James Harden returns to Oklahoma City on Wednesday (just in case you hadn’t heard) and brings plenty of lingering memories with him. But one month after the trade that sent shockwaves through the NBA, let’s take a quick look back and broad look ahead, using four questions for four writers to analyze the impact of The Beard’s departure:
1. One month later, does either side regret this trade?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - No. Not a month in. James Harden is averaging 25 points, and the Thunder is 11-4. Both sides so far are successful. Ask me again in June. That’s when the Thunder might be back in the Finals and Harden likely will have grown bored of parties on boats. Like it or not, that’s also the time when this trade will be scrutinized the most. Regardless of how Harden performed last time around, if the Thunder lays another egg in the Finals or, worse, fails to get there, most will view it as proof OKC shouldn’t have traded Harden. Deep down, the team will wonder ‘what if’ as well.
John Rohde (beat writer) - Houston is 6-7 and OKC is 11-4 right now. That equates to 38-44 and 60-22 for the regular season. Then again, I think the only number Harden was ever interested in with the Thunder was 60,000,000 (dollars over four seasons).
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Can’t speak for Harden. I think he’s probably enjoying himself now. In February, when the Rockets are 23-33 and reality is setting in, we’ll see. But the Thunder does not regret it. The Thunder organization, that is. The Thunder TEAM, perhaps. The trade clearly hurt the Thunder’s chances for the NBA title this season. No doubt about it. But it was a trade that fortified the Thunder’s future. More draft picks, some high, plus a more stable financial base.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) - I don’t think either side regrets that it happened. The Thunder protected itself for the future and still looks like a title contender, while James Harden is getting his, financially and in the scoring department. But I think both have some remorse about how it went down. Contract negotiations, particularly near the midnight hour, can get a bit ugly. And it sounds like this one did, souring relationships built over the past three years. Oftentimes, the business side of the NBA makes that unavoidable. But despite obvious egos, all parties involved seem like genuine people who likely wish the inevitable departure was handled a bit smoother.
2. Is James Harden a legit max player? And has his immediate production surprised you at all?
Mayberry - He is only because that’s what the going rate says he is. If the system wasn’t so screwed up, he wouldn’t be in my eyes. To me, a max player should be your best player, a player who is your go-to guy and can lead you deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately, that’s not the economics of the NBA. Teams are paying top dollar for second tier players. Houston did the same with Harden just to have somebody. It’s not a winning formula, and I suspect Houston will soon find that out. As for Harden’s production, he’s the best player on a mediocre team. It happens all the time. In this case, Harden has enough to prove and enough bad teams to do it against that it was to be expected.
Rohde - By max player, you’re asking if he’s worthy of the same payscale as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The answer to both is no. First two games surprised me (41.0 ppg; .636 FG), but about what I expected ever since.
Tramel - Sure, Harden is a legit max player. Max players are not the elite of the elite. The salary ceiling has dropped, so more players will be given the max salary. The fact that the Thunder couldn’t afford another max salary is no referendum on Harden. It’s a referendum on the economic realities. Harden’s production should be no surprise. He’s an excellent player, an excellent one-on-one player, and now he’s the Houston bellcow. What else would he do except score through the roof.
Slater - You’ve all mentioned the NBA’s broken system, so no need to touch on that too much. Something’s obviously wrong when Joe Johnson gets as much (or more) money than LeBron James and Kevin Durant. But I think Harden’s proven himself to be in the league’s upper-echelon of stars. He’s a nice #1 option on an average team, better suited to be a #2 (or #3) option on a championship-level team. But (for better or worse) teams are willing to pay max money and give max shots to a talent like that. And at 23, it’s hard to blame him for taking it. It’s early, but I’m already envisioning a Tracy McGrady career path, filled with big production and limited playoff wins.
3. What kind of reception can Harden expect in The Peake Wednesday night?
Mayberry - I say he gets a hearty chorus of cheers during intros, with a few scattered boos. When the game starts, the cheers will stop. But the boos might not. Let him try one of those 3-point or dunk celebrations with his hand gestures and see what happens.
Rohde - Definitely cheers, followed by groans if he starts pouring in a bunch of points. However, if Harden gets into any kind of confrontation with a Thunder player, he’ll get booed out of the gym.
Tramel - I think Harden will be cheered mightily. No reason why he wouldn’t. Harden doesn’t even play for a team that could be considered a threat to the Thunder. Harden was incredibly popular, and I think the fans will respond accordingly. Now, next year? The year after? He’ll just be someone that we used to know. See Chris Paul.
Slater - There are a few fanaticals genuinely beat up by the way Harden left, saying publicly that he was willing to sacrifice but proving otherwise. And they may boo. But that will be heavily drowned out by the 90 percent of Thunder fans who care more about three years worth of great memories than a behind the scenes preseason trade saga. We might even see some beards.
4. Five years from now, who’s the better NBA player: James Harden or Russell Westbrook?
Mayberry - That is a great question. Largely because Harden, in many ways, is the better player today. Not the more dominant player. But the better player. Harden is a better shooter, a better passer, more efficient, makes better decisions and even has shown more improvement out of the two defensively. In five years, will Westbrook have caught up? Or by then will Harden have maxed out and become just another above average player putting up numbers on a bad team? It ought to be a fascinating thing to follow in the years ahead.
Rohde - The same answer as who’s the better player five minutes from now: Russell Westbrook.
Tramel - Russell Westbrook. Getting better every year and started ahead. He’s going to play in about 100 major playoff games over the next five years. Harden might not play in any. I love James Harden. But I love Russell Westbrook more. I think the Thunder feels exactly the same.
Slater - From a production standpoint, I actually think Harden will be the better player. He’s dynamic and smooth, bringing a consistent ease that translates better over an 82-game stretch. And he impacts the game in more ways. But that’s not a knock on Westbrook. They’ll both be top-15 players for years to come, still a half-decade away from their athletic primes. And Westbrook will remain the more relevant star, playing high-drama playoff ball while Harden reminisces with his boys on ‘that one time I played in the Finals.’