James Harden has become a top-5 scorer in the NBA after being traded to the Houston Rockets. He’s averaging 25 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game. If he can improve his rebounds, he could join Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Grant Hill as the only active players to achieve a 25-5-5 season. He looks like a legitimate star, and is one of the top three shooting guards in the game. It’s only reasonable to assume that as Harden returns to Oklahoma City, the Thunder lost this trade. But did they?
James Harden: Scoring More, Shooting Worse
Harden’s per-game numbers have skyrocketed, but his player efficiency rating has barely budged (improving from 21.1 to 21.8). The reason for that is twofold. First, Harden is playing about 7 minutes per game more. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the difference of about 4.5 points a game.
The second reason is obvious: Harden has the ball more now. That means he’s taking more shots and passing more. It also means defenses are keying in on him without a Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook to distract them. So he’s shooting worse and turning the ball over nearly twice as often. His shooting percentage has dropped from 49 to 44 percent. His 3-point percentage has dropped six points. The only improvement he’s really made has been in free throw attempts. Harden is spectacular at drawing fouls on his drives, and he’s second only to Dwight Howard. But his decline in shooting percentage basically washes that advantage out.
Kevin Martin: Scoring Less, Shooting Better
Here’s the dirty secret nobody talked about in the Harden trade: Martin is also one of the best shooting guards in the league. More to the point – he’s a better fit for the Thunder than Harden was.
If the Thunder miss Harden’s playmaking abilities, it’s hard to tell: all of the Thunder’s best offensive lineups include Kevin Martin. The Thunder’s offense is 14.5 points better (per 100 possessions) with him on the court – the exact same mark Harden achieved last season. Martin isn’t as good a ball handler or passer as Harden, but he also commits fewer turnovers and fouls. And the return of point guard Eric Maynor has meant the Thunder need that skill less off the bench – especially with Durant and Westbrook on the team. One of the reasons Harden’s assists have improved this year is simply because the Rockets need a playmaker more than the Thunder ever did.
But while Harden’s job has gotten harder, Martin’s job has gotten easier. Last week, ESPN named him the most efficient scorer in the NBA, meaning he scored more points per play than anybody else in the league. Last year, Harden was near the top of that list. It’s not hard to see why – playing with two superstars in Durant and Westbrook means that Martin is seeing more open looks than ever. And when teams go to guard him, it opens the floor for their two superstars, which is why the Thunder’s offense is so much more effective with him on the court.
There’s also the future to consider. Center Cole Aldrich, the second piece the Rockets acquired, has barely played, while Hasheem Thabeet has looked like a steal for the Thunder in his absence. Jeremy Lamb hasn’t played well, but he has the talent to be a starting guard if he develops. The Thunder also acquired a lottery pick from the Raptors (top-3 protected) that looks like could come to them this year.
All together, the Thunder managed to get a great shooting guard and some nice future assets for Harden, and their bench has been as strong as ever (much stronger than their starting lineup, which struggles to score). The Harden trade looks like the rare deal where both teams got better now and in the future, and as Harden returns to OKC, don’t expect to see hard feelings from either side. Everybody got what they wanted.