Posted July 03, 2013

Revisiting the James Harden trade

2013 NBA offseason, James Harden, Jeremy Lamb, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rob Mahoney
A major piece of the James Harden trade, Kevin Martin (right) will reportedly leave the Thunder to join the Timberwolves.

A major piece of the James Harden trade, Kevin Martin (right) will reportedly leave the Thunder to join the Timberwolves. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

In trading James Harden for financial reasons back in October, Oklahoma City implicitly accepted that fair value could not be had in return. Harden was set to play the final year of a rookie-scale deal that would pay him just $5.8 million, and thus locked the Thunder into a scenario where they would have to either accept a lesser player on an equivalent salary (if only because there are so few players at that price point who could claim to be Harden’s equal), acquire a quality player on exactly the kind of expensive contract they wished to avoid, or include the kind of trade filler (Kendrick Perkins, perhaps) that would degrade the quality of the return. Instead, they chose to go an entirely different route, picking up some quality assets (Jeremy Lamb, a 2013 lottery pick) along with a short-term scoring stopgap (Kevin Martin) — a package that is (and was) easy to underestimate due to its lack of star power, but valuable in the options it provides and the possibilities it still holds.

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Here are just a few different elements to consider when revisiting the Harden deal, which figures to be a popular topic now that Martin has agreed to sign a four-year, $28 million contract with the Timberwolves and left the Thunder without much of a scoring presence off the bench.

• The two biggest components for OKC are still relative unknowns. The Thunder clearly thought highly of Lamb as a prospect at the time the deal was made, and little enough of the Raptors to take a chance on Toronto’s pick in the 2013 lottery.

The accuracy of the former can’t yet be known. Lamb subsisted on D-League assignments and garbage-time minutes last season (109 of his 147 NBA minutes came in fourth quarters), offering precious little evidence of his performance against NBA-caliber competition. Still, most of what we have seen from Lamb in the D-League thus far has been pretty positive. He won’t step on the court in November as a fully actualized player, but it’s likely that he’ll see significantly more playing time and should have a sustained opportunity to prove himself as a reserve scorer.

As for Toronto’s lottery pick, it turned out to be a lower selection than expected (No. 12 overall) and ultimately yielded a questionable player. Oklahoma City opted to select Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams with that pick, a project big man who would seem an odd long-term fit alongside Serge Ibaka due to the same spacing concerns that the Thunder encounter in playing Ibaka with Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka and Adams could eventually find some success if the latter improves his catch-and-finish game and becomes a decent mid-range shooter, but in the interim he’d take up space on the interior without posing much of a threat. Just 19, there’s reason to think Adams might eventually be able to provide value on both ends of the floor, but he still seems a curious fit for an Oklahoma City team that could use some more immediate rotation filler.

Martin was an important part of the Harden deal because of his ability to create shots against second units and the flexibility provided by his contract’s conclusion after the 2012-13 season, but it’s with these two players that final judgment of the trade should eventually come to pass.

• That the Thunder couldn’t entice Martin to return on a reasonable deal hurts.

Sam Presti’s initial calculation in trading Harden and acquiring Martin hinged on the idea of Scott Brooks using Martin as a complementary offensive player while hiding him defensively. That turned problematic when Russell Westbrook was downed for the postseason, as Martin was required to do more than he was capable and drew more defensive attention than he could rightly handle. He’s still a nice scorer and better off the dribble than he’s given credit, but simply wasn’t equipped to take on a role that large.

When the Thunder roster was at full strength, Martin had a terrific year in both playing effectively off of Westbrook and Durant and carrying the scoring load for the reserves while the superstars sat. In fact, the Westbrook-Durant-Martin combination graded as the second-best high-usage trio in the entire league in terms of net efficiency (per-possession scoring differential) last season, trailing only behind Miami’s grouping of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers. On top of that, when OKC played Martin without the aid of Durant or Westbrook in the regular season, the Thunder still outscored opponents by nearly seven points per 100 possessions (via NBA Wowy). He had some rough outings in the playoffs, but ultimately Martin accomplished exactly that which he was acquired to do, all without costing the Thunder any of their financial flexiiblity. Which brings us to the fact that …

• While losing Martin strips down the Thunder bench, it also creates an even greater incentive to amnesty Kendrick Perkins and make unencumbered use of the full mid-level exception.

If OKC had re-signed Martin on any reasonable terms, the full MLE would have been virtually out of the question; the combination of Martin’s likely salary and a mid-level addition would  have approximated what Harden is now paid ($13.7M), putting the Thunder beyond the financial threshold they had established. But with Martin’s salary cleared away entirely, OKC is now in range of using the full mid-level without going over the luxury tax line — provided that they first amnesty Perkins. That’s a tough call to make on a player clearly valued by Brooks and in the Thunder locker room. But the opportunity to add a quality bench scorer (O.J. Mayo, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, or perhaps even Monta Ellis) without any tax hit whatsoever makes too much sense for the Thunder. If they’re too attached to Perkins to amnesty him, however, Martin’s departure still affords the Thunder the room to make a near-MLE signing that would walk them very near to the tax line or they could just accept the minor financial penalty that would come with using the full exception.

In that, the deal for Harden didn’t just offer assets, but the mechanisms necessary for Presti to navigate the next few seasons while steering clear of the luxury tax altogether — a crucial consideration with tax penalties growing ever more severe. More immediately, an expiring contract, a developing prospect, a lottery pick and the amnesty clause couple to give a cost-conscious team the ability to maneuver as necessary this offseason. They’ll now have to replace Martin’s production, but given Lamb’s scoring potential and their ability to add talent as an immediate counterbalance, the Thunder should well be able to do so while staying within the franchise’s own financial confines.

30 comments
jsteppling
jsteppling

I dont know if it was a mistake and its too early to know because they just now drafted Steven Adams....and I personally think he's going to be a close to elite player. But we've also  not seen enough of jeremy lamb. They had to do something. Harden is good.....and he can score...but he's not an elite scorer and he's a crap defender. Ok....when westbrook went down would he have helped more than Kevin Martin? Of course. Thats still not the final criteria for making a judgement. Perkins was a miscalculation for sure. But...Presti has a winner in OKC....and only two or three teams are as good. So the criticism seems weird to me. Look at the Knicks.....or, gulp, the Nets.....or, Lakers....or Celtics.....only the spurs and heat look as good in their moves over the last few years.And by the say, is it possible to read a hoops article without the cliche "spacing" being thrown out there. NO, its NOT a weird fit with adams....no no no. ANd i wish sincerly that these journalists would learn more about hoop. Having two big men isnt a concern for spacing. Having crappy shooters is. OKC has great shooters and has great cutters, but what they needed was an agile big man in the middle to do put backs and get boards and in adams they have that.

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

The new CBA was written to break up teams like Miami (or specifically  to break up Miami, the way some owners approached it). Instead it's mostly worked to break up small-market contenders. Big markets can and will pay the tax -- didn't stop Brooklyn from loading up on salary this summer, hasn't broken up the Heat yet.

Small markets can't, so Memphis had to dump salary while contending and OKC had to trade away one of its core players. Did the Thunder make other salary mistakes to get to that point? Probably, but the CBA eliminated any room for error a big market might have. Instead of making small market teams more competitive, which presumably was the point, the new rules price them out of their own talent.

A bold suggestion: Next time, make a system where players you draft don't count (or count less) against the tax. They still count against the cap and you're still on the hook for whatever big salaries they command, but don't penalize teams for drafting and developing too many players into stars. It'd be good for small markets and good for continuity and team-building in general.

Game....Blouses
Game....Blouses

As a Blazers fan, I take consolation when another team's front office/management screws up royally

bobdevo
bobdevo

If  Westbrook doesn't come back at 100%, the Thunder are going to be in a world of hurt.  It was plain the Thunder without him were not a top tier team. Too easy to double up on Durant.

prisonmike
prisonmike

kmart was a quality backup in case wbrook ever goes down...which never happens....oh wait?!?

Will10
Will10

Kmart has no business being on a winning team. He doesnt play d, doesn't rebound, and doesnt set up other guys. The real haul for okc in that trade was the first rounder and lamb. They knew kmart was just a one year rental.

Steve Moore
Steve Moore

Trading Harden was a result of signing Perkins to $9mil per year extension. There were alot of 7 foot thugs who could do what Perkins did for $3mil per or less. Hard fouls in the paint? Gadzuric, Ben Wallace would've kept going for that, Nazr Mohammed etc, etc. Trading Harden wasn't the mistake- it was a result of the mistake, signing Perkins.

Skins'Fan
Skins'Fan

No matter how an article like this is written it will still appear they received too little for him. Consider what we knew then about Harden: He was considered a reach when the thunder took him. He was considered one of the best 6th men in the league and had clear skills but the question lingered... Is he for real? When they traded him very few teams could offer anything worthwhile at that salary point to match up and very few could offer space to absorb him into it. Thereby limiting options and creating a smaller market that still had questions in the back of their heads. A rental year on an efficiency scorer, a widely respected prospect coming into the draft and (at the time) a potential top 5 pick. That's a great haul for him considering the hurdles and questions that were lingering. They have their options open now but once salary is lost (and you're capped out) it becomes very difficult to reacquire. They're stuck with westbrook-durant-ibaka + supporters... Can't blame em for snapping up a rookie contract either. Rookie contracts are widely considered the best value next to an underpaid superstar (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Curry)

barjona
barjona

They seem to be going backwards... Martin was a decent fill in for Harden but clearly not as good, now they're hoping Lamb can be a poor man's Martin. And Adams might be able to be a poor man's Perkins this year allowing them to dump more salary.  I know that Durant and Westbrook are getting better but after their loss to Miami I had the sense that this was a championship team, I don't have that anymore. 

TarHeelFan1001
TarHeelFan1001

Their mistake was choosing Ibaka over Harden for the big contract. The big three should have been Westbrook, Durant, and Harden. Oh well it sucks to be them.

JonCBK
JonCBK

Or they could have just stuck with Harden, you know the 23 year old who is one of the top five scorers in the league when one considers both high high volume and efficiency. Actually, he is probably third after Durant and Lebron. 

They had a dynasty, they just had to wait one more season for it to become fully clear. 

Also how can an article like this be be written without mentioning that KMart cost $12.5 million this year. That's a huge hit compared to what Harden cost. 

nyhoukcdal
nyhoukcdal

@marino.eccher Really like your draft-cap suggestion.  Maybe toss in a bit of MLB style time-in-league concept before the tax hit provision is lost for that player.  For example, OKC didn't draft Lamb, but he's barely played to this point of his career, so he could still be considered new enough to qualify for tax avoidance for OKC.  Or he could still move to another team and not be a tax hit if he still hasn't exceeded X games/minutes/whatever.  

7beers
7beers

@bobdevo this is a question mark, and i also doubt whether Rose can come back at 100%

YZLee
YZLee

@Will10 Doesnt play D, doesnt rebound, doesnt set up other guys...that sounds like half the starting guards in this league...except Martin is an efficient scorer.

barjona
barjona

@Will10  A guy in the D-league and the #12 pick in a weak draft is not a "haul" considering what they gave up. 

barjona
barjona

@Skins'Fan  The problem is that they had to trade Harden at all... I get that the luxury tax is getting serious and OKC is a small market team but it's sad to see such a well constructed team dismantled to save money. On a side note Bosh is in no way underpaid. 

sarahsupreme
sarahsupreme

@Skins'Fan Harden was already a Team USA player at 22-23 when he was traded, so people knew how good he was.  They should have amnestied Perkins and kept Harden.  OKC will probably never be as good again as if they'd kept Harden.

Jameson
Jameson

@barjona I agree with your sentiment. They didn't "have to trade" Harden. Harden was still on his rookie deal so they could have waited until now to make a move. Picking a project like Adams at 12, is, well, I don't understand. 2nd rounders are for projects. So you end up trading  an all star for a ham sandwich. I don't get it.

geewhiz
geewhiz

@barjona A poor mans Perkins..that's a terrifying thought.  He's an offensive liability, and overrated defender.

DestinBanks1
DestinBanks1

@JonCBK Yeah they are idiots they should have traded westbrook and kept harden. They could have sent him to boston for rondo and jeff green and a pick. Our to the hornets for chris paul before the clippers trade. Once again they are idiots because westbrook and KD will never win a ring together

Will10
Will10

@barjona @Will10 he was in the dleague because he was gonna sit behind kmart and sefo and not see any minutes so might as well let him get some burn somewhere. he wasnt in the dleague because hes a bad player. btw he was putting up over 20 a game in the dleague. lamb is the reason they didn't re-sign kmart

JoeCabot
JoeCabot

@DestinBanks1 Maybe some guys in your fantasy basketball league would make those trades.  Back in the real world, your ideas are good for a laugh.

JonCBK
JonCBK

@DestinBanks1 @JonCBK They didn't have to trade either. They could have had Westbrook, Harden, Durrant and Ibaka. That team would have gone deep into the playoffs year after year. That would have given them plenty of revenue to pay some luxury tax, which they could have solved by amnestying Perkins. 

PacochoTapias
PacochoTapias

@DestinBanks1 @JonCBK  dude.. you need to do your math first before say things that make no sense. You say trade RW for  Rondo+Green like they make peanuts... OKC trading for Rondo +Green would be ADDING  5 or 7 millions in salary... plus the same or more in luxury tax... in that scenario they wouldn´t need to trade Harden.

Mr. J
Mr. J

@DestinBanks1 @JonCBK Trade Westbrook?....they were not getting Rondo or Chris Paul back...you lost basketball credibility when you said trade Westbrook, he is a beast a mismatch and causes the other defense to adjust with his unstoppable drives...All OKC needs is a dependable scoring presence in the post....and a more scoring minded 2 guard for the cheap like Bellinelli or Dorel Wright....keep Westbrook he is the one guy other teams point guards cannot stop!

Jameson
Jameson

@Will10 @barjona Whoa, let's slow down. There are lots of 20 ppg scorers in the d-league that can't make a NBA rotation. Not saying that Lamb can't but to date, there is no evidence, only speculation. Martin was a proven 15 ppg type player in the NBA and very effective if not asked to do too much. So OKC has gone from Harden (an all star caliber player) to Martin (a solid player) to Lamb (a prospect). It's a big leap of faith to think that Lamb can immediately contribute even to the level of Martin. Again not saying it can't happen, just saying it's based on hope.

barjona
barjona

@Will10 @barjona Fair enough I'm sure he'll be fine but again, probably a step down from Martin in an effort to save to save money. It's the reality of being a small market but it doesn't bode well for any small market if a team that gets so lucky in the draft has to dismantle. 

Hampton180
Hampton180

@JoeCabot @DestinBanks1 Salary wise they do not add up, but if it is possible I would take Rondo or Paul on this team over Westbrook any day.  Durant is possibly the most efficient scorer in the league, if anybody needs to be putting up 25+ shots per game it is him not Westbrook.