Harden’s Houston trade reshapes Western Conference
Late Saturday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder stunned the basketball world by trading reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
Harden, an integral piece of a Thunder team fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals last season, had been locked in negotiations with the team over a contract extension ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.
When the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, the Thunder sent Harden to Houston in exchange for veteran guard Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks.
This trade radically changes the shape of what was already looking to be an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race.
The Thunder will still be very much in the mix, and likely remain one of the top three teams in the west. But until Saturday, the reigning Western Conference champs appeared to be bringing back every significant player on their team, leaving no reason they shouldn’t be viewed as the favorites for a second straight trip to the finals.
Now, though, it’s hard not to give those honors to the newly reloaded Los Angeles Lakers, who made a splash this summer by adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to an already talented core.
The return the Thunder got for their budding star is not insignificant. Martin is a very capable and versatile scorer who should get plenty of open looks with defenses focusing the majority of their attention on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Beyond that, his expiring contract promises to give the Thunder serious salary-cap flexibility next off-season. Lamb, the 12th pick in this year’s draft, is likewise a gifted scorer, although he’ll likely need time to polish his game.
The move was made by Thunder general manager Sam Presti with the bottom-line in mind. Harden wanted more money than the team felt comfortable offering him, having already paid big bucks to extend Durant, Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka.
Rather than deal with the recurring drama over the course of the season and have it potentially be a distraction, the team decided to cut Harden loose and begin collecting talent and assets for a future title run.
For the Rockets, this move was a no-brainer. Houston general manager Daryl Morey, a pioneer of advanced analytics in basketball, has been collecting young talent and draft picks for several years in case the opportunity to land a major star ever arose.
In recent years he’s been thwarted in his attempts to turn these assets into the likes of Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Now he’s got his star in Harden.
Harden’s efficiency will likely decline in Houston, now that he’s the primary focus of opposing defenses. But he and Jeremy Lin look to be one of the most talented backcourts in the west, and along with emerging youngsters like Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik, they form the core of a team Morey hopes will be successful for years to come.
The bottom half of this year’s Western Conference playoff race will be a bloodbath, with the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Warriors all having made big moves in the off-season. It remains to be seen whether this trade vaults the Rockets into that discussion in the short-term. But now they have the pieces to be there in the near future.
Still the big story with this trade is the breakup of a core in Oklahoma City that had the potential to be a title contender for the next several years. They may still get there, but it will take time for Martin and Lamb to get comfortable, especially with how tight Harden already was with Durant and Westbrook.
Presti’s move to jettison this hard-to-replicate chemistry between his team’s three stars to avoid paying luxury tax will either be viewed as a stroke of genius or a huge mistake, depending on how Lamb develops and what the Thunder do with the draft picks.
For now, all we can do is wait and see how it plays out.
Sean Highkin writes for several sites on the ESPN TrueHoop Network. A Portland native, he witnessed the beginning of the Patty Mills era firsthand. Follow him on Twitter at @shighkinNBA.
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