With the start of the season just around the corner, a title contender dealt its third-best player, netting a lot of future value in the process.
Harden, 23, has rapidly ascended in his first three seasons in the NBA, making the U.S. Olympic Team this summer, coming off a year in which he was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, after averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
What's most impressive about Harden's production is the efficiency with which he does it. As the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Harden put up those numbers with only 10.7 field goal attempts per game, leaving him with a True Shooting Percentage of 66.0%, best among all players that had at least 400 attempts from the field.
In Houston, Harden becomes the primary offensive option, which will probably cut into his efficiency, but will crank up his per-game production. On a team that already gutted much of its roster (losing Luis Scola, Martin, Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic) in the hopes of landing Dwight Howard in the offseason, the Rockets don't return a player that had more field goal attempts per game than SF Chandler Parsons, at 8.7 per game.
With a starting job available to him, Harden may see an uptick in the 31.4 minutes per game he played last season, but he seems assured of getting more looks at the offensive end. If he embraces the lead scorer role for Houston, Harden might get 16-17 attempts per game and while it's unlikely that he's as efficient as he was in 2011-2012, he could be ready to jump to 20 points per game for the Rockets.
Harden was set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season and was unable to work out an agreement on an extension with Oklahoma City, prompting the move. Houston is reportedly set to ink Harden to a max money extension, potentially something in the neighbourhood of five years and $80-million.
Daequan Cook is a 25-year-old swingman who started a career-high 22 games last season, though he averaged a modest 17.4 minutes per game (5.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.4 three-pointers per game). Cook takes the majority of his shots from beyond the arc (4.0 of 5.2 per game, 76.9%, last season) and could reasonably fill a spot in Houston's rotation. He's in the final year of a deal paying him a touch more than $3.09-million (www.hoopshype.com).
23-year-old Cole Aldrich has played sporadically through his first two NBA seasons, never scoring more than six points in a game and reaching double digit minutes in only six games last season. He's a 6-foot-11 centre who can block shots -- his 3.3 per 36 minutes last season ranked eighth among all NBA players -- but he played so little it's difficult to forecast that into production as a regular in the rotation.
Aldrich makes $2.445-million this season and the Rockets have a team option for 2012-2013. If he somehow develops into a rotation player, then he would be relatively inexpensive at #3.245M but, if not, it's easy enough to let him walk.
Hayward, 25, has played a total of 560 minutes in 68 games over his two NBA seasons. He barely saw action with the Thunder last season, but did score in double figures four times for Minnesota in 2010-2011. Like Aldrich, the Rockets hold a team option on him for next season and unless he takes a quantum leap ahead this season, it would seem unlikely that Hayward has that option picked up.
Martin, 29, has been a productive scorer for much of his NBA career, averaging at least 20 points per game for five straight seasons prior to last year's 17.1 points per game. While Martin has been an offensive focal point, for the most part, he won't have that role in Oklahoma City where, even if (unlike Harden) Martin starts, he's going to be the number three option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Though Martin can score, he doesn't offer much else. His rebounding and defence aren't necessarily championship-calibre, so the Thunder will need to accomodate for some of his shortcomings, in addition to benefitting from his ability to shoot. Martin is in the last year of a deal that pays him #12.939-million.
A skinny swingman who has ace defensive potential, 20-year-old Jeremy Lamb was the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He averaged 6.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game, while shooting 38.2% from the field in six preseason contests, so he's not yet ready for primetime, least of all for a team that harbours championship aspirations. However, as a long-term asset, Lamb could eventually become a starter in Okllahoma City.
The first-round picks come to Oklahoma City via Houston. The first belonged originally to the Toronto Raptors and it is unusually lottery-protected, meaning that it will go to the Thunder if the pick falls in the lottery, but outside the top three picks next season, the top two picks the next two years and the top pick in 2016. Even if it turns out to be a late lottery selection, that can net the Thunder a pretty good player.
The other first-round pick belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers, so that one seems much more likely to fall in the late stages of the first round, when the draft becomes even more risk-laden. The second-round pick was property of the Boston Celtics. Again, that seems like it will most likely occur late in the second round, so not huge value, but okay as the fifth assset the Thunder acquired to make this trade.
There's no arguing the long-term value that the Thunder acquired in this deal. Even if the last couple picks don't pan out, Martin's expiring contract, Lamb's potential and the pick that must fall in the lottery all provide potential long-term value for Oklahoma City, perhaps even more than they would have received by holding on to Harden.
However, in the short-term, the Thunder appear to be taking a step back -- maybe not a big one, maybe not even a full one -- but as a finalist last year, they were already facing a daunting challenge from the re-loaded Lakers in the Western Conference this season and not having their third-best player could make the difference.
That they secured long-term value for a player that might have only been around for one more year makes all kinds of sense for the Thunder, but if they don't get over the championship hump in the next couple seasons, it will get more difficult to justify the risk of dealing a rising star who gave Oklahoma City a legitimate shot at the 2013 NBA Championship.