The James Harden Trade: An Email Exchange

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Tom and Derek like email exchanges because they can talk about basketball outside of the Wolves. So when something big like James Harden getting traded happens, you can bet that an email exchange is happening. As always, you can follow Derek and Tom on Twitter. And you should, since they are trying to accomplish 1,000 and 500 Twitter followers respectively.

Tom: Being on Twitter when big NBA news breaks is easily the best part of Twitter, and last night was no exception. When news broke that James Harden had been traded to the Houston Rockets, we had instant analysis from intelligent people, instant snark from funny people and instant information for all of our questions. We also had instant stupid from stupid people, so instead of talking about the three previous positive things I listed, I want to discuss the idiots that came out of the woodwork on Twitter.

Here’s my thing: The average fan doesn’t understand every nook and cranny of the NBA’s most inner workings, and that’s fine. You don’t need to understand how Ricky Rubio’s assist percentage represents his importance to the Timberwolves’ offense to appreciate his gorgeous behind-the-back passes. It’s ok to stay on the surface level if you want. Some of us prefer to dig deeper, but quite frankly, we are the weird ones, writing a long, drawn-out response to a trade involving two teams that we neither cheer for nor cover at 2 in the morning on a Saturday when other, less pathetic people are probably out enjoying themselves and hanging out with real people. So if you aren’t super into the NBA, it’s fine. Healthy even.

But somehow, I feel like lots of NBA fans are getting dumber. For example: One member of basketball Twitter was retweeting a bunch of people who he found calling James Harden a traitor (although most of them spelled it “trader”). They blamed Harden for…something. Going to the Rockets? In a trade that he had absolutely no control over? Soooo, yeah, boo you jerk, and that sort of thing. Fans gonna fan, I guess.

The problem is that, even if you don’t understand the inner workings of the NBA, this is a pretty cut-and-dried scenario, right? Like, even a non-basketball fan could figure this out if they listened to what the news-breakers on Twitter were saying. Harden was TRADED. Even if you say that he could have accepted less money to keep playing for OKC (which is a godawful argument, but I’ll allow it for the time being), it’s not like he passed on that opportunity. The Thunder just traded him.

No matter what the results of the trade, this is one of the dumber fan reactions I’ve ever seen.

Derek: What do you mean? The night the Harden news broke was awesome if you love knee-jerk reactions and snap judgments! I think it’s really tough for the average fan to get past their enchanted fairy tale view of professional sports and place something like this in the proper perspective. Here are the most common things I heard that night:

“TRADER!!!”: As you said, he had no control over his destination. He didn’t have a no-trade clause, and the Thunder didn’t want to lose him for nothing, which is smart. I want to talk about the trade later, but I will say I like OKC’s aggressive action.

“He’s greedy! It was all about the money!”: This is where some people agreed and disagreed. Some people said they’d be fine accepting less money than they’re worth depending on the situation, and others, like me, said you’re out of your damn mind if you think I’d leave $5-6 million on the table. People forget that while, yes Harden is already “rich”, NBA players have lifestyles to maintain and families to feed, clothe, and shelter like the rest of us. Which leads me to…

“He chose to go from a team that was a contender to a team that will NEVER contend!”: Oh, ok. Again, we saw a lot of forms of the word “choose” that night. Here’s the thing, the Rockets may not be contenders here and now, but they have some nice pieces in place to build around. Here’s another thing, if James Harden is a top shooting guard in the NBA — a max contract player — then isn’t he being brought in because the Rockets believe he can take them to the next level? And he’s young, so time is on his side to win a title. Funny how the short-sighted people could look so far ahead to say the Rockets will never be a contender.

To link my previous two points, it’s hard for me to fault Harden for choosing not to be paid less than his worth and also pass up an opportunity to take on a larger role. I would hate to look back on Harden’s career and wonder, “What if James Harden was given the chance to be a star on his own team instead of playing third fiddle to Durant and Westbrook ?” We should all be excited for the chance to see the player Harden is capable of developing into with this new role.

“RAWR!!! LOYALTY!!! GRRRR!!!”: Alright, alright. That’s not an exact quote, but a pretty good paraphrase. At the end of the day, pro sports are a business. As much as we’d like to believe that a player who was born, raised, and went to school elsewhere should be loyal to a city that he has no real ties to other than the few months per year they spend there, it’s just not realistic. Teams can have a player around for years and once they no longer have a use for them, their skills decline, and their contract becomes more of an albatross than an asset, they’re dumped like yesterdays trash. Because of this, players have every right to look out for themselves and their families long-term well-being.

The Thunder are no exception to this either, despite many fans’ almost-romantic perception of the team. They’re a great team, but at the end of the day they have a business to run, too. We like to think that player’s take into account those of us who buy their jerseys and posters, but there are greater considerations to take into account first. Now, I’m not saying they don’t appreciate their fans, of course.

When you also factor in how short NBA careers can become, whether injury or what have you, I say good on James for not only getting a pay raise but a promotion and a chance to further his career.

Tom: I can’t come up with any disagreement. We aren’t arguing. Let’s change this. Let’s talk about the trade itself, starting with the Thunder.

I understand the rationale of OKC trading Harden. It’s why I wasn’t 100% against them dealing him for the second pick in the draft on draft night. You know, back on draft night. Now? Not so much. The Thunder went through an entire preseason without several of the players that will now make up their roster, including Kevin Martin, who will need to change his entire role and style of play, and Jeremy Lamb, a rookie. It might have been a good idea to get those guys on board when there was still time to develop team chemistry.

I realize negotiations weren’t gaining any ground now, but they weren’t a month ago either. If OKC wanted to make the right deal, they should have either traded him with enough time left in the preseason to integrate their new pieces, or they should have ridden out the year with him and tried to play the loyalty card. Either they could try to parlay a championship season into a more affordable contract or they could use his loyalty as part of a sign-and-trade. Now they are left with a rather major set of what-ifs, if they don’t win everything.

My only bright side about this for the Thunder? The Lakers will probably take some time to adjust to each other as well, if the preseason is any indicator (and I think it might be). So at least they won’t be the only Western Conference power trying to acclimate themselves to new pieces. But they didn’t have to be that team, and the fact that they seemingly unnecessarily chose to be is a little weird to me.

Derek: I’ve talked to a couple people about this trade, mostly about the Thunder’s thought process here. Some feel that they could’ve waited until the offseason to make a similar trade and they’ve made one final run with the core of last year’s Finals team. The other side is that they used the Jazz’s handling of the Deron Williams situation and move him for a young player and a couple of picks. Doing so, seemingly in the blink of an eye, is a very emotional (or unemotional depending on how you see it) response to the situation.

I’m undecided on how I feel about this trade entirely, but I think Jovan Buha of ESPN’s Clipperblog said it best to me last night that the Thunder will be judged constantly for this, and I think he’s right. His main point was that if they don’t win multiple titles, they’ll regret it- even if they win “just” one. Sounds maybe a little extreme, but I could see it if Harden explodes like Tracy McGrady when he arrived in Orlando and the Thunder miss out. Still, I think we could look back fondly on these Thunder teams if they win a title and Harden blows up, marveling at the depth of those old Thunder teams.

As far as what they got, I think there’s certainly some risk involved. Martin is rather non-consequential being an expiring contract, but his productivity suffered last season with the rule changes that affected his ability to get to the line, which was a big part of his game. You’d think that if they had an idea that Harden wasn’t going to take less than the max on draft night, they could’ve moved for Lamb on draft night, as you mentioned. There has to be some level of concern for the Thunder moving a proven commodity for, essentially, magic beans (Rookie lottery pick, multiple firsts and an expiring contract) with very little time for the team to get acclimated.

You talked about the top of the Western Conference playoff picture, but what about the bottom and the Rockets throwing their name in the ring for a low seed? The entire Western Conference picture just got very murky as far as being able to tell who ends up where, and likely one good team will be left watching the playoffs instead of playing. Think about that lineup with Lin-Harden-Parsons-Asik and it’s hard not to see them considered with Dallas, Golden State, Minnesota and others.

What do you think of this deal for Houston?

Tom: I like the deal for Houston. I don’t love it, but I like it. If anybody loves this deal, they are forgetting that Houston spent months chasing after bigger game (literally) in Dwight Howard and they totally came up empty. Harden is quite the consolation prize….but he’s undeniably a consolation prize. So if Dwight Howard would have been an “A” for the Rockets, James Harden is a “B.” Very acceptable work, certainly worth some positive enthusiasm, just not quite “A” material.

One of my fellow C’s Town writers thinks that the addition of Harden will mean the playoffs for Houston. I commented that I thought this was ridiculous, but I was shocked to find that I was outvoted by the other people tagged in the email. Is this really something people are considering? And if so, should I reconsider my stance?

Here’s my thought on Houston this year: Even with Harden, they downgraded severely at two very important positions. Kyle Lowry to Jeremy Lin has the potential to be anywhere from slight downgrade to utter devastation (unless, of course, we get Linsanity Jeremy Lin, in which case Morey will look like a genius). Luis Scola to…whoever the Rockets will primarily play at power forward is a significant downgrade as well. Given the adjustment time Harden will need and given all the turnover, I have a hard time seeing the Rockets out of the lottery this year.

That doesn’t change my opinion of the trade. It’s still a good trade. Just don’t expect huge, playoff-sized returns. Yet.

Derek: Ok, I can see your point about the Rockets needing time to come together as a team, but I think you may be undervaluing their roster a bit. While Scola’s basic stats looked fine for a 32 year old, his Rebound %, Offensive Rating and Defensive and Offensive Wins shares began to drop. I know it’s risky to rely on rookies, but they drafted Royce White, and got 2011 pick Donatas Motiejunas to come over to take Scola’s minutes in the frontcourt. This is in addition to adding Omer Asik, at an admittedly hefty price, to protect the paint. And you know how good Asik was at doing just that last season? The Bulls allowed 0.94 points per possession with him on the floor! That’s absurd! He provides no offense, but that’s where the other frontcourt guys like Motiejunas, White and even Chandler Parsons come in.

I agree with you on the Lin thing, and that we don’t know which version we’ll get this season. Still, with Parsons, Motiejunas, White and Harden, Lin likely won’t have to do much more than run the offense. That may mean more pick ‘n’ rolls, but Kevin McHale has some excellent PnRs in his playbook.

Why could the Rockets make the playoffs? Or let’s say “sneak in”, instead. Look at who else is considered in front of them: the Mavs have Dirk missing time due to knee surgery; the Wolves have Love and Rubio coming back from injuries a month into the season; the Warriors have Steph Curry’s ankles. I feel like they could stick around these teams if they are able to adapt to each other quickly. And of course there’s Utah in the mix, too. I think they have the talent to be a fringe or a seventh or eighth seed that gets bounced in the first round. It won’t be easy for any of these teams to get in, but the Rockets have a better chance now.

Sure, some people are overrating the Rockets, but you have to be careful not to underrate them either

Tom: I will continue to underrate them because DAMMIT IF THEY MAKE IT WHERE DO THE WOLVES GET IN?!!!

Derek: Obviously, if they don’t get the number one seed, the NBA will make an exception for them and create a ninth seed just so they can get in. (Please nobody take me seriously…please nobody take me seriously…please nobody take me seriously…)