1. Harden Times: I’ve been away from hoops for a while, unfortunately, but this seems like the perfect time to return. The season is starting, which is good news in itself, and a lot is also going on, most notably, the trade of James Harden to Houston. What to make of this move? Bill Simmons wrote a column taking OKC apart for the trade as a missed opportunity to nurture that third star that most title teams have. I don’t necessarily think that Simmons is wrong but the decision is not quite that simple and it’s hard to state emphatically that trading Harden was a huge mistake.
In order to actually evaluate the trade, though, we should at least set out the facts and see if we can figure out where OKC was coming from here. Now, some might not agree with all these findings but we should at least try to find all the common ground first:
-OKC’s two best players are Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant: Well, KD is obviously the team’s best player. Westbrook and Harden were pretty close in value last year on a per/minute basis. Westbrook had a PER of 22.9 and Harden had 21.1, which is quite close. Westbrook has the added value that he’s been playing at or near this level for a few years, while this was a new plateau for Harden. Westbrook also played more minutes at a more premium position. So, it’s fair to say Westbrook is better than Harden going forward, even though a strong argument can be made that their value is fairly equal.
-OKC thought Ibaka + Kevin Martin > Harden and no Ibaka: OKC seemed to feel that Harden wasn’t worth the $80 million max he grabbed from Houston but value is relative. Clearly, Houston had the cap room to pay Harden that much, while Harden as a second/third banana in OKC was more replaceable in their lineup and the Thunder lacked the cap room. This raises the interesting question of whether OKC wrongly chose to pay Serge Ibaka instead of Harden. In theory, the Thunder could’ve paid Harden a good salary and kept Ibaka but they would have had to amnesty Kendrick Perkins and his $25 million over the next three seasons. This seems like the easiest path (Perkins can’t score at all anymore and another cheaper big could probably be found most easily) but I guess either OKC decided they wanted to keep his bulk or Harden wouldn’t discount himself at all. Assuming that the Perkins amnesty option was not available (which seems very possible), OKC had to choose between Ibaka and Harden. This is no easy choice…either a 23-year old shot blocker who is playing like a young Marcus Camby or a valuable two guard with ability in all facets of the game like a young Eddie Jones or Manu Ginobili.
I’m sure if OKC’s choice was only between Ibaka and Harden, they probably would’ve taken Harden. Ibaka is a great player but, as a thinner shot blocker, isn’t even always on the floor to end games against the likes of Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan. The Thunder must’ve thought they could get a enough value from Kevin Martin, a young prospect in Jeremy Lamb, and two first-round picks (plus some other trinkets) and the bonus of keeping Ibaka was worth more than retaining Harden and hoping to find another Ibaka-type player. In the short-term, the Thunder shouldn’t feel much drop off (Martin is a very good scorer, but can’t guard/pass like Harden). In the long-term, Martin is a free agent and will probably command less then Harden did but will still be expensive. It’ll be interesting to see if Martin is let go after the season and the Thunder try to go with Lamb. This element of uncertainty at play makes this a hard deal to assess. Assuming Harden/Ibaka was an either or proposition, though, the return here is nice. Martin will help now and Lamb could be a good two guard going forward.
-Houston scored its star, kind of: After years of trying to obtain a few stars to build its team with, Houston finally found one in Harden. Harden projects as a great player but this is not the same as getting Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, or Chris Bosh. Yes, the Rockets had to lock up a young All-Star and a Harden/Jeremy Lin combo is a nice start to a team but there is reason two guards are not usually valued like star big men. Unless Harden turns into a Clyde Drexler-level player or better, the Rockets are not instantly a great team. Harden could turn into that type of player and the Rockets had to grab such a potential player but his presence does not guarantee the playoffs for Houston. While the Rockets still have plenty of cap room to get another star, they are still a work in progress.
-Overall?: Overall, this is a trade that helps both sides but is not totally ideal for either. OKC hedged well enough in recovering some good two guards for Harden (plus picks) but there is a possibility that they will regret letting Harden go (albeit not quite as likely as some would have you believe). For Houston, a nice interim move and nothing more and they may kick themselves if they gave up a ton of assets if a star big man becomes available in trade.
2. Lakers…It’s Over?: It’s way too early to make any conclusions about this season but the Lakers’ bad start (0-2 and outscored by 18 points in two games) has created all sorts of questions about this potential super team. But why worry? Had the Lakers made any free throws, they probably would’ve won at home against Dallas and they always have had problems in Portland in even the best of times. Still, the defense has looked weak (even though Dwight Howard looked good offensively) and Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant do not look like a great mix. If the Lakers wanted a 38-year old spot up shooter who can’t defend, they could’ve kept Derek Fisher. Nash should start blending well here but traditional point guards have never meshed well with Kobe in the past and the Lakers won’t get maximum value from Nash that a team without such a high usage shooting guard might.
3. Quickie Predictions: We’ve already provided an excellent and comprehensive NBA preview the last few weeks but I wanted to give predictions my on the record. I am fully aware that no one (including myself) will remember or care about my picks a week from now but how can I not participate? Anyway, here were go…
- Boston Celtics: Getting older and scoring is becoming an issue but still the best in the division.
- New Jersey Nets: Improved from the limbo years in Newark but this is still just another decent team with no Dwight Howard.
- New York Knicks: As with anything Knicks-Dolan, this team will eventually get ugly but should be in the playoffs again this year.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Took a step back in order to try to get Bynum and then made some weird personnel decision in free agency.
- Toronto Raptors: Some talent has been assembled but no depth. Goal will/should be to develop Jonas Valanciunas not to get to playoffs.
- Indiana Pacers: The Bulls’ loss (Rose, Derrick) is the Pacers’ gain. Have a pretty clean shot at the Conference Finals.
- Chicago Bulls: They aren’t a real threat without Rose but they have as much talent as most of the teams in the East (this is not a compliment to the East).
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Not a ton of good players but Kyrie Irving is enough to be near the playoffs.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Improved the offense last year at the expense of the defense. Won’t be quite as painful to watch as the prior teams but watching Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings chuck isn’t riveting or a successful strategy.
- Detroit Pistons: Greg Monroe is effective but too many other weak draft picks and signings mean this team is still near its nadir. Joe Dumars may be in trouble with new ownership.
- Miami Heat: Still the class of the East and the NBA. LeBron and company look at least as good as last year.
- Atlanta Hawks: Even without JJ the talent is there to be a second round playoff team but still not a true threat.
- Washington Wizards: I agree with the consensus that Wiz’s off-season moves were bad for the long-term but are better than most of the riff raff for now.
- Orlando Magic: Handled the Dwight Howard affair terribly and are back into rebuild mode.
- Charlotte Bobcats: Cats should be better than the worst team ever this year but not by too much.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: The division has no cupcakes but KD and Russell Westbrook is enough to get a top seed.
- Denver Nuggets: A trendy pick to be really good. I see them as merely good, which is no insult.
- Utah Jazz: Few teams have amassed so many very good forwards. They’ll have to flip one (Al Jefferson?) for another guard.
- Portland Trail Blazers: They could be in the playoffs or could flame out. Success will come down to rookie point Damian Lillard.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: As good as most of the division but the Kevin Love injury will set them back.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Having trouble working out the kinks but they are too good not to win this division.
- Los Angeles Clippers: Clipps are deep and talented. Fun to watch but will need someone to fill the holes at the two guard and small forward to really win big.
- Golden State Warriors: Are trying hard to be taken seriously as a defensive team when the talent is focused with finesse guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
- Phoenix Suns: Starting over with Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat.
- Sacramento Kings: There is some talent here but not as much as management thinks. Should reassess where they are headed.
- San Antonio Spurs: This will end sometime soon but not quite yet.
- Memphis Grizzlies: A nice solid playoff team.
- Dallas Mavericks: If Dirk comes back quickly and healthfully, they are a playoff team again.
- Houston Rockets: Lin/Harden will be fun and should be around the playoff race.
- New Orleans Hornets: West is too deep for them to win too much but have great building blocks
- Miami Heat
- Indiana Pacers
- Boston Celtics
- Atlanta Hawks
- New Jersey Nets
- Chicago Bulls
- New York Knicks
- Cleveland Cavaliers
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Denver Nuggets
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Dallas Mavericks
- Utah Jazz
Heat over Pacers, 4-2
Thunder over Lakers, 4-3
Heat over Thunder, 4-3
MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis
Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel