James Harden

Thunder weaken title chances to save almighty dollar


Mark Cuban once said that there are two kinds of NBA owners: Those that want to win and those that want to make money.

We know where the Thunder owners fall.

Oklahoma City traded their Sixth Man of the Year and best playmaker James Harden — the guy with the sweet beard who often had the ball in his hands at the ends of games — to the Houston Rockets, along with Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and at least two 2013 first round picks.

Here’s why it’s a mistake for the Thunder — when you’re a title contender, you go all in to win now. These opportunities are too rare to take a step back. The Thunder just did that. The Thunder were one of the three NBA teams with a legitimate chance to win a title this season, and they got worse right now with this move. Not a massive step backwards, but it was a step. And in a West with the Lakers — and an NBA where the Heat got better — any step back is magnified.

The Thunder went from serious contender to “team that needs a lot of things to go right for them to win it all this year.” Two 2013 picks in the double digits (the Raptors are better than you think) is not a huge help in winning a ring. Not this year. Not for a contender. You can make the argument they are better in the long term if you want, I’m not sold, but they are not better this year. They still have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they didn’t become bad, but they didn’t get better.

Kevin Martin can shoot the three and get up points, but since changes to how fouls are called — not calling a defensive foul on the offensive sweep-through move, for example — he is not the efficient machine he was. He’s not the same guy he was years before, and even if he was he’s more of a spot-up, isolation player. Harden was a playmaker

It will be on Westbrook to keep the ball moving in this offense now. The Thunder can tend toward isolation and that would make them easier to defend.

This was about all about the Benjamins for OKC. Harden wanted a max extension (around $58 million for four years) and turned down a $52 million offer from the Thunder. Oklahoma City didn’t want to pay a tax after two seasons from now that could be more than $28 million, that could give them a $100 payroll (with tax). So they made a trade. Now they avoid the tax problems. Congrats.

If you own and NBA team and you move it from the 22nd largest city by population and the 14th largest television market (Seattle) to the 30th largest city and 45th largest television market (Oklahoma City), you sacrifice potential income. And the Thunder knew the Harden price and tax when they made the Westbrook extension and gave Serge Ibaka $50 million deal this summer. The Thunder knew the cost, they just don’t want to pay it.

For the Rockets, Daryl Morey had been going after an elite star for a while, someone he could build a contender around. He struck out with getting Dwight Howard and others.

But is Harden really the answer? That’s the plan. I’m not sold. He’s certainly very good, but he and Jeremy Lin are similar in that both are pick-and-roll players. On a team that now needs to get a really good roll man. I’m not sure either Lin or Harden works as well off the ball.

But I get the logic of why the Rockets did this.They are a team than needs bold moves and this was that kind of trade for them.

For the Thunder, they looked to save money and were willing to make the team a little weaker in the process. And you can bet Kevin Durant is not happy about this.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.

UNLV following Kentucky’s lead with combine for NBA scouts

Goodluck Okonoboh, Patrick McCaw
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Kentucky held a two-day combine last season for NBA scouts.

Now, LSU and UNLV are following suit.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports:

The Runnin’ Rebels will hold their event on October 23rd and 24th at the Mendenhall Center, UNLV’s practice facility, sources told NBCSports.com. The expectation is that all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance.

LSU has potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and another first-round prospect in Tim Quarterman.

UNLV features lottery prospect Stephen Zimmerman.

This won’t replace scouts attending games and watching practices, but the fact that all 30 teams plan to attend shows how seriously the pro league takes these. No college team wanted John Calipari to have that competitive advantage in recruiting, so the smart ones are leveling the field with their own combines. Soon, more college teams will follow.

As the calendar gets packed, NBA teams might have to pick and choose which they attend. At that point, we might get little clues about which prospects they’re scouting hardest.