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Breaking down the beard: A discussion about the Houston Rockets’ trade to acquire Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden

Late Saturday night, when news broke of the Houston Rockets’ stunning acquisition of James Harden, there was only one person whose coverage I followed for reaction from the Thunder side – Royce Young of DailyThunder.com (and also CBSsports.com), a sister affiliate at ESPN.com.  Below is the transcript of our discussion about this trade.

Huq: I’ve been following your coverage all day on the Thunder side of things.  It seems this was about more than just money for Presti; it was about culture and sacrifice.  On the basketball end, how big a drop-off do you feel this will be for Oklahoma City this season?  While Lamb may not yet be ready, I feel many are vastly underrating what Kevin Martin can bring to the table.  The NBA forgot, because no one was watching, but this is still a player who can put up 30 points in the blink of an eye, and take very few shots to do it.

Young:  I think it was two part. One part financial, one part principle. Every dollar more the Thunder paid Harden was multiplied by two. When it all added up in the end, Harden would’ve essentially been an $90 million player. At the same time, the Thunder have a very engrained culture built upon team and cohesiveness. Harden was going against the established grain by resisting flexing a bit on his deal and while the Thunder didn’t hold that against him, they weren’t going to bend for him just ’cause.

The other thing: Kevin Martin is a very good player. Once Thunder fans can start separating the emotion from it all and look at it as a part for part trade, the Thunder have a more than capable replacement for Harden. Maybe not in terms of fit, at least right away, but in terms of simply a stat and production replacement, Martin’s perfect.

One thing he doesn’t provide that Harden did is the ball handler and creating. The Thunder had the ability to give the ball to Harden and let him control the offense while Durant and Westbrook played off the ball. That’s gone now.

I think once the shock wears off, Thunder fans are going to begin appreciating Martin and what he brings. What people don’t know what to think about though is Lamb, who seems to be mostly an unknown. Intriguing, but unknown.

Huq: Switching gears a bit, what does Harden bring to the Rockets?  While Presti passed, is he worth the max deal he’ll get in this situation?

Young: I definitely think so. Harden is a fantastic player. Versatile, skilled, athletic and smart. He’s known as a great finisher and creator, but don’t forget: He can shoot. He hit 40 percent from 3 last season and only seems to be improving from outside.

Had the Thunder not been cash strapped, there’s no doubt in my mind Harden would’ve been maxed. He has been playing with the crutch of Durant and Westbrook bailing him out if he plays poorly the past few years so how he responds as the alpha will be interesting. But that’s not foreign territory for him either. He played that role at Arizona State and was an All-American and Pac-10 player of the year.

Houston’s getting a great young talent. I have no doubt Harden will succeed.

What about Kevin Martin fitting with Durant and Westbrook? Obviously he’s different, but is he sixth man material? Can he anchor the second unit as a scorer like Harden did for OKC?

Huq: He wouldn’t have agreed to come off the bench here in Houston; I suspect that’s part of why he was never brought back late last season from injury after it became clear that the team was better off with Courtney Lee starting.  It was no secret that Kevin McHale and Martin didn’t get along.

In a winning culture like Oklahoma City’s, in a contract year, there’s no doubt Martin will do as he is told.  I expect him to thrive this season with the Thunder – he’s looked better than ever this preseason, even exerting effort on the defensive end.  Few players in history have been able to get on base like Martin.  It became a regular thing at Toyota Center to look up and see a ’25’ spot next to Martin’s name after wondering where he had been all night.

Martin can handle, but he can’t really create, even for himself.  He gets his shots early and quickly, baiting defenders with fakes, spotting up inside, or driving in either direction for a fading bank off the glass.  He likes contact.  One of Martin’s best traits is that he works quickly.  This is not a ball stopper.

On the other hand, Kevin Martin will not be scoring off his own dribble against pressure defense.  That’s not his game.  I’m most curious to see how he fares in the postseason when officials swallow their whistles and he is bailed out less often.

What’s the upside on Harden?  You said he’s worth the contract.  Can he be the best player on a championship team?  Can he become the best shooting guard in the NBA?

Young: Man, that’s a tough question. As you obviously know, there’s a difference in a max level player and a  max player. There are guys that get that deal because the market determined it to be so and guys that are worth every single penny.

Harden is a wonderful scorer, but he’s more in his element when he has help. He can be the best player on a championship team, but he needs to have above average teammates. I don’t think he’s necessarily the kind of guy that’s going to be putting a team on his back. He knows how to fit, how to gel, how to work with teammates. But I’m not sure he’s mastered consistently taking over games without having a hand in it from somewhere else. It’s a tiny, probably meaningless sample size, but in a preseason game this year with Westbrook and Durant sitting meaning Harden was the featured player, he went 2-of-17 from the floor and forced shots horribly.

There is a little Joe Johnson phobia to be had with Harden though. It’s extremely easy to see him in almost exactly that same mold and situation. Good player but missing something. Most likely, great teammates.

Right now, you could make a decent case for Harden being the third best shooting guard in the league. As players like Kobe and Dwyane Wade age out, if Harden continues his progression, there’s no reason he can’t be. At the same time, Joe Johnson.

What can you tell Thunder fans about Lamb though? Obviously he’s very new and looks have been limited but he’s really intriguing.

Huq: Lamb’s the guy most Rockets fans were most excited to see entering the season.  You have to give to get though, so I’m not complaining.

He torched the summer league, looking NBA-ready, drawing raves from observers as one of the top rookies.  Mysteriously, he hasn’t seen much preseason action, especially of late.  That might be more a reflection on the reality of playing under Kevin McHale rather than an indictment upon Lamb.  So far, this hasn’t exactly been a situation where young players have been given a chance to mess up.

As far as his skillset, having just watched a handful of games, I can’t speak to that any better than anyone else.  He’s smooth and long with a steady handle and a preference to pull up between the lines.  Did I mention he’s smooth?  Check out some film from Lamb in summer league where he’d often curl around screens for the quick catch and pop.  I envision him one day torching defenders in that manner for giving too much attention to Durant.  Myself and others, all along, had felt that Lamb’s upside was, ironically, Kevin Martin.  He won’t be creating for anyone else.  But one day, he’ll score in bunches.

The few times I’ve met him, he’s exuded a sort of cockiness which I think will help him make the jump to a contender.  It’s easy to get lost, I’d think, on a team with expectations like the Thunder.

Can you break down James’ game?  What are his weaknesses and what kind of players should the team target to build around him?  What kind of numbers do you predict he’ll put up?

Young: Harden’s a combo guard in the truest sense. He was probably Oklahoma City’s best point guard last season. That’s not a slight to Westbrook, but a compliment to how good Harden can be running the show.

He’s an incredible pick-and-roll player. His feel playing a two-man game is terrific. He understands spacing, reads help defense collapsing and rotating and knows when to attack or to dish. He’s a throwback player because he’s just so darn well-rounded.

His limitation is in the mid-range. Essentially he’s either going to get into the paint (and thereby, the free throw line) or he’s going to spot up from 3. He hasn’t quite figured out how to take advantage of pockets for longer 2-pointers which as a feature guy, that’s something he’ll likely need to adjust to. He doesn’t run off screens and doesn’t shoot on the move. He spots up and if he gets a clean look, he can knock it down.

One issue he battled his first two seasons was consistent offensive aggressiveness. Scott Brooks basically had to beg him to shoot at times. And obviously as a top option, that can’t happen. He really came into his own last season in that area and seemed to sort most of it out.

He’s decent defender that lacks a little in his lateral quickness (or he’s just a little lazy). He’s got great hands and really good instincts, but I would say he’s an average defender at best. He could be pretty good, but that would take a commitment from him, something I’m not sure he’ll do as a No. 1 option who needs to have something for the offensive end. But he’s absolutely not a liability.

It’s hard to get a great read on what Harden will do as a featured player, but if I were to guess, I think he’s a lock to score at least 20 points a game. I think he’ll like end up somewhere in the 22 points, six assists and five rebounds a game, with solid percentages. I think he likes to share too much to really be a contender for 25 or more a game.

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About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of Red94.net.

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