Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden: What Should Have Been

For want of a tithe, a dynasty was lost.

The Oklahoma City Thunder offered James Harden, then Sixth Man of the Year, a contract extension of $54 million dollars over four years, i.e. Josh Smith money. When Harden held out for $60 million, the Thunder traded him to the Houston Rockets. Eight months later, that move isn’t looking any better.

In 2011-2012, James Harden played in 62 of 66 games, averaging 16.8 points (49.1%, 39.0%, 84.6%), 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists (against 2.2 turnovers) in 31.4 minutes per game.

While those raw numbers are uninspiring, Harden’s advanced statistics tell another story.

The league average Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is 15.0 in any given season. Harden’s 21.1 PER indicates that he was a borderline All-Star. Harden’s shooting percentages are eye-catching in a vacuum, but his 66.0% True Shooting Percentage (so-called because it factors in free throws and three-pointers) was the second-best ever for a guard who played at least 30 minutes per game and qualified for the points per game leaderboard. The San Antonio Spurs led the NBA in Offensive Rating, producing 110.9 points per possession; James Harden’s Offensive Rating was a cream of the crop 125.

However, the most favorable statistic to James Harden was his Win Shares. Harden’s .230 Win Shares/48 minutes ranked fourth among qualified players and his 7.5 Offensive Win Shares ranked fifth, placing him in the company of LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love.

All that to say James Harden was very good at basketball in a Thunder uniform. Questions persisted about whether he could be effective as a full-time starter, as $15 million yearly is a bit rich for a roleplayer. Harden started just 3% of the games he played in for Oklahoma City (i.e. 7 starts in 220 appearances, none in 2011-2012). Though an exceedingly small sample, Harden held his own. His 12.1 points per game (38.6%/41.9%/82.4%), 4.6 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game against 2.0 turnovers per game in 35.7 minutes per game were more or less in line with his per-36 minute averages for his first two seasons.

The notable exception? Harden’s scoring fell off a cliff, and with good reason. Harden’s True Shooting Percentage was actually marginally better than it was off the bench thanks to a high volume of three-point and free throw attempts. But it’s impossible to put the ball in the basket without touching the ball, and Harden received fewer touches playing full-time with two prolific scorers, one of whom actually won the scoring title all three years Harden was in Oklahoma City.

Even after dumping Harden, the Thunder won 60 games, the most they’ve won since relocating from Seattle. Oklahoma City boasted the best offense and the fourth-best defense in the regular season, as well as the best point differential. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka picked up the slack to post career numbers. In all probability, the Thunder were a torn meniscus away from their first title, so why the grief?

Some clarifications: firstly, this isn’t about Harden vs. Ibaka or Harden vs. Westbrook as a franchise cornerstone. The Thunder could have and should have kept all three. Secondly, it’s unlikely Harden would have ever averaged 26 points per game or led the league in free throw attempts if the Thunder had re-signed him. That’s not to say he wouldn’t be All-NBA, and it’s definitely not to say he’s not worth his asking price.

Small markets are frustrated at their inability to retain talent, but for the players with all-time talent, market size is a secondary concern, if at all. LeBron James didn’t leave Cleveland for South Beach. He didn’t even leave to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, per se. LeBron James chose Miami because he wanted to win championships, as in plural, which is also the justification Dwight Howard offered for joining the Houston Rockets (who coincidentally employ James Harden). Kevin Durant stayed with the Thunder for the same reason LeBron and Dwight left their original teams. Loyalty and money were surely considerations, but for a guy obsessed with basketball, Durant’s highest motivation is becoming the greatest ever, and Oklahoma City gave him the best opportunity to do that in 2010.

The core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and at the time Jeff Green was an average of 21 years old at the time. It’s not a stretch to suggest that those Thunder were a potential dynasty with the highest ceiling of any core, ever (in 2010-2011, James, Wade and Bosh, average age 29, earned $52.2 million–the Thunder five earned $20 million). Yes, Green was traded, but more than Kendrick Perkins’ post defense, the asset received was bigger roles for Harden and Ibaka.

The National Basketball Association is a business, but it’s also a game, and games are played to be won. It’s not like the Thunder were cellar-dwellers–they were coming off a Finals appearance! The Bobcats are cellar-dwellers, and they have yet to luck into a superstar. The Thunder had three!

The Thunder collected Durant (#2, 2007) and Green (#5, traded from Boston for Ray Allen), Westbrook (#4, 2008), and Harden (#3, 2009) and Ibaka (#24) from three successive drafts, a feat unlikely to be replicated. Letting Green go made basketball sense: he had the lowest ceiling of the core five, he was a tweener who was below average offensively and defensively, and the Thunder had just lost to the behemoth Lakers amidst a repeat.

Trading James Harden made no basketball sense. The Thunder gave up the best player in Harden, a potential superstar, for a one-dimensional veteran, a rookie, and low draft picks in a weak draft. Never mind that Kevin Martin left for Minnesota or that Jeremy Lamb spent last year in the D-League, neither credibly approximates James Harden, who was so much more for the Thunder than just a tertiary scorer. A small market team traded a superstar who wanted to stay in said small market to a big market because they couldn’t agree on 10%.

The depictions of Harden as greedy are unfair because they are inaccurate. Yes, James Harden wanted more money, and yes, $6 million is not insubstantial. But if you want humility, look no further than James Harden, who would have accepted $30 million less than Kevin Durant and $20 million less than Russell Westbrook. Just how much of a hometown discount was he supposed to take? That’s not a disparity, it’s disrespect.

The Thunder had options. Perhaps the most infuriating example is that Kendrick Perkins (8.2 PER, 47.9% True Shooting, 94 Offensive Rating, -0.5 Offensive Win Shares and 0.062 Win Shares/48) is the Thunder’s fourth-highest-paid player. Perkins will earn $8.5 million in 2013-2014 while the Thunder couldn’t find $6 million for James Harden. Bet that doesn’t happen in San Antonio.

Congratulations to James Harden, for cashing in.

Congratulations to Houston, for pouncing.

Congratulations to Scott Brooks and the Thunder, for adapting.

Congratulations to the Thunder owners’ bank accounts, for being fat.

Congratulations to the fans, for being spoiled.

Wait. That doesn’t sound right.

Condolences to the fans, for getting screwed.


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Tags: Houston Rockets James Harden Oklahoma City Thunder

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