A lot of ink (real and virtual) has already been spilled on the James Harden trade, so I won’t say much but I’ll note one thing that is getting relatively less attention compared to questions of if Harden deserves a max deal and if Kevin Martin can replace Harden. That issue is that the Thunder were a top-4 team last year, and if this trade made them worse at all, they have drastically hurt their championship chances.
Back in this blog’s infancy, I used my NBA playoff model to do a little work on when you should sign a free agent. The upshot is, unless you are near the top of the league you shouldn’t bother signing anyone expensive. The top teams in either conference have far and away the best chances of winning the title, thanks to a combination of team quality and home court advantage, and everyone below that is fighting for scraps. Basically, if you’re a three-seed or worse (and assuming you haven’t made some kind of dramatic trade or line-up move that makes your season-long record irrelevant), you’re on the short end of the playoff stick. Heck, even the two-seeds don’t have a good shot. The odds drop very quickly as you move down the list.
Last year you had the Bulls leading the league with a point differential of 8.2, then the Spurs at 7.2, then the Thunder at 6.1, and the Heat came in at 6.0. Only the Philly 76ers were above 4 after that, and their record may have been inflated a bit by very strong early season performance. So essentially you had four teams at the top of the league, and then everybody else. The Bulls eliminated themselves when Rose was injured (and Noah didn’t help either). The Thunder were thus in a three-game race for the title and they came up a bit short. If they kept everything together, everyone got a bit better (reasonable, since the team is so young), and the Spurs and Bulls fell off due to injuries and age, the Thunder would have been in at least the same position and maybe a top-two team this year.
However, they traded James Harden, who is pretty good and essentially gave the Thunder a starter on their second string (like Ginobili for the Spurs). How good is Harden? RAPM has him at +3.0, Wins Produced has him at .263 per 48 and over 10 wins given his minutes played, PER has him at 21.1, and Win Shares has him at .230 per 48 and over 9 wins. That’s pretty good. The guys they brought in are an unknown rookie and Kevin Martin. Martin has a negative RAPM (and always has), has only been above-average on WP once in the past four years, and has been a bit above average recently on PER and Win Shares. So it seems unlikely that Martin is as good as Harden, the question is only ‘how much’.
If it turns out that Martin is only, say, a point downgrade from Harden over the course of the season, the Thunder would still be in pretty good shape even if you think the Lakers got dramatically better, for example. But if he’s worse than that, the Thunder start drifting toward the 3 or 4 point differential range that other teams are near to. And regardless, that’s an important point. If the Heat and Spurs are still in the 6ish region, and the Bulls can survive their losses and stay around, say, 4 or 5, the Thunder have lost ground by dropping down to 5. If they manage to get to the Finals again, they’ll likely be on the road against a superior Heat team, and we saw how that went when they did have Harden. Their chances will be even worse, and it’s less likely they make it through the West in the first place.
To put a concrete number on it, the Thunder may have just moved themselves from the 2 spot in my free agent analysis to more like the 3 or 4 spot. Their chances may have already been kind of low (say, 5% to win the title), but they just dropped to more like 2%. If things break right during the season, like the Spurs get old, the Bulls stay hurt, and Wade or Bosh goes down again, the Thunder could have been number one. That could still be true without Harden, but everyone will be closer now than they would have been.
Obviously it isn’t really for us to say if the Thunder should have made this move. Only their owner knows how much he’s willing to spend, and presumably their cap guys know what all the ramifications of keeping Harden would have been down the line. But strictly in terms of winning a title this upcoming year, losing Harden is a big blow.