Harden Trade Bad For NBA

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Late last night — during the middle of a tough loss by the Oklahoma Sooners that was distracting most of the state — the Thunder traded Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick that belonged to Charlotte.

One of the draft picks is Toronto’s from the Kyle Lowry deal and the other comes courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Jordan Hill deal last season.

Some fans will debate whether it was worth it for Harden to fight for the extra $5.5 million he will get from Houston, but I don’t think fans would be willing to leave money on the table when they negotiate their next contract.

On top of that, Oklahoma City was unable to offer Harden the fifth-year that Houston can because of the new collective bargaining agreement. According to that document, teams can only sign one player to a five-year deal, the rest of the roster can only accept a contract for a maximum of four years.

While it may seem blasphemous to say right now, there’s a strong possibility that Martin will provide more reliable outside shooting than Harden provided and that Lamb could develop into a great compliment to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The problem with playing that “what if” game is the fact Harden was already a great compliment to their core group of players and he was their best three-point shooter last season.

Oklahoma City might also win the “lottery” with one of the two draft picks they secured in this trade. If they can get a top-five pick in the draft next June then Sam Presti will once again look like a genius.

So while there is hope for how this deal could play out in the future, what really stings is the fact the Thunder made a business decision instead of a personnel one when they were poised to start a season where they challenged for an NBA Championship.

When Oklahoma City dealt Jeff Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins a couple seasons back it stunned the fans and the players left on their roster. However, that was clearly a move made to give a young roster more experience and to toughen up their bigs. But trading Harden to Houston? That amounts to the Oklahoma City not having the kind of money needed to pay him $five million over five seasons due to worries about luxury tax payments. That’s a scary message for a small-market team to be sending to its players and fans.

What frustrates fans of the team is that Oklahoma City could have played out this season without any real penalty. Before this trade went down they were almost guaranteed a spot in the Western Conference Finals and many pundits had them playing in the NBA Finals.

Now? They still have a chance, but the odds aren’t nearly as good.

If Oklahoma City rode out this season they could have at least matched any offer that Harden received next summer and then traded him. So, they would have still gotten some pieces back and they would have been able to play out this season competing for an NBA Championship.

Last season the NBA played 66 games so that the league would have a competitive playing field. The idea was that bigger markets like Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago and Miami would no longer be able to dictate where the star players went.

So much for that utopian idea.

Heading into this season, Los Angeles alone is home to Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Blake Griffen.

Meanwhile, Miami boasts heir own big three and Boston has three future Hall-of-Famers in Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

It’s a shame the rich continue to get richer while small-market teams will continue to struggle to compete.

Even worse, it stinks that Oklahoma City cashed in their chips before even giving this season a chance to unfold.

Some Bold Predictions For The NBA Finals

Thanks to a great idea from Justin Wells, the HOOPSADDICT.com staff emailed me who they thought the NBA Champions would be, their Playoffs MVP and they picked a “glue guy” for the playoffs.

Chuck Nunn: I’m calling it for Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant as Finals MVP. Serge Ibaka’s defense and his ability to get out and run the floor will be a key difference maker in the series, so he’s my glue guy for the Thunder.

Chris Deacon: I think Oklahoma City have a real chance at going all the way this season but it’ll go right down to Game 7. They’ve defeated strong opposition on the road to the final series, including the Lakers and the Spurs, and this means they’ve already had to up their game and succeeded. If the Thunder are crowned champions then MVP must go to Kevin Durant, he’s been outstanding in postseason. That means I think James Harden is the glue guy, his win share off the bench is as good as they come.

Hiren Joshi: I have Heat in seven games. OKC looks great but I think Heat finally pull this out. The role players (Battier, Chalmers, Miller, Jones, Haslem etc) all key to the stabilization of the series for the Heat. LeBron James will be named MVP. Fatigue will be the only issue, but he looks like a man on a mission. Glue guy is Shane Battier. Brilliant NBA mind, great leader, fantastic defender. Thabo Sefolosha on the other end for the Thunder. Both have an interesting dynamic, smart defenders, smart players.

Matt Cote: OKC Thunder will become Champions, Russell Westbrook will win MVP and the glue guy is Kendrick Perkins.

Caardel Eeady: The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown all season that they are too deep not to win. These finals will prove that and that is why the Thunder will win this series 4-2. As a team they present a very tough challenge that the Heat can not stop. The Thunder not only score, but play very solid defense to win games. This is their season and that is why they will win. The finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) will be Kevin Durant. His offensive game is just unbelievable right now. He can make any shot at any time, no matter the defensive pressure. This season Durant has proven that he can hit clutch shots and help get his team to the finish line. Chris Bosh is the “glue guy” for the NBA Finals. Without Bosh the Heat are a very weak team who can not win without his scoring. Bosh is very underrated with his defensive abilities, but expect him to be a big factor on that end of the floor.

Robert Kester: I’ve got the Heat over the Thunder in seven games. The Thunder have arrived, but Miami’s new found resolve will carry them in the Finals. LeBron James has put his team on his back this entire postseason and will continue to dominate games in the Finals and take home his first ever Finals MVP. Chris Bosh needs to play big in the Finals. If Bosh can stay healthy he will be the “glue guy” keeping the Heat together when they face adversity against the Thunder.

Heather Newsome: To win the playoffs I say OKC. I don’t think the Heat have it in them to be consistently good, they’ve proven in recent past games that their top stars can’t always make the shots and then they get discouraged easily. Wade in game 7 was 3-8 in the first half. It’s just not good enough for the NBA Finals. MVP for the playoffs should go to either LeBron James for his determination or to Kevin Durant for pulling it out for his team when they’re down and being able to keep everyone involved so its not a one man show. The “Glue-guy” again would be Kevin Durant. He knows how to rally his team when they are down. He’s not a selfish player and helps everyone on the team get their shots off and then takes his own. He’s key to OKC winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around.

Danny Lovi: Before the playoffs started I predicted that the NBA Champions would come out of the West. As tempted as I am to pick Miami over Oklahoma City, I am sticking to my guns and predicting that the Thunder will beat the Heat in six games. Conventional thinking tells us that the best player on the winning team will be the MVP. Therefore, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kevin Durant will be the MVP. I am not going to go against conventional wisdom, although I think the Thunder’s success relies heavily on Russell Westbrook. Durant will get his (even while being smothered by LeBron James or Shane Battier), but the Thunder goes as far as Westbrook goes. I think Westbrook is the most important player even though he probably won’t win MVP. Besides Westbrook, I think the two players who will have the biggest impact are the two guys with championship experience: Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Look for Perkins to be aggressive in the post not only on defense, but on offense as well. Fisher continues to live up to his reputation as a clutch playoff performer, and he will be the cool head in the huddle, keeping guys focused when things go astray. When Fisher signed with Oklahoma City, didn’t you picture him hitting a big shot to clinch a Thunder victory? I think the NBA Finals is the perfect stage to see that picture come to fruition.

Zach Salzmann: OKC dismantled a great Spurs team in 4 straight games, and look unbeatable when they limit their turnovers. James has had an unbelievable post-season, but OKC has too many weapons. Thunder in 6. My pick for Finals MVP is Kevin Durant and my glue guy is Serge Ibaka — protecting the lane and knocking down the open jumper.

Will Guillory: I’m going to take the Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals in six games. I simply just think it’s their time and not the Thunder’s. OKC is a great team but Miami is the better defensive team and much more ready for this moment. I believe the MVP trophy will be handed to LeBron James at the end of this series. This has been his year and every time his team has needed him to step up and put them on his back he has done it (i.e. Game 4 against Indiana and Game 6 against Boston). Also, his defense will make life a lot tougher on Kevin Durant than it has been thus far these playoffs. My key glue guy(s) of this series will come down to the matchup between Chris Bosh and James Harden. While these two will not be guarding each other this series, both teams need major contributions from these two players in order to achieve their maximum potential. Bosh’s ability to hit the outside jumper and pull Serge Ibaka/ Kendrick Perkins out of the paint to give James and Dwyane Wade more driving lanes will be the difference.

Jakob Eich: I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win the championship this year. The Wade/LeBron duo is a little better than Durant/Westbrook, but Miami does not have anyone beyond those two players. The Thunder have Ibaka, Perkins, Fisher, Sefolosha, Cook, and Collison, just a lot of depth. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will probably not sit for long stretches, but after all you have twelve players on your roster. Chris Bosh is a better offensive player, but Serge Ibaka is a lot better defensively. The rest of the Heat are seriously outplayed by OKC. Especially the option to give Wade and Lebron different looks by putting Sefolosha, Durant, and Harden on him is a huge advantage. Therefore the Thunder will win the championship in six games. If the Thunder should win there is no way around Kevin Durant being named MVP. He is their best player and closer. I don’t expect too many close games but he will undoubtedly put his fingerprint on this series. He has become much better defensively, although I do not believe he will outplay LeBron, he will earn the award. James Harden has been named the X-Factor all throughout the playoffs and he still is. He is the difference maker, a supremely talented player with a great shot and great defense and great attitude. Not many players with his talent have been willing to be a sixth man so … well, willingly. If he keeps on performing at this level he will give the second unit such a big lift that the Heat won’t be able to overcome.

Jerel Marshall: Both of these teams have their fair share of star power, but the Thunder will benefit from a wealth of contributors. Miami has struggled with depth ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach. Oklahoma City will also enjoy a bit momentum after snapping the most impressive win streak in recent history by beating the San Antonio Spurs four straight times. Kevin Durant is one of the few players who can seamlessly combine playing unselfish while still being a big shot taker and a big shot maker. He very rarely forces things on the offensive end, but if he is feeling it or if the game is on the line he will burn you every time. Dwayne Wade and James will have their hands full chasing around the trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Durant. Sefolosha will be responsible for making sure that Wade has a tough time on the offensive side of things as well. If Sefolosha can continue to pester scorers while knocking down an open shot here and there, the Thunder should have no problem becoming this year’s champs.

Michael Collins: I think the Thunder take it, in six games. Miami showed a lot of potential flaws against a Boston team that was nowhere near as athletic or fast as OKC. Having Bosh back obviously made a difference, but it won’t be enough to get past the Thunder. If the way he finished off the conference finals is any indication, I think Kevin Durant will be the MVP. He has the ability to just put the team on his shoulders and go. The battle between he and LeBron should be epic, however. I think despite losing, Chris Bosh will be the ‘glue guy’ for the Heat, and for the Finals. It will be through his ability to make plays and to keep others focused that Miami will even stretch this series to six games. This would be the one disadvantage I give OKC, as they don’t really have a ‘glue guy” in my eyes. When Durant is having a bad night, he doesn’t know how to keep the team focused and moving forward, and (as witnessed in the first 2 games of the WCF) his team suffers.

Ryan McNeill: Kevin Durant and LeBron James battling each other is going to be a match-up for the ages, but Thabo Sefolosha is one of the better defenders in the NBA and he should be able to contain a hobbled Dwyane Wade. Where this series really starts to swing in OKC’s favour is at the point guard spot because Russell Westbrook should have his way against Mario Chalmers. Chris Bosh, who had a huge impact in the final few games of the Eastern Conference Finals, will have a tough time battling against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in this series. The final nail in the coffin of Miami is the fact nobody on Miami’s bench will be able to slow down James Harden. I’ve got OKC winning in six games. My MVP is Durant and my glue guy is Ibaka or Sefolosha. Sorry, I couldn’t choose.

Justin Wells: I’ve got OKC Over Miami in 7. Thunder just have too many mismatches, and Ill take scott Brooks over Erik Sploestra all day long. My MVP is Russell Westbrook because Lebron will be shadowing Kevin Durant most of the series. My “glue” guy is Serge Ibaka. If Ibaka can maintain the lane like he did all season, Anthony/Turiaf/Haslem will hate him.

Kevin Brolan: Give me Thunder winning in 6, Kevin Durant MVP, and Nick Collison for glue guy.

Tom Westerholm: Miami in six. I think LeBron’s defense will affect Durant more than people are expecting, and OKC’s offense has struggled in the half court in the playoffs. My MVP is clearly LeBron James. Let’s be honest, this is a two man race for Finals MVP between James and Durant, and if I’m right about Miami winning, it will be LeBron.  A glue guy? Like someone who keeps the team happy together? Juwan Howard. He gives us all someone on Miami to make fun of instead of the Big 3.  JUWAN IS OLD, GUYS!!!

Lance Rinker: Having covered the Indiana Pacers’ postseason run, I was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest individual playoff performances in recent memory: LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I watched James compile a stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. And I saw a wrecking crew of two, James and Dwayne Wade, virtually outplay an entire team. With Chris Bosh back, the Heat are close to full form and will emerge as the top team in the league. In my mind, James is the greatest player in the world. When he is focused and on a roll, there is little a defense can do to contain him. Whether it be scoring, defending, or finding an open teammate, James does it all. After finally winning an NBA title, James—and the media—will relinquish the monkey from his back. Haslem and Wade are the only players remaining from Miami’s 2006 championship team, and although Haslem isn’t getting the same minutes he did six years ago, he still makes significant on-court contributions. Even with Bosh back in the rotation, Haslem will be depended on to haul down rebounds and provide a scoring option in the frontcourt. Simply put, in the 16 postseason wins thus far, Miami is nearly six points better with Haslem on the court. In their six losses, Haslem has struggled, and the Heat are about five points worse with him on the floor. The ninth-year forward makes a much larger impact than most spectators might think.

Oklahoma City’s Calm Under Pressure

The Oklahoma City Thunder possess all the traits of a championship-caliber team.

They’re explosive and athletic at both ends of the floor. They defend with skill and tenacity; have an elite shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka, and solid role players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.

Of course, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they possess three of the greatest shot-makers in the game today.

Perhaps the most underrated, and dangerous, aspect of the Thunder’s game, however, is their supreme confidence level. This team is cold as ice in the clutch.

No team absorbs the opposition’s best punches, flips the switch, and keeps their composure when all seems lost, better than OKC. Time and time again, against the Spurs in Game 4, Oklahoma City weathered the storm.

San Antonio came out firing at the start of the game, while Oklahoma City missed their first seven shots. Did they panic? Of course not.  They simply went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter.

At the start of the third, Manu Ginobili took over the game and the Spurs put together a 23-9 run—but still no panic from the Thunder. Durant stepped up and Oklahoma City led by nine at the quarter’s end.

In the fourth, the Spurs once again attempted to seize the game by the scruff of the neck—going on a 13-2 run and getting within two points of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City’s response: James Harden hit two massive 3-point shots, including the game’s biggest basket—dropping the trifecta with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, to put the Thunder up by five.

This team simply doesn’t waver off course.

Against the Mavericks and Lakers, they were down late in games and hit massive, momentum-shifting shots to win. Durant did his best Michael Jordan impression in Game 4 of this series, hitting 18 points in the fourth, but if he’s not feeling it (and that’s rare), Harden and Westbrook are more than ready to take the big shot.

The Big 3 of Oklahoma City epitomizes the fearlessness this team. Miss or make, it doesn’t matter—nothing fazes them. Last night Westbrook turned the ball over, and missed jump shots on consecutive possessions, but his confidence level never faltered.

He followed up some poor possessions by draining a ridiculous 20-footer. Westbrook never seems bothered by his failings. Sure, he makes some poor decisions at times, and will continue to do so, but he never loses confidence in his game. Scott Brooks realizes that Westbrook will live and die by the jump shot—but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. We may pick apart his game, but we cannot question his character.

Harden also seems immune to fluctuations in confidence. He wasn’t at his best against the Lakers—looking tired after having to defend Kobe Bryant for long stretches—and in the first game of this series he struggled. But like Westbrook, Harden seems to have selective amnesia. He followed up Game 1, with a 10-13 shooting performance in Game 2, and has been clutch ever since.

Last night, Harden took two of the biggest shots in these playoffs thus far. A three-pointer, that became a four-point play when he was fouled by Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned game-clinching shot.

Before the series began many, myself included, pointed to the Spurs’ experience and veteran know-how, as a reason why they would prevail over a young Thunder team. The Spurs were playing unbelievably great basketball—some of the greatest we’ve ever seen—and maybe the Thunder, as young as they are, just weren’t ready for the Finals yet.

But perhaps we overlooked the fact that the Thunder don’t worry about outside perceptions—they don’t feel like they’re too young and inexperienced. They just go out and play their game. If they feel pressure internally, they don’t’ show it externally.

Experience and championship pedigree go a long way in the playoffs. No team as young as the Thunder have won an NBA title. But no team has looked as supremely confident as Oklahoma City —as unconcerned with external pressures.

They’re young, skillful and talented, but their tranquil state of mind, in the biggest moments, might just be their biggest strength.

Mavs On The Brink Against A Better Team

Queue up Al Pacino’s locker room speech from Any Given Day because this Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder playoff matchup has fully proven the ‘Game of Inches’ theory. The inches went Kevin Durant’s way in Game 1 and didn’t for Dirk Nowitzki in Game 2.

And now the Thunder are up two games to none with full control.

By using the crazy concept of mathematics, this series appears close on many levels. Only separated by four points over two games, the pace and scoring has been nearly identical so far with the Thunder scoring 99 and 102 points and the Mavericks with 98 and 99 points, respectively.

Despite a run last night where the Thunder led by double digits for a short period of time, the first couple of games have been stocked full of ties, lead changes, and play closer than the distance between Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow and Russell Westbrook’s face. That’s what tends to happen in a rivalry of teams who know each other so well and let there be no doubt, this Oklahoma-Texas duo has quickly become a rivalry.

Shocking, I know.

Still, despite the numbers, how close actually are these two teams? There is a reason the Thunder are the two-seed and the Mavericks are the seven: The Oklahoma City Thunder are better than Dallas this year. They’re better than most anyone. The Mavs aren’t underdogs like in so many (all?) of their series in last year’s playoffs, they’re the actual inferior team this time around. There’s nothing wrong with that as upsets happen all the time, but it means their margin for error is extremely slim and they’ll have to work harder for everything they get.

Specifically, the dispersion of scoring causes stress for one team and is a non-issue for the other. On Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant can shoot 5-17 in Game 1 and Russell Westbrook or James Harden can be consistently counted on to contribute in a scoring role. When scoring can be so easily relied upon by a few, good things begin to happen for that team. Guys like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and, my God, Derek Fisher can get on scoring rolls that makes the opponent feel like their collective sky is falling.

Everything seems to come so easier for the better team who has things rolling. We saw it last year in Dallas.

Right now on the Mavericks, a 5-17 shooting night for Dirk Nowitzki would almost certainly bury Dallas on that night. Jason Terry has proven he can be that additional scorer, but with defenses rolling to him late in the game, it’s Nowitzki or bust so far.

So far, by a few inches, that hasn’t been enough.

Still, we’re not done here. Thanks to Rick Carlisle’s adjustments and overall mastery of anything Thunder coach Scott Brooks is capable of, the Mavericks are a tough matchup for the Thunder who can’t seem to gain consistent separation from their seven-seed counterparts. They’re beating the Mavericks, but Rick Carlisle, along with Nowitzki, deserves massive praise for not allowing this to get out of hand.

It’s not quite smoke and mirrors, but Carlisle certainly isn’t working with the same group he has in 2011. He and the Mavs have had very little margin for error, but coming home for two game on Thursday and Saturday will crack that window open a bit more.

They’ll need it, too. Counting the preseason, playoffs, and regular season, the Mavericks are just 1-7 against the Thunder this year. Considering that, it will be quite a tall order to take four of five games from Oklahoma City over the next few days to win the series. It may feel like the Mavericks barely lost the first two games, but they need to make some drastic adjustments to turn their fortunes around. They can start with a return to their ball movement oriented offense and someone stepping into a consistent scoring role next to Terry and Nowitzki in order to pull off the relative miracle.

And perhaps a center can show up for Dallas, as well.

It starts on Thursday in Dallas where the Mavericks face their first must-win game of the season. The inches, among other things, need to start falling in the favor of the Mavs.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Playoffs Preview

After nearly a year, the Hoops Addict Podcast is back on a regular basis. I’ve linked up with Mark Cheel with the intention of bringing back the Podcast on a weekly basis and we started with a preview of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Mark and I break down why Atlanta can give Boston a scare, we debate if Utah’s frontcourt can muscle San Antonio out of the playoffs, we lament that the Clippers lack of a strong coach will result in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul not lasting as long as they should in the playoffs as well as the rest of the first round match-ups.

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Here’s the MP3 of the Podcast if you want to download it.