The Westbrook Injury Makes OKC’s James Harden Trade More Interesting Than Ever

Bringing up the argument of who won the James Harden trade is almost as pointless as the best rapper debate at your local barbershop. There’ll always be one or two guys who co-sign your stand, and there’ll always be a handful who think you’re out of your mind. There will be a lot of pointless arguing and talking in circles. There’s almost never a middle ground.

Unlike the best hip-hop artist of all time debates, though, high profile NBA trades are generally resolved at one point or another. History is usually the one to solve them, but it takes time.

Of the last three high profile trades, I would argue two of them have yet to be resolved.

The Los Angeles Clippers undoubtedly won the Chris Paul trade. It instantly propelled them into the top tier of the Western Conference. The main player they parted with in the deal, Eric Gordon, is an undersized two-guard who shoots 40 percent from the field. The only consolation the Pelicans really received was the gift-wrapped first overall pick in the NBA’s “Give the top pick in the draft to the team who we think most deserves it based on how sorry we feel for them due to recent events” system, also known as the draft lottery. (They started this trend in the previous season when they gave the Cleveland Cavaliers the No. 1 pick in the draft after LeBron left town for Miami.) This paragraph marks the first time I’ve had the opportunity to call the New Orleans professional basketball team the Pelicans and the 362nd time I’ve called out the draft lottery. Just so you know, the Bobcats will win it this year, you can write it down. The franchise has never one the lottery and it will be David Stern‘s final thank you to Michael Jordan for everything he did for the NBA, carrying Stern through the post-Magic and Bird era. For something that’s supposed to be a fun surprise for fans and also disable tanking, it’s become more predictable than the plot of The Hangover III. Whatever.

As for the other two trades, the ones involving Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, respectively, the jury is still out. There seems to be a general consensus among NBA circles that the team who acquired the best player always wins the trade. I would argue that right now Denver is better off without ‘Melo (their record proves it), though New York is also a better team with him (ditto).

The only loser in the Dwight Howard trade has been the Philadelphia 76ers, whom I’ve written about too many times than I’d care to admit at this point, who gave away a good young swingman in Moe Harkless and one of the best rebounders in the game in Nikola Vucevic and the best defensive wing in the NBA in Andre Iguodala for a center who’s knees are weaker than a one-legged bar stool and who has played in as many games this year for the Sixers as you and I have combined. The Orlando Magic made out as well as you could in that situation, and the Los Angeles Lakers have Dwight Howard (for now, at least). The point is that these things take time to determine.

For the record, when I started this column, Russell Westbrook had never missed a game due to injury in his high school, college or pro career, Geno Smith was still thought to be a first-round pick, Patrick Beverley wasn’t receiving death threats from an OKC ball boy and arguments could still be made that the 2013 NBA Finals will be one for the ages.

Since, Russ West suffered a torn meniscus, Geno Smith made Brady Quinn and Aaron Rodgers‘ draft day waits look like that of a top-ten selection, and the OKC ball boy used the “my twitter account was hacked” excuse (but not before apologizing on Twitter), the Miami Heat winning the NBA Championship for a second consecutive year has become more of a lock than Lindsay Lohan attending court ordered 12-step meetings after her (next) rehab cycle.

The point is, you can’t account for injuries, but since Oklahoma City suffered such a major one, we can’t ignore it. It would be like the big elephant in the room of this column.

I have this theory, that even if true, no one in Oklahoma City’s camp would ever admit to it.

Isn’t there a slight chance, that perhaps, they didn’t know James Harden was as good as he is?

During his tenure with the Thunder, Harden only averaged 23, 27 and 31 minutes per game in his three seasons. He posted points per game averages of 9.9, 12.2 and 16.8. He was only allotted 7.6, 8.3 and 10.1 shots per game. By comparison, this season with Houston he averaged 25.9 points on 17.1 shot attempts in 38.3 minutes. I’m not saying the Thunder camp thought he was nothing more than a role player, but I’d almost bet that behind closed doors they’d tell you they didn’t think he’d be THIS good. You could argue that he’s the best shooting guard in the NBA, and no matter who’s judging he’s in the top three. I’m of the opinion that they wouldn’t have traded away someone who they thought was a top-three player at their position, regardless of whether or not it would have been hanging over their head this season.

What we know for sure is that the trade had everything to do with finances and little, if anything, to do with basketball. It was the first bit of real controversy for a franchise that has more or less been in a honeymoon period with the league since being moved from Seattle.

Up until the Harden trade, the Thunder have done things the way everyone wants franchises to. They’ve built through the draft, their star small forward quietly signed his extension to remain with the team. No television cameras, no one liners that will be mocked until the end of time, no preseason championship party. General Manager Sam Presti has basically batted a thousand since taking over in 2007. In his first three NBA Drafts, he selected Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden, among others. He made the very risky call to flip Ray Allen essentially for Jeff Green, who he later turned into Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder were built, especially in the post-Decision era, how we want our teams to be built.

Keep reading to hear how OKC survived the Harden trade this season…

The Harden trade was the first real controversial move for the franchise since taking its talents to Oklahoma City. But even amid the controversy, the team hasn’t missed a beat, and actually, they’ve improved in just about every statistical category since dealing The Beard.

2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
PPG: 103.1 (third)
Opp PPG: 96.9 (17th)
Win %: .712
FG %: 47.1
3P FG%: 35.8
FT%: 80.6
REB: 43.7
AST: 18.5
TO: 16.3
STL: 7.5
BLK: 8.2
EFF: 109.8

2012-13 Oklahoma City Thunder
PPG: 105.7 (third)
Opp PPG: 96.5 (ninth)
Win %: .732
FG%: 48.1
3P FG%: 37.7
FT%: 82.8
REB: 43.6
AST: 21.4
TO: 15.4
STL: 8.3
BLK: 7.6
EFF: 112.4

Facts are facts, and the fact is that the Thunder already had two max players in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. They either didn’t believe Harden was a max guy, preferred Westbrook to him or possibly both. Harden and Westbrook do a lot of the same things, and up until this year, it was unarguable that Westbrook did those things better. I’m of the belief that OKC’s camp didn’t entirely know what they had in Harden (if they did, they would have kept the core together for the remainder of this year, went for a title and figured it out later) and that they figured they could replace his production for a lower dollar amount, which they have.

Last season for Oklahoma City, James Harden averaged 16.8/4.1/3.7 points, rebounds, assists, while putting up 49/39/85 shooting splits.

This season Kevin Martin gave them 14.0/2.3/1.4 while shooting 45/43/89. Serge Ibaka also improved his scoring average 4.1 points per game, from 9.1 to 13.2. Collectively, the improvement of Ibaka and the replacement in Kevin Martin have more than made up for what James Harden gave them in scoring production last season. In that aspect, Oklahoma City got exactly what they wanted in replacing Harden. They were banking on the improvement of some of their other young guys, plus what Martin has been capable of giving them, and as the numbers point out, they’ve actually been a better team.

The shots Harden used to take are now consumed by the emergent Reggie Jackson, a more aggressive Serge Ibaka and the ever-willing Russell Westbrook. The Thunder got rid of a guy who emerged as an elite scorer this season, and they still had a better season than they did last year. Only now, there’s a catch.

Oklahoma City survived James Harden’s departure in large part because they were healthy all season long. They survived because Harden was always a supplementary player to them. The Beard would have never tapped his potential as a 26-points-per-game scorer with the Thunder. There were never enough minutes or shot attempts — that is, unless someone, mainly Westbrook or Durant, got hurt.

You have to wonder how the Westbrook injury would play out if Harden were still a member of the team. Would the Thunder camp see exactly what they have in Harden? Would he put up 23-28 points per game given the fact that he’d be playing between 38-42 minutes per game? Would they still trade him in the offseason or would they figure out how to make it work? Would they shop Westbrook instead? We’ll never know.

All we know is that right now the Oklahoma City Thunder are up 3-1 on the Houston Rockets. Surely Oklahoma City will win the series, but the trade? Only time will tell.

Do you think OKC regrets trading Harden?

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