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Venkataraman: Harden-Thunder breakup damaging to both sides

Roughly two editions of the NBA Playoffs ago, James Harden was the greatest combination of man and beard alive. I offer my insincere apologies to Brian Wilson — who unfortunately now plays for the wrong team to garner any affection from me and furthermore only directly influences the outcome of one-ninth of a baseball game.

In a vital playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA Western Conference juggernauts of the last decade, Harden (then a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder) dazzled; hitting clutch threes and driving into the teeth of the vaunted Spurs defense seemingly at will; coming off screens and nailing jumpers; staunching the bleeding whenever the Thunder bench seemed mired in a shooting slump; and even playing a semblance of defense, coming up with steals and flopping around effectively to draw offensive fouls.

When the Thunder were finally halted by the Miami Heat in the finals, losing a hard-fought playoff series to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and friends, it seemed that with a core quartet of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, the future for the Thunder was bright. After all, Durant was (and is) one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. Westbrook’s manic energy, relentless play, and slight insanity seemed like good complements to Durant’s smooth game. Harden was the bearded bench all by himself. Finally, Ibaka was blossoming into one of the best low-post defenders and rebounders in the league, all while trying to develop a jump shot on the fly.

Fast-forward two years, and that quartet has been irrevocably split two ways. Harden now plies his craft for the Houston Rockets as the “first superstar” recruited by evil-genius-cum-sabermetrician-cum-GM Daryl Morey, in his quest to boil the NBA down to a series of numbers that can be gamed for instant victory. His trade to the Rockets fundamentally altered the NBA landscape as we know it, prompting other players like Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to sign with the newly fortified Houston squad.

Meanwhile, the Thunder tried to replace Harden’s scoring output with Kevin Martin (no longer with the team) and a bunch of NBA D-League castoffs. To both sides, the outcome can only be described as mixed. And that might be too kind a judgment.

It is easiest to look at Harden as a single entity on the Rockets. Although his per-game numbers have all increased (this season he averaged, per game, 25.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists, to go along with 1.6 steals and 3.6 turnovers), they have come as a result of his increased usage rates and at the cost of his efficiency; his field goal percentage, which peaked when he was a super sub for the Thunder, has declined from 49.1 percent in his last season with the Thunder to 43.8 percent and 45.6 percent in his first two seasons with the Rockets. His 3-point percentages have dropped from 39 percent down to 36 percent, while he hoists them at nearly double the rate he did before the trade.

Harden’s decline has been even more obvious when you watch him play; the crisp ball movement, the daring forays to the rim, the decisiveness that so characterized his time with the Thunder have all been replaced by lots of standing around, a ton of tough threes and fadeaway jumpers, and a penchant for “ball stopping” (once a teammate passes to him, he ain’t passing it back).

His defense is even worse: to call it lazy would be an affront to lazy folks worldwide. All you need to know about James Harden’s defense is that there is an 11-minute-long video on YouTube entitled “James Harden, Defensive Juggernaut (2013-2014).” Note to readers: the title is about as facetious and snarky as a title could be. In short, moving Harden from the Thunder bench to the center of the Rockets’ starting lineup has revealed significant holes in his game — holes that were well hidden by his limited and specific roles when he came off the bench for Oklahoma City.

The Thunder, too, have suffered from the trade. Their bench lacks any scoring threats, and they’ve been forced (due to their reluctance to climb over the luxury tax) to employ Derek Fisher’s services as a key bench player. Over the last two years, the questions about the ability of Durant and Westbrook to coexist have not faded away; in fact, they have gotten more and more intense as the postseason losses mount for the team.

Under coach Scott Brooks, the Thunder have perfected the vaunted Clogged Toilet offense (a term borrowed from Bill Simmons), which has two variants: let Westbrook go isolation or let Durant go isolation. For obvious reasons, this offense struggles to score points and makes basketball purists worldwide shudder with its distinct lack of aesthetic beauty.

Although Ibaka has developed into an excellent supporting player, he is not a ball handler who can manufacture offense, and that is really where Harden is missed the most. His ability to play multiple positions and produce instant points is the perfect tonic for this Thunder team’s propensity to fall into extended scoring slumps from both Durant and Westbrook. Sadly, it is a tonic that the Thunder deemed unaffordable when they traded him away for essentially nothing.

The moral of this story? This is where things get murky, because both teams and both sets of players are still achieving great success. The Rockets were a few small breaks away from defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, and the Thunder, despite a game 1 shellacking at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, could still find their way into the Western Conference finals. However, the basketball fan in me weeps for what could have been; in my humble opinion, Harden is not yet the superstar that his team and his contract say he is, while the Thunder are not built to be able to compete in this loaded Western Conference environment without finding a true replacement for Harden’s unique skillset.

The regress of both parties involved in that fateful trade is yet another “what if?” moment in a league that manufactures them with regularity. We like to talk about winners and losers as soon as trades are completed, or at least after both sides have been given enough time to see returns on their investments. In this case, could it be possible that both sides are suffering from buyer’s remorse? And if they had a chance to do it all over again, would they make the same moves as they did two seasons ago?

Vignesh Venkataraman hopes that the Thunder will continue to collapse so that he can apply for the soon-to-be coaching vacancy in Oklahoma City. To give Vignesh pointers on how to best utilize Westbrook and Durant, contact him at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.