Breaking Down the James Harden Trade

October 31, 2012

By Eric Palutsis


Apart from the actual premiere of the NBA season on Tuesday night, the biggest news in basketball was the shocking trade between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets. The centerpiece of the trade was sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden, finally giving the Houston GM Daryl Morey the superstar he had been seeking all summer long. For the Thunder, they part with an integral member of last season’s run to the NBA Finals in order to spare themselves from the headache of Harden’s impending free agency at the end of this season. In return they acquire a package of picks and player that includes a potential lottery pick (via Toronto) and the young rookie swingman Jeremy Lamb. In a salary dump that seems to essentially swap current production for future potential, does that mean Oklahoma City “lost” the trade?


With his move to Houston, Harden will finally emerge from the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and become the first option on a rebuilding team. He is expected to sign the maximum contract extension that the Thunder were too hesitant to offer, paying him more than $78 million over the course of the next five years; that averages out to roughly $15.6 million per season.


Assuming Harden signs the NBA max deal, the Rockets will be paying him just under $191K per game. Using his 2012-13 projections from ESPN (16.9 ppg/4.4 rpg/3.8 apg), that means that Harden will be paid over $11K per point, $43K per rebound, or over $50K per assist. For comparisons sake, last year LeBron James earned just over $8K per point during his MVP season (if his stats were extended over a full 82 game schedule).


On the basis of pure value, it is easy to see why the Thunder were so wary to invest such a steep price in a player who came off of the bench for them. That is why many analysts have pointed to the acquisition of Lamb as a much cheaper alternative to Harden who may one day actually fit better into Oklahoma City’s style of play—if he lives up to his potential (8.9 ppg/2.9 rpg/1.7 apg).  Compared to Harden’s giant contract, Lamb’s inexpensive rookie contract will pay him under $2.5 million this season, averaging out to just over $3K per point.


The player who seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of this blockbuster trade has been the very man who will likely take Harden’s role as chief bench scorer this season: Kevin Martin. Martin, in the final year of his contract, is due nearly $13 million this season and was an ideal candidate to grease the wheels on the trade and provide Oklahoma City with some cap relief in the future. However, Martin—a top ten scorer just two years ago—can still play, as evidenced by his predicted stat line this year (16 ppg/2.7 rpg/2.3 apg). That comes out to under $10K per point, which is not half bad for a player that is just supposed to help balance the books.


When combining Martin and Lamb’s projections for the upcoming seasons (since they are the two major current assets in the trade heading to OKC) and compare them to Harden’s, we see that the veteran and the rookie should combine to be a more effective combination than the most famous beard in the NBA:



 Avg. Salary






 $  15,640,000





 $        190,732

 $          11,286

 $          43,348

 $          50,193


 $  15,281,604





 $        186,361

 $             7,484

 $          33,279

 $          46,590


In fact, once each player’s contracts are taken into account, it appears that the Thunder should receive more production from Martin and Lamb in all three statistical categories and at a better price than Harden for each as well. In an ideal scenario, one would assume that these numbers should only improve in favor of the Thunder as time progresses, as the lottery pick Lamb should continue to develop with more NBA experience, all while playing under a team-friendly rookie contract for the next four years.


Financially speaking, it appears that the Thunder’s unlikely gamble should pay off, assuming of course that players involved in the trade perform up to their statistical projections for the upcoming season. While it is certainly possible that Harden’s already promising career reaches new heights after finally becoming “the guy” in Houston or that Martin fails to adapt to his new role in OKC, at this point in time it seems that the Thunder have gotten the most bang for their buck by trading their star at the peak of his value. Granted, it is impossible to truly say who “won” the trade until a few years down the road once Lamb’s development can be more accurately be evaluated and OKC’s acquired draft picks become real players. But instead of gambling a max contract on the team’s third scoring option, the Thunder felt comfortable enough behind Durant and Westbrook to gamble towards a deeper—and cheaper—future roster.