Trade Evaluation: The Thunder Deal James Harden

(PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images.)

This is the Trade Evaluation series. In the reactionary world we live in, we tend to grade NBA trades the minute they happen. In this series, we take a look at past trades and see how each team did YEARS after the deal happened. That way, we can see who REALLY won the trade.

The James Harden trade was talked about quite often for years. After all, Harden has now become a perennial MVP candidate for the Houston Rockets. The Thunder had quite a nucleus going with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Harden. But because of money and cap issues, Harden had to go.

Let’s go back to 2012.

The Thunder just went to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in five games. We all thought, “That’s okay! They’ll be contenders for years to come!”

Harden had won Sixth Man of the Year that season but he notably struggled in the Finals, shooting only .375 and scoring 12.4 points per game. Still, he was looked at as one of the key guys for the Thunder. Selected third in the 2009 NBA Draft by OKC, he was expected to have a larger role for the 2012-13 season.

OKC offered Harden an extension but a few million dollars came between an agreement. Harden was still under contract for one more season. The Thunder were afraid that they were going to lose him for nothing so they decided it was time to deal him before it’s too late.

Kevin Martin
Jeremy Lamb (Rockets’ first round pick in 2012)
2013 First Round Pick (Steven Adams)
2013 Second Round Pick (Alex Abrines)
2014 First Round Pick (Mitch McGary)

James Harden
Daequan Cook
Cole Aldrich
Lazar Hayward

It was a shocking deal, to say the least. Also understandable if you look at it from the view that Harden could escape for nothing. But my thoughts were that they should’ve tried this group for one more season and see what to do with Harden then.

With increased playing time in the 2012-13 season, Harden immediately flourished. He jumped from 16.2 points per game to 25.9. He led his new team to the playoffs in the very tough Western Conference with a 45-37 record.

On the other side of the coin, it’s like the Thunder STILL never missed a beat. They won 60 games and were the #1 seed in the West. They were poised for a return trip to the Finals.

Their first obstacle happened to be Harden and the Rockets. In that series, Russell Westbrook was lost for the rest of the playoffs as Patrick Beverley collided with him before a timeout call. The Thunder did get past the Rockets but, with Westbrook out, would lose to the Grizzlies in the West semis.

The question that raised people’s minds was… what if Harden was never dealt? They could’ve had a second playmaker for the Thunder to offset the loss of Westbrook.

Harden would continue to be a top player in the 2013-14 season. He had Dwight Howard beside him and the team won 54 games. They were ousted in the first round, however, by a buzzer-beating three by Damian Lillard and the Blazers.

Meanwhile, OKC had Westbrook back for the playoffs. They also added tough guy center Steven Adams, who would probably become the biggest piece of the Harden trade. However, they didn’t have Ibaka in the first two games against the Spurs in the West Finals. The Thunder would fall to the eventual NBA champs in six games.

The bearded one would become an MVP candidate for the 2014-15 season as he pushed the Rockets to a 56-26 record, which was good for the second seed in the West. Even though Harden sat down in the fourth of the crucial Game 6 in the West Semis against the Clippers, he did have a big 31-7-8 Game 7. The Rockets would advance to the West Finals, where they would fall against the Warriors.

As for the Thunder, they lost Kevin Durant for most of the season. Despite Westbrook’s emergence as a triple-double machine, OKC failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

The 2015-16 campaign wasn’t great for Harden, despite the gaudy statline. Harden had averages of 29.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 7.5 assists but people clearly saw the team was struggling. It felt like his stats were empty as the Rockets barely made the postseason. They would go down against the same Warriors in the first round. Harden didn’t even make any all-NBA teams.

The Thunder had another very good season, winning 55 games under new coach Billy Donovan. Westbrook continued to be a triple-double machine while Durant looked rejuvenated. They beat the Spurs in a mild upset in the West semis and had a 3-1 series lead against the Warriors (that defeated the Rockets in the first round) in the West Finals. However, the Warriors came back to win three straight and eliminated OKC.

Harden would recover last season as he went for 22 triple-doubles (only a far second to Westbrook, who went for a record 42 triple-doubles!). The Rockets would lose to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs.

Durant bolted OKC for the Warriors (Ibaka would get traded to Orlando the same offseason). Westbrook had a season of vengeance but would lose to Harden and the Rockets in the first round.

Houston is looked at as a favorite to topple the mighty Warriors while OKC has recovered nicely with deals that brought them Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

As for the other guys involved in the deal?

Kevin Martin only had one season with the Thunder. He played for the Wolves and the Spurs after and has since retired. Jeremy Lamb was with the Thunder until 2015; he is now with the Hornets. Steven Adams is now entrenched in the middle with OKC as he signed an extension that was worth more than $100 million. Alex Abrines came over to the Thunder last season and is still with them as a player off the bench. And Mitch McGary spent two seasons with OKC. He’s currently not in the league at the moment but should he sign with a team, he’ll begin serving a 15-game suspension due to a failed drug test.

Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, and Lazar Hayward came along with Harden to Houston. Aldrich has bounced around the league since and is with the Wolves. Cook was waived by the Rockets later in the season and was picked up by the Bulls the same year. After that campaign, he’s played overseas. He’s currently playing ball in Israel. Lazar Hayward was waived immediately and ended up in Minnesota for that season. He hasn’t caught on with a team in the NBA after that. Hayward is now playing basketball in Venezuela.

The Rockets have made the playoffs five straight seasons since Harden got there (who, by the way, has made the All-Star game all five years in Houston). They’ve made the West Finals once. The Thunder made the playoffs four out of five seasons and made the West Finals in 2014 and 2016. They’ve had bad luck in terms of injuries and 2016 was probably the best chance they had at a title with everybody healthy.

Would Harden still have left the Thunder as a free agent in 2013? Likely. He wasn’t going to be higher than a #3 role with Durant and Westbrook there. But they definitely had a better chance at a title with all three of them there. That trade may have done a part in Durant leaving OKC. After all, look how Harden turned out after he was traded. Now Durant, Harden, and Westbrook are all leading their own teams (Durant has already won his elusive title while Harden and Westbrook look to challenge the Dubs).

Obviously, the Rockets won the trade (Harden’s averages are ridiculous in Houston; including this year, his career averages with the Rockets are 27.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 7.6 assists!) but the Thunder could’ve justified the trade had they won a title when Durant and Westbrook were together.

Too bad, we never got to see this potential dynasty in the making…

Follow Rey-Rey on Twitter at @TheNoLookPass. You can also see some of his work at Forum Blue & Gold, a site specializing on the Los Angeles Lakers. And you can listen to his podcast called Rey-Rey Is Fundamental, which consists of NBA talk and other topics he feels like talking about.

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