Revisiting the James Harden trade
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.
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.