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Trade Retrospective: James Harden To Rockets

In the wake of the blockbuster deal that sent Kevin Love to the Cavaliers this summer, I’ve been taking a look back at some of the bigger trades that have occurred in the NBA over the last decade. It’s always a risk to trade away a star player, and getting equal value is a near impossibility in most cases.

It’s fascinating to see the league-wide ripples that big trades can cause, and sometimes the full effects and ramifications aren’t fully felt until years later when the draft picks are used, players either reach their potential or fall short, and the won-loss records are chiseled into stone, or at the very least into the amber that is the internet.

So far I’ve looked back at Carmelo Anthony being dealt to the Knicks; Kevin Garnett to the Celtics; Dwight Howard to the Lakers; Stephon Marbury to the Knicks; Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat; Chris Paul to the Clippers; Deron Williams to the Nets, and LaMarcus Aldridge to the Blazers. Next up is the 2012 trade that saw the Thunder ship James Harden to the Rockets.

Let’s begin by reviewing the assets exchanged:

The trade of Harden was 100% financially motivated on the Thunder’s part. The team had been trying to sign the 6’5″ shooting guard out of Arizona State to an extension, but Harden turned down Oklahoma City’s four-year, $55MM deal, which turned out to be a total of about $6MM less than the four-year maximum salary extension that Harden was seeking. Harden eventually got the deal he was looking for from the Rockets, and in October of 2012, just after the trade was completed, he signed the extension with Houston for five years and $78.8MM.

The Rockets had been stagnating in the Western Conference and had been desperately seeking a superstar player for years. Harden seemed like the perfect fit–a young, playoff-tested scorer who could not only improve Houston’s roster and ticket sales, but who also could be used to lure other big name stars to the city.

Let’s look back at Houston’s records prior to the trade:

  1. 2009/10: 42-40
  2. 2010/11: 43-39
  3. 2011/12: 34-32

Harden came in and during his first season he set career highs in virtually every statistical category, as well as beard length. He also helped make the Rockets one of the more dangerous and entertaining teams in the league, though despite Harden being paired up with Dwight Howard, the franchise hasn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since either player has been in town, and with the brutal offseason the team has had, that outlook doesn’t look to improve this coming season.

Here’s what Harden has done since arriving in Houston:

  1. 2012/13: 25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.8 APG, and 1.8 SPG. His slash line was .438/.368/.851.
  2. 2013/14: 25.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 6.1 APG, and 1.6 SPG. His slash line was .456/.366/.866.

Harden has given the Rockets their money’s worth thus far, despite being a bit of a ball-stopper on the offensive side, not developing into a plus defender, and turning the ball over far too often (3.7 per game in his two seasons with the Rockets). Considering that Harden is just entering his prime, and barring injury, the best is still ahead of him as a player.

Cole Aldrich only spent 30 games in a Rockets uniform, averaging 1.7 PPG and 1.9 RPG. On February 20, 2013, Aldrich was traded to the Kings along with Toney Douglas and Patrick Patterson, and $1MM for Francisco Garcia, Thomas Robinson, and Tyler Honeycutt. He finished out the season with Sacramento, and then signed with the Knicks in the offseason.

Daequan Cook also had a short stay in Houston, appearing in just 16 games, and averaged 3.4 PPG and 1.1 RPG. He was waived by the Rockets on January 2, 2013, then signed with the Bulls and finished out the season in Chicago. That was his last year in the NBA and Cook has played overseas since then.

Lazar Hayward never played in a single game for the Rockets, as he was waived immediately after the deal.  He then signed with the Timberwolves, but only appeared in four games for the franchise, averaging 2.5 PPG and 1.0 RPG. Hayward hasn’t seen any NBA action since.

From Houston’s perspective, the trade should be considered a success. They got the best player in the deal, and the star they had been seeking, and didn’t have to give up the farm to acquire him. This trade hasn’t resulted in a deep playoff run yet, but Harden is a player that the Rockets can certainly build around. For a comparison, let’s look at the Rockets’ records after trade:

  1. 2012/13: 45-37 (Lost in first round to Thunder)
  2. 2013/14: 54-28 (Lost in first round to Blazers)

It’s doubtful that the Rockets will take the next step forward this season after losing Chandler Parsons to the Mavs in free agency, and dealing away Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while trying to clear enough cap space to sign Chris Bosh, who snubbed Houston and re-signed with the Heat. But with Dwight Howard and Harden as a foundation, the Rockets should be able to bounce back in the next few seasons.

For the Thunder, trading away Harden was a huge gamble, especially since the team had just come off a surprise trip to the NBA Finals, and with a solid young core the sky seemed to be the limit for Oklahoma City. But the team was feeling the salary cap crunch with Kevin Durant‘s, Russell Westbrook‘s, and Serge Ibaka‘s big money deals already on the books, and Harden seeking a max deal.

The trade hasn’t harmed the franchise during the regular season, but Oklahoma City definitely felt the effects in the playoffs, especially considering the team’s injury woes. For comparison let’s first look back at the Thunder’s records prior to trade:

  1. 2009/10: 50-32 (Lost in first round to Lakers)
  2. 2010/11: 55-27 (Lost in Conference Finals to Mavs)
  3. 2011/12: 47-19 (Lost in NBA Finals to the Heat)

As I previously mentioned, this trade was all about the Thunder trying to maintain long-term cap flexibility so they could try to surround their core with more than just minimum salary players. Dealing away Harden hasn’t affected the franchise during the regular season, as evidenced by Oklahoma City’s records since the deal.

  1. 2012/13: 60-22 (Lost in second round to Grizzlies)
  2. 2013/14: 59-23 (Lost in Conference Finals to Spurs)

The team has still performed well above the competition during the 82 game regular season, but the playoffs are where Harden’s absence has been felt the most. The loss of “The Beard” was exacerbated the last two seasons because of the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, where Harden’s presence could have mitigated the damage missing those two stars caused. As talented as Reggie Jackson, Martin, and Lamb are, they aren’t capable of taking over a game on the offensive end like Harden is, which is invaluable during the grind of a playoff series.

As for Oklahoma City’s side of the deal, the primary piece they received was Kevin Martin, who was counted on to replace a large portion of Harden’s scoring punch off of the bench. While nowhere near as dynamic an offensive player as Harden, Martin had averaged over 20 PPG five times in his career prior to arriving in Oklahoma City.

Martin only spent one season in a Thunder uniform, and averaged 14.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, and 1.4 APG. His shooting numbers were .450/.426/.890. While these numbers weren’t far off of what Harden provided during his time in Oklahoma City, Martin never quite clicked with the Thunder’s style of play, and he had a rough playoff run, averaging 14.0 PPG and shooting only 38% from the field.

After the season he was part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Timberwolves and the Bucks, and Oklahoma City received the draft rights to Milwaukee’s 2003 second-round draft pick Szymon Szewczyk in return. Martin’s new contract with Minnesota was for four years and $28MM.

Martin was seen more as a one-year stopgap by the Thunder, and they were hoping to develop Jeremy Lamb to take over the backup shooting guard duties after Martin departed, and do so for a much lower salary as well. Lamb has shown flashes of potential, but I would have a difficult time making an argument that he will develop into a star on Harden’s, or even Martin’s level, anytime in the future. Here’s what Lamb has done with the Thunder during his first two seasons in the league:

  1. 2012/13: 3.1 PPG, 0.8 RPG, and 0.2 APG. His slash line was .353/.300/1.000.
  2. 2013/14: 8.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, and 1.5 APG. His slash line was .432/.356/.797.

It can be argued that the Thunder used the two first-rounders that they received to essentially draft the same player twice. In 2013 they selected Steven Adams with the No. 12 overall selection. Adams was viewed as a long-term project who had remarkable physical tools for a big man. During his rookie season, Adams averaged 3.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 0.7 BPG. His slash line was .503/.000/.581.

Adams has quite a bit of potential, and while I don’t believe he’ll ever perform at an All-Star level, he’s the type of player who can help push a good team to the next level with the gritty play that he provides. Whether or not the Oklahoma City front office agrees with me can be debated, seeing as they selected Mitch McGary with the No. 21 overall pick in this year’s draft.

I have no issue with McGary as a player, and I think he’ll turn out to be a serviceable pro as he develops. But his game and skill set is remarkably similar to Adams’, and I can’t help think that either Shabazz Napier, Rodney Hood, or P.J. Hairston would have filled more pressing needs at that draft slot. Although, with this most likely being Kendrick Perkins‘ last run with the team, an Adams/McGary center rotation could be quite serviceable if both players can avoid injuries and continue their skill progressions.

The victor of this deal hasn’t quite been decided yet, but in my opinion Houston got the better end of the trade. Harden was easily the best player involved, and he gave the Rockets the type of star they could build around and boost season ticket sales with. He afforded Houston six years of control of a young superstar just entering his prime. They also might not have landed Howard without Harden being part of the package that they pitched to the big man.

As for the long-term, I don’t personally believe that Harden can be the best player on a championship caliber team. He’s too much of a ball-stopper, and his defense is barely average for the position. He’s a fantastic complementary piece, and if the Rockets’ front office can surround him and Howard with the right role players, Houston has a shot at a title somewhere down the line. Next season will likely be a step back for the team, and I think that they will miss Parsons quite a bit, not to mention the hit their depth took with the departures of Lin and Asik.

There was very little chance that the Thunder would come out on top in this trade. When shipping out a star player, it’s rare for a franchise to improve. During the regular season the team didn’t miss Harden, but in the playoffs his presence may have been enough to get the Thunder back to the Finals even without Westbrook or Ibaka being healthy.

Adams, McGary, and Lamb are nice complimentary players, but none has the ceiling that Harden does. It can be argued that one secondary benefit of this trade was the emergence of Jackson last season. He averaged 13.1 PPG and 4.1 APG, primarily off of the bench, and has helped fill the void that Harden left. But the Thunder face a similar situation now with Jackson up for an extension. While he most likely won’t be in line for a max-level contract, he still may command more than Oklahoma City is comfortable paying.

If the Thunder are forced to trade Jackson, they’ll probably find out once again that it’s almost impossible to get a significant return back. Just look at what they received for Harden, who is a far superior player. The Thunder have a small window to contend for an NBA Championship, and if they can snag one in the next two seasons before they run the very real risk of losing Durant to free agency, then trading Harden won’t go down as a failure. But I have to think he was worth the extra $4.5MM that was the point of contention during his negotiations with the team. With him on the Oklahoma City roster the last two seasons, it’s very possible that the Thunder would have won their first title. That’s a possibility that many OKC fans have no doubt contemplated.

Note: If there’s a particular trade that you would like to see me take a look back at, please feel free to sound off in the comments section below or hit me up on Twitter at @EddieScarito.

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One thought on “Trade Retrospective: James Harden To Rockets

  1. stidham12

    “The victor of this deal hasn’t quite been decided yet”. Who hasn’t decided yet, Thunder ownership? Even the hardest of hardcore OKC fans hate this trade. It will ultimately bring down what could have been a dynasty when Durant and Westbrook leave as well. Morey basically stole a top 10 player.

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