Thursday, April 3, 2014

The James Harden Trade or Why Bill Simmons is Not a General Manager Yet

I’ve recently begun the horrible process of becoming a grown up. Begun could be the wrong word. It’s the sort of thing that starts on it’s own. For a drug user and part time drunk like myself the recognition comes a step slow, if at all.
Sometimes I am able to see things very clearly. For the most part what I am seeing is a diluted experience that differs from the people around me who live differently, as well as the people around me who live the same way. That can lead to easy disregarding which I am familiar with. Frankly I deserve it most of the time. Sorting through nonsense is difficult time consuming work. Unfortunately our culture has built itself around a need to sort through nonsense in order to navigate the cogs of the machine.

Say you work in the National Basketball Association. For a fan they think of you as Lebron James and Kevin Durant. Tim, Kobe, Shaq, Michael, Magic, Larry, Kareem, Julius, Wilt and Bill. The logo. How many corporations are able to pull off having one of their employees in action serve as their inspiring logo? Obama, the NBA and the european vacuum guy on TV.

But seriously say you work for the NBA. The foundation of your outlook on the professional basketball is different. To an employee the NBA is a business where one of the owners is about to decide whether he wants to give three hundred million dollars to three thirty year old players. The implications of that are very serious and revealing about the current state of the sport.

First off, let’s get the sports writer rhetoric out of the way. Lebron James is showing his first signs of getting tired and beyond that fed up with Dwayne Wade’s rest habits. Wade is resting because he can’t play an 82 game season along with a deep playoff run anymore. Chris Bosh was maybe never worth a max deal on this kind of team or any team. But for some reason the way things work all three of these guys are locks to get max contracts…if they want it.

Fans like to believe that it is about contending. Therefore each team as well as the Association itself has to make an effort to convince their respective fan bases that they are trying to do everything they can to contend. That leads to moments like the Heat are in right now. If Mickey Arison, the owner of the team, hands out three hundred million dollars to his ‘big three’ it sends a few very clear messages. First is that he is making so much money with the current team that he can afford to commit sixty million dollars a year for five years straight to three guys who are on the back 9 of their careers. That’s fascinating in a league where even the wealthiest teams routinely make salary dumping moves. That leads us to an interesting detour but a necessary one in order to reach a conclusion.

In order to ensure the illusion of competitive balance the league has a salary cap and a hard cap and a luxury tax and a mid level exception and so on. What this does is create a false sense of equality and also sets a ceiling on how nuts all these billionaires can go trying to win the worlds biggest board game. Kind of. Unless you’re the Nets. Or any big market team who decides they want to project an image of contention by loading up on high priced low value assets.

That’s where the interesting questions start. Once upon a time Kevin Garnett smashed the ceiling on contracts given to professional athletes. At the time he was full of promise but also had major questions still unanswered. This was not giving Mike Trout a hundred million to avoid arbitration after back to back mvp caliber seasons. This moment was basically unprecedented. Garnett had promise but he was still just part of the pack of a dominant generation of big men who demanded to be power forwards. Part of this had to do with the presence of Shaq. Part of it had to do with the evolution of the NBA to a more european style. Part of it was just stubborn young men who were handed mass amounts of cash for their potential at playing a game well. What never struck me as a youngster watching those guys was the fact that the guy paying all of them had to be making a whole lot more than any individual player was. That’s the nature of business. There are tiers of who gets paid. The top is ridiculous gigantic numbers. The middle is still big but more digestible numbers. The low is minimum wage college graduate level salaries.

That is key. Most people would consider the lowest paid NBA players to be the ones who represent the low end of the wages. In reality the lowest paid employees are the people who make low salaries to do the kind of work it takes to run a team that fans rarely think about. Think assistants and janitors and the guys who collect the sweaty shit to wash. That means the highest paid players and coaches are at the top end of the middle group of who gets paid. Twenty four million dollars is a lot for Kobe Bryant. For the Buss family it is essentially a tax write off for all the Kobe swag they are going to push during the next couple years.

Who knows exactly what the Heat will do and what it really means about the current state of the NBA. Because it hasn’t happened yet. Something very important already did play out that leaves a very clear impression on the goals and challenges of owning and operating a professional basketball franchise in america at the highest competitive level.

The Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. It happened two days before the start of the 12-13 season. The widely reported reasoning was Thunder management grew impatient with Harden’s request for one night to think about an offer of roughly four million dollars per year less than what he was potentially worth on the open market.

That became the narrative. Along with people blasting OKC for giving up on a trio that had already been to the finals before any of them turned 25 years old. For pure fans of the sport the feeling was that of being cheated. In their vision the Thunder would be a perennial contender for the next five years. A home grown big three by a disciple of RC Buford, the legendary Spurs general manager. For fans of the game there was no team more pure. The potential was limitless in ones imagination.

The reality was that Kevin Durant was a transcendent scorer determined to round out the rest of his game and reach whatever his potential may be. Russell Westbrook had as much raw talent and as high of a ceiling as a professional athlete can have. And James Harden was a shooting guard built from a blueprint for success. Together the three of them covered the weakness of each other. Together they were more powerful than they could possibly be apart. Everyone was always going to wonder what they would have done by themselves. The Thunder decided that everyone was going to wonder what they would have done together. The question left is why?

In some ways everything is too big and complicated to understand. In another way it can all be boiled down to the night before the trade. That window that James Harden asked for to decide whether or not to accept twelve million a year to stay with the Thunder. In business this moment is everything. It is a perfectly marketed transition that was based on the core business principles that dates back to forever ago.

On the surface James Harden was an asset whose value couldn’t be measured. Let’s try. Based on stats alone he is basically Vince Carter. On the high end of the comparisons he is Reggie Miller or Isiah Thomas. That means he isn’t winning any titles by himself. Probably not even a scoring title. He’s a player who needs a team around him to contend. And even then he probably comes up short unless the group around him is truly extraordinary and well suited to play together like the Bad Boys Pistons teams.

In a machine you have to take the trade package of Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams because what that move is also doing is creating freedom to hold onto Ibaka, continue to pay Durant and Westbrook max money, not lose your most important locker room asset in Kendrick Perkins and also hold onto prospects they’ve spent years developing like Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones III. What that literally means is Oklahoma City was trading Harden for Lamb, Adams, Ibaka, Perkins, Jackson and Jones. Because Harden wanted just enough money to cause problems. Not only for the owners bottom lines (it is a business, after all) but also because in this moment in time in the NBA the smartest move was to deal Harden and continue to build from within as they did with Harden.

I could argue that Steven Adams will be a $10 million a year center. Or that Lamb is all but a lock to get the kind of 3-5 year at 7-8 per that so many swingmen have now. That Ibaka has five more years of being a force. That OKC can now trade with teams again without people fearing they are getting gotten the best of. Or even that Toronto was the third worst team at the time of the trade...imagine Oladipo instead of Adams on OKC.

What Oklahoma City did was build a team. When James Harden made the choice to not take what the team had allotted for him he sealed his fate. That is what teams do. For better or worse. In this case it is probably for the better.

Harden would have been stifled sharing the floor with Durant and Westbrook full time. We never would have found out who Kevin Durant is without James Harden leaving. Same goes for James Harden, who was a completely different player in OKC than he is now in Houston. Who knows how history will judge their careers and their successes and failures. But based on the way the system is set up there was only one choice.

And that is a shame. Competition should be used to build the best. Not to leave unanswered questions based on foolish principles. You can’t blame Oklahoma City for it though. They were playing an ugly game in a world where the only games anyone are allowed to play seem to have to be ugly. Because ultimately even the most beautiful things are gross from some angle. If that is what you are looking for. In the case of James Harden he’s having fun running around Houston like a hooligan. Still friends with Durant. It’s fun watching them compete. And we will always wonder what could have been. But OKC saved it’s team and freed James Harden. That’s what is left in the cloud of dust. Who knows what happens when it settles.