There’s a reason why teams don’t like to trade core players within their own conference. The fact that you not only have to face them more times during the season, but also possibly in a playoff series, causes many teams to take lesser deals in order to trade a core player to another conference. That scenario now becomes a reality for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In their first round match-up with the 8th seeded Houston Rockets, the team will meet up with former 6th man extraordinaire James Harden. While the teams have already met three times before during the regular season, the stakes will undoubtedly be higher for these next 4-7 games.
The trade essentially comes full circle within the same season. When Harden was traded to the Rockets 4 days before the season started, many media pundits saw this as the first step back in a franchise that had progressed forward since it first stepped foot in the Great Plains in 2008. Many wondered whether the team that many people had tabbed as the next great dynasty was finally beginning to succumb to the many ills that small market teams face. The new collective bargaining agreement, which was supposed to help small market teams with the concept of increased “player-sharing,” had actually robbed the model small market team of one of its superstars. Even the fans, those crazy, loyal, Oklahoma City fans, questioned whether the billionaire owners were crying cheap in the wake of a possible dynastic-like run.
In reality, the trade turned into a win-win situation for both parties involved. The Thunder front office and scouting team puts a premium on player development. It helps that they have drafted extremely well in the last 5 seasons. For every dud that’s ever gotten drafted by the Thunder, there are two studs in their place. For every Cole Aldrich the team drafts, there’s a Serge Ibaka or a Reggie Jackson. For every Byron Mullens, a Russell Westbrook or James Harden. The team not only looks at skill, but also character. They don’t just want players with specific skill sets; they want players that want to use those skill sets to reach their maximum potential, and then want get better from there. That’s what we’ve seen from the Thunder players when adversity hits. Many people wondered where the scoring would come from when the Thunder traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins in February 2010. They were trading two double figure scoring starters for a center that struggled to average 8 points a game and was coming off of major knee surgery. After the trade, the Thunder adapted and Kevin Durant and James Harden increased their scoring to offset any loss of scoring on the offensive end. At the same token, with Ibaka getting a lot more minutes, the defense improved. The team ended that season with a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Many wondered whether that same type of internal improvement could happen after the Harden trade. Seriously, what more could Durant and Westbrook do to improve their games? They were already 2 of the top 10 players in the league. The fact that Durant and Westbrook improved their games this season came as no surprise. They knew that they would not only have to replace the scoring of Harden, but also the playmaking. While the superstar duo’s scoring remained consistent from the previous season, it’s their assist numbers that made the team better. Durant averaged a career high 4.6 assists (up from 3.5 the previous season), while Westbrook upped his assist mark by nearly 2 assists per game. Not only did the assist go up, but the turnovers between the two went down (even if slightly). In addition, the duo became very efficient with their scoring. Durant became the newest member of the 180 shooting club (50% FG, 40% 3pt FG, and 90% FT), and Westbrook chose his spots a bit more technically this season.
But what of the other Thunder players? Incremental improvements from Durant and Westbrook alone wouldn’t be enough to replace Harden’s production. Enter Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. Ibaka’s scoring average jumped up over 4 points, but it’s in the matter in which he scored that assisted the team the most. Ibaka became one of the best mid-range shooting big men in the league. Where that helps the Thunder is in floor spacing for Westbrook and Durant. With opposing big men not being able to cheat off of Ibaka, the lanes opened up for the scoring duo. In addition to Ibaka, Sefolosha became a consistent 3-point threat and increased his scoring by nearly 3 points a game. For a team that performs optimally when the floor is spaced, the improvement of these two players has lessened the departure of Harden.
In addition, the Thunder got a comparable player in Kevin Martin. While the season has, at times, been a bit rough for Martin and his transition as a 6th man, he has filled the role seamlessly enough to lessen the blow of the trade. The bench role transition was made more difficult by the fact that the Thunder not only traded Harden, but also 3 other members of the Thunder’s bench. The Thunder were, in essence, bringing in an entirely new bench unit. On a team that finds comfort in continuity, this was a shock to the system. It took about 65 games, but the coaching staff finally found a rotation off the bench that works for the team. What once seemed like a weakness after the trade, has, once again, turned into a strength for the team.
As mentioned above, the trade was a win-win for both organizations. The Rockets finally got the superstar player that they had been trying to acquire for the past few seasons. In an attempt to acquire a superstar player, that Rockets had been loading up on assets and freeing up cap space. When they failed to acquire Dwight Howard in the offseason, the team shifted its sights onto Harden, who was in a contract squabble with the Thunder. With their combination of Martin (expiring contract/comparable player), Jeremy Lamb (lottery talent), and draft picks, the Rockets finally acquired what they hope is the first piece of their successful puzzle. Not only do the Rockets now have a good young core in Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, and Thomas Robinson, but they also have the cap space to go after another premium free agent this offseason.
And what about our old friend, James Harden? I’ve always thought that sometimes, in life, you have to get pushed out of your comfort zone to achieve your utmost potential. The reality is that Harden was too talented to be a third option on any team, regardless of who the first two options were. He was a highly efficient scorer that got to the line in droves and was a top notch playmaker, to boot. He had shown that he could perform in high pressure situations and was beginning to be one of the most noticeable faces in the NBA (and its most noticeable beard). He was ready to be a superstar, and was ready to get paid like a superstar. The Thunder offered what they thought was a respectable offer, but also knew that Harden (and his agent) may be looking for something more. The market dictates what a player is worth. If a player begins to hear that he is worth the max, he’ll be looking for that type of money. The Thunder knew this and made a decision: either Harden sacrifices by taking a lesser than market value offer to stay on the team or the Thunder had to pounce on the best deal available. The rest is history. Harden was traded, got a super max extension, and became a superstar. End of story, right?
Wrong. Much like the Thunder versus the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 playoffs, the Rockets are now the hungry, young upstarts trying to take the crown from the defending Western Conference champion Thunder. In a way, the CBA’s concept of player-sharing actually worked out this time. The reality is that when you draft enough talent, you’ll eventually run out of money to pay them all. It’s not a bad dilemma to deal with if you have the right brain trust guiding the team. In the end, after coming full circle, one team got better in this trade and the other team improved. I’ll let you decide which is which.