The Harden Trade: Raising the Ceiling

My friend from ASU informed me about the trade before there was any news on Google.  His first tweet, “nooooo not harden,” was directly followed by a message to me, “harden.”  As soon as I read it, I wondered, “Is this guy really that torn about Harden rejecting Oklahoma City’s extension offer?”  But then I considered whether he had declared intent to become a free agent or suffered a freak season-ending injury.

Before I could think of any other inaccurate possibilities, my friend messaged me again: “harden traded to rockets!”  As my eyes ran over those four words, my first thought was, “Well this makes sense.”  After all, Houston’s GM notoriously loves advanced statistics, and James Harden has enjoyed a considerable rise in stock as his name has floated near the top of those secondary categories, which examine efficiency, facial hair volume, and other highly valued criteria.  It also fit in the sense that Morey has recently developed an affinity for overpaying players.

Yet, as for many people, I struggled to understand the Thunder’s decision-making.  Why did they take back two shooting guards – one who scores, but does little else to help a team win; the other a rookie – and draft picks for a player who many people view as a fringe All-Star.  Aren’t they gearing up to take over the league?  How did they not acquire a king’s ransom for one of their best players, at a time where they seemingly had almost no pressure to make a move?  Is this Oklahoma City essentially giving the Lakers the keys to the Western Conference? Most importantly, I wondered, were the future tax penalties that daunting to the Thunder brass that they felt that they could not possibly hold on to Harden?

As these questions floated around less comprehensibly in my mind, I thought about it more.  I played the trade over in my mind and it went like this: Morey wanted Harden, Presti asked for Lamb in return, Morey told Presti that he had to take Martin’s last contract year.  Presti proceeded to add Aldrich, Cook and Hayward to make the numbers work.

While this is probably completely wrong, my main takeaway was that this is a new step for Presti as the Oklahoma City GM.  The team’s core, for better or worse, has pretty much realized its potential.  Durant can improve on defense, Westbrook can work on his decision-making, and Ibaka can develop a post game.  There are small places for improvement, but what we saw last season is probably close to what we would have seen this season.  Which is not a bad thing, by any means.  The Thunder could have won the NBA Finals last year, but they were primed to contend for the next 3-4 years, at least.

Presti’s decision to move Harden was primarily based on money, sure, but I have to believe that he also wanted to strive for more with this team.  This trade nets them a good scorer in Kevin Martin, but Jeremy Lamb is the piece that matters most for Presti.

Lamb is a typical Thunder guy: he won a national championship with Kemba Walker and Co. at UConn as a freshman in 2011, later in the year he emerged as a leader for Team USA in the U19s World Championships in Latvia, and has succeeded in both roles of go-to guy and secondary scorer.While he will only play sparingly in the Thunder rotation this season, behind both Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha in the shooting guard pecking order, Lamb is in a perfect learning environment.

Presti’s decision to shuffle the deck also reveals his faith in the team’s other core players to keep the ship steady and continue moving in the right direction.

With Cole Aldrich on his way to Houston, fellow former Huskie and assumed draft bust Hasheem Thabeet is now the team’s backup center.   The main effect of this offseason of slight adjustments, ended by a rather substantial roster shake-up, lies in the bench: while last season’s second unit was manned by rookie Reggie Jackson, James Harden, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Nazr Mohammed, this year’s bench will have, in addition to Jackson and Collison, the recovering Eric Maynor, Martin/Sefolosha, Lamb, Perry Jones III, and Hasheem Thabeet.

If you’re a Thunder fan (as are most people), you likely oppose the Harden deal and think that it will set back the team this season, which it likely will. Martin is likely as good a scorer as the man he will directly replace, but does not have nearly the same playmaking capabilities as Harden.  He will also likely be a one-year rental.

This trade may be what does effectively give the Lakers the slight upper hand in the battle to return to the NBA Finals, but it will also end up having enormous long-term benefits for the Thunder.  Apart from the obvious financial aspect, the Thunder acquire a potential-laden player who has the potential and opportunity to grow and improve in their competitive system alongside fellow talented rookie Perry Jones III.

It may not seem like it now, but with the Thunder adding yet another very young player with tremendous upside, they might end up as the winners of this trade as soon as two seasons from now.  While Harden prepares to make max money for a leading role that he has never experienced, Lamb will be growing and preparing for his own expanded role within the OKC system.  If the young Thunder players develop in any way like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka have over the past several seasons, nothing will stop Oklahoma from winning a couple of championships before Presti has to worry about contracts again.

The Shame of Diving

For the first time in league history, the NBA recently implemented rules into its officiating policy in order to discourage the flopping epidemic.  In recent seasons, drawing a foul has become as prevalent for many players on the offensive side of the court as on the defensive end.  The main culprit has been the evolution of the charge: from a defensive mechanism – against offset excessive aggression by the ball-handler, screen setter, or big man with flying elbows – to a weapon against post-ups, drive-and-kicks, and other typically innocuous aspects of an NBA game.

In many instances, the defensive player deserves credit for his willingness to sacrifice the body and his ability to read the play before the offense can properly execute; however, it becomes troubling when players welcome contact as a way of justifying their propensity to fall over in the event of a particularly strong breeze.

Smaller defenders have used the charge call as a progressive equalizer more than ever.  Small guards on the low wing, when posted up by bigger players, have become much more inclined to fall to ground and hope for an offensive foul call, rather than stand their ground and hope for the best (a help-side block or a missed shot).

As stigmatized as players such as Shane Battier and Manu Ginobili have become for their on-court theatrics, J.J. Barea, James Harden, Chris Paul, and LeBron James all exaggerated contact to near-comedic levels last season.  While talking to referees has arguably become as much of a problem, flopping has been a growing issue that essentially asks referees to play a larger part in the game.

Soccer, on the other hand, has an omnipresent diving culture.  The sport’s reputation as a game of divers has only intensified, as punishments for portraying a step on the foot as a minor gunshot wound range from very rare to non-existent.  Luis Suarez has been the infamous poster boy for the transgression but, as we know, it’s everywhere.  Carl Jenkinson has been pulled down by little more than gravity, so has Ashley Young, Mikel Arteta, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard…so yeah, everywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, FIFA vice-president, Jim Boyce, announced diving as the “cancer of football.”  He called on “disciplinary committees,”panels that reviews cases on a week-by-week basis, to ween out the acting.  The chief also sympathized with the job of the referee, who has to make judgments based on split-second, oft-simulated, collisions.

Based on past decisions, committee rule is likely not the best method.  Why, because everyone cares the most when the offense actually happens.  When the committees make the decisions a few days later, most of the emotion produced by a controversial fall to ground has evaporated and, as a result, the effect of the dive becomes marginalized.

There is no clear-cut solution to an act that reflects immaturity as much as it does competitiveness.  In other sports, such as hockey, football, and even baseball, going to ground and showing signs of pain is a tip of the cap to your opponent’s physicality.  More importantly, it’s an indication of your own weakness and your own ability, or inability, to get back up.  In other sports, limping and grimacing doesn’t make you some kind of warrior, neither does trying to play through pain.  When you’re a one percent athlete, that’s simply the expectation.

If that’s unreasonable, I don’t understand why.  We idolize these athletes that have such fantastic ability and perform admirably for our respective teams, yet we actually end up holding them to a lower standard.  Diving is merely a central tenet of a community that tries to incriminate other opponents on the field and readily sacrifices integrity for a short-term benefit, all while lowering the entire league’s reputation.  Coaches like David Moyes and Martin O’Neill have recently denounced this enormous detriment, yet response will have to come from more coaches, players, and fans, particularly against the actions of their own players.

The widespread immaturity of professional athletes in their personal lives is clearly their own business, but it becomes a problem when they reflect that same selfish weakness in their well-paid, highly public professions.  Soccer will never have the tough reputation of other sports, but sadly it has devolved into a sport that essentially glorifies the individual who wins a penalty after getting nudged in the back, provided that the player is on your team.

The NBA has make an attempt to curtail flopping before it becomes an even bigger problem; while far from perfect, it signals intent from the league to protect the league’s integrity.  As far as soccer is concerned, its tarnished reputation has suffered irreparable damage.  Diving will always exist, as players will always be able to exaggerate the effect of contact during a game.

What the league must do is take small steps that affect the game itself: have referees administer fewer penalties (no penalty call is always going to be less of a story than a dubious decision), enhance replay availability, and implement a sort of broken windows policy on the field – book any attempt of case-pleading or dissent and limit the time between which a foul occurs and the follow-up kick is taken to 30 seconds.

Regardless of what method is taken, it will have its dissenters and its shortcomings, but it must force players to adjust.  Incorrectly punishing players for dives, particularly in the penalty box, must be permitted as a potential effect if the league hopes to foster substantial reform.  A countless number of games have been decided by undeserved penalty calls and offside decisions (including Saturday’s Arsenal-QPR game).  Targeting players who are associated with going to ground easily must be another step, even if it comes to the dismay of certain fanbases and managers.

Because diving is an epidemic that has led to a rotting of FIFA’s reputation, at least the little that remains for the embattled organization.  Diving goes far beyond a player, a team, or a league.  It impacts almost every game in little ways, which compiles into long-term ramifications over the 9 month span of a season.  It needs to be wrung from professional soccer now, so that the sport can someday return to a game purely reliant on ability, strategy, and a slight bit of luck.