Thoughts on James Harden Part II: What Does the Thunder’s Crisis Mean for the Cavs?

November 20th, 2012 by Nate Smith

Given that the Cavs odds of winning in the next month probably just flushed down the proverbial crapper, I thought it a good time to start looking ahead and continue my series, “Thoughts on James Harden.”  I  didn’t mention the bearded one till the end of my article, a couple of weeks ago, when I referenced the “Daryl Morey/James Harden moment.”  This moment, the Harden Trade is touchstone in NBA history.  It will go down with Wilt, Kareem, and Gasol to the Lakers, Shaq to the Heat, KG to Boston, Barkley to the Suns, and Harangody to the Cavs as among history’s most game changing NBA trades.  Having established a 26 point scoring average, Harden is currently the fourth best shooting guard in the league.  The better ones?  Ginobili, Wade, and Kobe Bryant.  Harden is 7 years younger than the youngest of that group, Wade, and may eclipse any or all of them this year, if he hasn’t already.  Anyone who thought that Harden wasn’t a max contract player was, well, ignorant.

The Cavs have been purportedly following the “Thunder Model” of NBA success and have nailed the first part of the formula: be a very bad team and get incredibly lucky in getting a transcendent player that is far and away the best player in the draft.  They got Durant, and we got Kyrie Irving.  The next phase was drafting well.  The Thunder traded a 26th pick for Sefalosha, drafted Ibaka 24th, and hit gold with their other two top five picks, drafting Westbrook and Harden, but this is where the magic stopped.  The Cavs have to learn this lesson: the Thunder should have never put themselves in a position to lose Harden.

The Harden trade is a game changer because it is the first example of the 2011 NBA lockout out was all about: not letting teams collect an unlimited amount of highly paid assets.  This is what the NBA wanted: competitive balance, and this trade is an example of it.  A player who by the end of the season might be the league’s best shooting guard (at least on offense), is now on a team that was trapped in NBA no man’s land: just missing the playoffs.  It’s also a game changer because of how Houston pulled it off.  They followed the “Celtics model”: collect a bunch of “assets” and trade for a superstar.  NBA Supergeek, Daryl Morey was widely panned for failing to get Dwight Howard by constructing a team of tradeable assets that contained 12 power forwards.  As Wages of Wins wrote, “He’s tying to make lots of moves in the hopes of landing a star.”  Which he actually ended up doing.

Morey also realized that Harden was a superstar playing on the bench.  More than one source has documented this, but let’s just note that Harden had a 66% true shooting percentage last year, the highest among guards playing over 30mpg, and averaged over 4 assists per game with a fairly low usage rage.  Oklahoma City’s team played better 14 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (and 6 points worse on defense).  Obviously, kudos to Morey and the Rockets for pulling off the trade.  The next question is, did the Thunder get good value?

The Thunder picked up Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick.   Oklahoma City, in return sent Cole Aldrich and forwards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward.  The Thunder picked up a very good scoring guard in Kevin Martin, who will obviously complement Durant and Westbrook, and basically 4 draft picks, one of them being Jeremy Lamb.  First the picks: the first draft pick they got from Toronto is a guaranteed lottery pick, unless Toronto makes the playoffs for the next 6 years ((Houston had it as part of the Kyle Lowry trade – confused yet?).  And the draft pick from Houston is top 20 protected till 2018.  So basically, a top 15 pick, and a 20-30 pick, and a 2nd rounder.  Lamb has done nothing this year, but Kevin Martin has been a very good scorer at 17ppg, and is a lights out closer with a 95% free throw percentage.  He makes 12.44 Million this year.  He is also 7 years older than Harden.

Those draft picks probably won’t get enough playing time to develop until 2014 or 2015 at best.  With a payroll of $66 million, the Luxury tax projected at $73 million in 2013-2014, and dollars over the threshold taxed at a penalty of calculated at 1.5x the overage, simply re-signing Martin at the same rate will cost them an extra $9 million for a total of  around $87 million.  This is just rough estimate.  This doesn’t even take into account that any overage more than $5 million is taxed at 1.75x.  It would have been very expensive to keep Harden, and it will be expensive to keep Martin.

Oklahoma City’s draft prowess will probably make these draft picks good, but maybe not soon enough to coincide with their current window (although OKC hasn’t drafted nearly as well since Rich Cho left).  And Lamb is buried on that team.  The goofy thing about the trade is that Martin will pretty much put OKC in the same boat next year with regards to his free agent contract.  Will they be able to sign him to the same value contract next year?  Maybe…  My point?  OKC traded a clear 4 year window to win a championship for a slightly narrower window in 2012-2013 and a murkier window beyond that.

In many ways, the Thunder are victims of their own success.  When they drafted Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Harden, the Thunder nailed every pick.  Now that they have to pay those guys, they don’t have enough money to go around unless they want to decrease their profitability (this is a borderline argument).  In looking at their future salaries.  It’s very clear that Kendrick Perkins could be a trade or amnesty candidate.  The other numbers that jump out: $2.6 million next year for Nick Collison and $12.5 million for Serge Ibaka.  Why is the Serge Ibaka number strange?  …Because the Thunder should not have signed him to an extension.  Serge Ibaka is an overrated player.

Serge will do anything for a block.

He’s a good rebounder and not a great one, and he was much worse in the playoffs last year as a rebounder than he was in the regular season. His total rebound rate dropped 3% from the regular season, mostly from his failure as a defensive rebounder. And his rebounding rates have gotten worse over the last two seasons. I attribute this to going for too many blocks on defense, and shooting too many jumpers on offense: both things moving him out of position for rebounds (though things he is admittedly well above average at). He was especially bad in the finals: never getting more than 7 boards in a game. Rebounding and the failure of OKC to keep Miami off the boards was probably the single biggest factor in Miami’s finals domination. The team that won the boards battle won the game every time.

Blocks, in addition, are overrated.  Blocks do not result in a change of possession every time.  Sometimes they result in a goaltend.  Sometimes they result in an easy putback.  Sometimes they go out of bounds and are returned to the offense.  Ibaka had a block percentage of 9.8% according to basketball-reference and a close block percentage of which are both very good.  I’ve had a hard time charting consistent data across reference sites about what these number means.  What percentage of blocks lead to change of possession, what percentage of blocks actually lower field goal percentage, etc, is very muddy.  But the best number I’ve found is that on average 57% of blocked shots lead to defensive rebounds.  (For a more complete discussion of the value of a blocked shot, this link is a good start.  It’s still a very gray area statistically).  This means that the Thunder are getting back only about 2 of those blocks per game, using this very simple model.

Ibaka’s defensive rating is good (98) but not great.  First, his steals and his charges drawn are very low.  Would you rather have Andy and his 1.1 blocks, 1.4 steals and .5 charges per game, or Ibaka and his .3 steals, .1 charges, and 3.6 blocks?  (given a .57 percentage of defensive rebounds after blocks, this leads to a wash, basically).  Secondly, as noted above, he’s not a great rebounder.  My hypothesis is that what Ibaka gives you in blocked shots, he takes away in defensive rebounding, and general fundamental defense.  This and the absence of Harden, (who is a good rebounder for a guard), are part of the reason that Durant has been forced to be a better rebounder this year (currently posting a ridiculous %26.9 defensive rebound rate).  My point?  While Ibaka posts good traditional box score stats, he’s not nearly the defensive player that his block numbers would indicate.  He often goes hunting for blocked shots and bites easily on pump fakes.

In addition, there’s another reason that the Thunder should have chosen to keep Harden over Ibaka.  Power Forwards are easier to replace than guards, especially shooting guards.  Last year, there were ten power forwards with a PER over 20, and thirty three power forwards with a PER over 15 (though one was Jon Leuer).  There were six shooting guards with a PER over 20, and twenty shooting guards with a PER over 15. The scarcity of the shooting guard position makes it more valuable.  For Harden’s $15 million dollar salary versus Ibaka’s $12.5, the 2.5 million would have been worth the extra money.  (Scarcity is the same reason we shouldn’t have drafted Tristan Thompson #4 and the Browns shouldn’t have drafted a Running Back last April).  Additionally, judging on Wins shares, and offensive rating, etc, Harden is head and shoulders above Ibaka, for instance posting a wins shares/48 minutes of .230 versus .167 last year.

Another aspect no one talks about is that Harden was better than Russell Westbrook too, and was commanding less money.  With a win share/48 of .230 versus .163 and an offensive and defensive rating of 108 and 104 versus 125 and 105.  It can be argued that the player that OKC should have traded was Russell Westbrook.   Westbrook also plays point guard, which compares very favorably to Ibaka’s power forward spot when it comes to PER depth.  Good shooting guards are more scarce than point guards.  There were thirty three point guards with a PER over 15 last year and seven with a PER over 20. The Thunder could’ve kept Harden and gotten Kyle Lowry on the cheap, or Mo Williams,… or Ramon Sessions.

It's true. Harden's better. Maybe you should grow a beard.

One of the strangest aspects of the Thunder saga was their unwillingness to just let the season play out and let Ibaka and/or Harden become restricted free agents.  They could then much more easily trade Ibaka or Westbrook, and make someone take Perkins along with them.  When negotiating in the case of restricted free agents, teams are in a weaker position than when they can trade a player when contract extension eligible, thus allowing the receiving team to lock up that player.  What probably scared them were teams like the Cavs and their abilities to offer Ibaka and Harden max contracts as restricted free agents.  I was once a proponent of doing this, but lots of research has lead me to one conclusion: almost exclusively, shot blocking power forwards are role players.  And in the new NBA, especially the one starting in 2013 you can’t overpay role players.   Bill Simmons has often said this, and I generally ascribe to his rules of being an NBA GM: “Running an NBA team comes down to two things: patience and common sense. For instance, you can’t destroy your cap space by overpaying role players… [or] juggle two agendas at once — contending and rebuilding.”   The Thunder narrowed their window by being cheap, overpaying their roleplayers, and incorrectly valuing scarcity.  The trade they made is fine, but it stuck them in the position of having to rebuild and contend at the same time.  The problem with this is that the draft picks will possibly not get enough playing time to develop beyond role players…

When the trade went down, I was disappointed.  I’d been a proponent of trading for Harden for over a year.  He was my #1 offseason and midseason target for the Cavs to try and acquire.  Now that he won’t be coming here, there are two questions.  The first question is, How can the can the Cavs avoid the Thunders’ mistakes?  The first thing the Cavs MUST do is decide when they are going to try to start contending.  With Kyrie’s injury, and the awful bench, it’s very obvious that it isn’t going to be this year.  Given the contract status and the coming draft picks for the Cavs, the Cavs have to start trying to contend in 2013-2014.

In 2013, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson will be on the 3rd year of their rookie scale contracts, leaving two seasons for them to play before they’re eligible for extensions.  Additionally, the best dollar for dollar player in the NBA, Anderson Varejao will be on his ridiculously underpaying contract at less than $10 million a year for 2013-2015.  Further, the only salaries the Cavs have to pay next year are Andy, Dion, Irving, TT, Gee, and Zeller: the core.  This comes in at $28 million.  Given the cap holds for another top 5 pick, and a 20-30 pick (though I’m getting seriously scared the Lakers won’t make the playoffs, and we’ll miss out on their pick), we can estimate a cap hold of around $5-6 million.  So, the Cavs will have a total salary of roughly $34 million.  Given a cap of $58 million, this gives the Cavs $24 million to play with: not quite enough to bring in two max guys (unless they renounce their cap holds or make trades).  What the Cavs should do in this case is bring in one premier tier play via trade or free agency, and bring in several high efficiency complementary pieces to go with him with the extra money and cap exceptions under the tax threshold.  Additionally, they should try to front load those free agent contract offers which helps pry those players from other teams, and helps them in 2015-2017 when KI, TT, ZPA, and St. Weirdo are eligible for extensions.

James McAdoo

Then they need to nail the 2013 draft and get an elite player in the top five, and a complementary player with the 20-30 pick.  In the comping years, they need to build a reputation as a place NBA veteran minimum role players are comfortable coming and playing.  By 2016, the Cavs should have a core of 3 elite players: KI, Waiters, and either a free agent or Varejao, and a group of high quality, not overpaid role players, and the guys we drafted in 2013.  There should be no Kendrik Perkins level player on the team at that time (overpaid vet).  The Cavs need to avoid the Serge Ibaka trap, and make sure that every player we’re paying lots of money to is elite, and every other player is not overpaid or on a rookie scale.  They need to be in the playoffs in 2014, in at least the upper level of the playoffs by 2016, and a championship contender by 2017.  With the foundation, the cap space, and the number of draft picks they have, anything else is a level of failure.  The Cavs need to be ruthless and unsentimental in their player evaluations of drafting, free agency, and retaining their own talent in order to succeed where the Thunder failed.