Thunder desperately need someone to eat up Perkins' minutes, and Adams looks like he could be ready sooner rather than later.

Courtesy of Instagiffer.

And again, there's plenty more on the way for OKC. Sam Presti would never let the Martin trade exception go to waste, and there are more than a few attractive pieces available at $6.5 million. The Mavericks pick is also a valuable asset—especially considering the way teams have been hoarding first-rounders as of late—and Abrines is a talented young guard.

I won't try to convince you that the Thunder got the better of the Harden trade—they didn't. But they weren't ripped off in the way you might be led to believe, especially when you consider that had Westbrook been healthy in the playoffs last season, they would have had a great shot at meeting the Heat in the Finals.

The Thunder are tied for the league's best record, and not just because of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. OKC is a very good, deep team that's built for the long haul. It would be better with Harden—of course it would—but it's doing just fine without him.

Harden followed his best interests in turning down OKC's final offer, and if the Thunder really are serious about completely ducking the luxury tax (and it certainly looks like they are), then it's hard to argue that they didn't do the same. Again, we won't be able to fully evaluate either party's decision for years. But as it stands, things are working out for both Harden and the Thunder.

 

All statistics accurate as of 12/28/13 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.

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