October 31, 2012; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) talks to referee David Guthrie (16) in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

The Real Harden Disaster

The James Harden trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets is a disaster for the ages.  Since the end result will not be finalized for years to come, the more important question is who should actually be blamed for what has transpired.  The truth has always been out there, but you have to dig around to see why it happened.

Bill Simmons recently wrote about the debacle that occurred as a result of the Harden disaster.  His article brings up a lot of good points and makes sense to some people, but you have to look further than what Simmons reports.  James Harden was the reason behind the break-up of this squad.  He will be stuck on a team that will be average at best, and that’s right where he wants to be.

Let’s go back to the days when James Harden was leaving high school as a five star recruit.  Harden had offers from the Arizona Wildcats and Washington Huskies.  In addition, UCLA, Pittsburgh, and Texas also had an interest in Harden.  These were all schools with elite players – hell, UCLA even went to the Final Four that season.  But, instead of playing for an elite school and having a legitimate title shot, he decided to play for Arizona State.  He had the chance to play next to future NBAers Kevin Love, Darren Collison, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, and fellow OKC teammate Russell Westbrook.  Instead of playing with them he chose to be the man at ASU and play alongside the likes of Derek Glasser and Jeff Pendergraph (who?).   Not exactly a swap I would like to make.  Harden had an opportunity to make a team great and play for a deep NCAA tournament run or possible championship.  But he chose to play for a team where he would get the ball-at-will and be an All-American.  The only problem was that ASU did not make the NCAA tournament his freshman season and only made it to the second round of the tournament his sophomore year.  Harden chose to play for a mediocre team and they had mediocre results.

Fast Forward to his NBA career, Harden was on a near championship squad that was on par with the Miami Heat as the two best teams in the NBA.  Harden was thought of as being an unselfish player because he took a decreased role in minutes and comes off the bench to provide a spark for his team.  Everyone conveniently forgets why Harden was coming off the bench in the first place.  It is hard to start dominating the NBA game right out of college, and Harden had his early struggles.  Harden was the third overall selection in the 2009 NBA draft but only averaged 9.9 and 12.2 points per game in his first two NBA seasons, respectively (of course).  The team was waiting for him to fulfill his potential, and it finally occurred in his third season where he averaged 16.8 points off of the bench.  He was still playing 31 minutes per game the whole season but the team realized that it was important to have scoring off of the bench and he bought into it.  He helped the team make the NBA finals and was named the NBA’s sixth man of the year for that season.

That was when the disaster started to unfold for the Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA finals and James Harden had a terrible series.  He was completely erased by the Heat’s defense and looked hesitant to shoot.  He shot 18 for 48 in the series and 7 of 22 from 3 point range, averaging 6 points less per game than the regular season (a lot of his points came when the series was wrapped up by the Heat as well).  From the finals, Harden was named to the Olympic squad but did not get a lot of playing time.  Unfortunately for OKC, just being named to the Olympic squad may have lead other teams to desire Harden.

Contracts were being negotiated all offseason but nothing came to fruition.  The Thunder ended up offering a reported $54 million for 4 years and Harden did not accept the offer.  The maximum offer would have been $60 million dollars but the team could not afford that salary.  The team decided to trade Harden so that they would receive something back for him instead of letting him go to free agency and risk receiving nothing in return.  Harden forced the move and showed his true colors by signing a 5 year $80 million dollar deal with the Houston Rockets just days after the trade.

Those are the facts of the disaster.  Unlike Bill Simmons, I can see that the Thunder had absolutely no other choice – they had to make the trade.  This trade ensures that they will have a proven scorer (Kevin Martin) on the court this season to play alongside their 2 superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  They received another player with high potential (Jeremy Lamb) and an almost assured lottery draft pick from Toronto.  If they had let the Harden disaster play out the way that Simmons describes, OKC would have had to possibly play a superstar Lakers team in the Conference Finals with a team in limbo.  Undoubtedly, contract talks would have been running all season long and would have been a distraction.  When Harden didn’t sign the deal before the trade deadline the team would have then been forced to shop him and try to gel a team together for a playoff run.  Who knows what kind of a deal they would get then, but now you can’t argue the stop gap that Kevin Martin is and the future potential that they receive from Lamb and the draft pick.

Another item that is overlooked is that this front office knows what they are doing.  They signed the 2 biggest assets to long term deals and got Serge Ibaka (who will be the defensive catalyst for the team) to take a less than max deal.  If the team is going to win an NBA championship they will need to learn to play better defense and it starts with Ibaka.  In addition, the team also had a great draft with Perry Jones III falling to them.  Before the college basketball season started he was listed as a possible #1 overall pick.  Jones has major potential alongside Lamb and they will have another lottery pick in soon.  So the team has these 3 other pieces that could fill the hole voided from Harden’s departure.  All of these players are young, talented and playing alongside 2 superstars and a defensive superstar.  I think Oklahoma City’s front office knows what they are doing.

The real Harden disaster was proven today when he signed his long term contract for extra money and decided that a Championship is not what he covets most.  When you look back at his history it begins to make sense, he was showing his true colors all along, unfortunately for the Oklahoma City Thunder, that color is green.

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