NBA PM: Is James Harden A Max Player?
There are a flurry of questions in the minds of NBA fans in the wake of Saturday night’s blockbuster trade between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Did the Thunder take a step back? Is Houston a playoff team now? Did the Rockets give up too much? Did Oklahoma City get the best deal possible?
I spent a good deal of the morning answering those questions to one degree or another in my chat, so be sure you’ve read that.
There’s another question, however, that would seem to overshadow the others: Is James Harden truly a maximum contract type of player? That, after all, is the reason he was traded. The Thunder did not believe him to be a max player, while the Houston Rockets, with less to lose, were willing to make that kind of commitment.
By now, most NBA fans are familiar with the concept of Money Ball, which was made famous to casual sports fans by the movie of the same name. It’s also no secret to most NBA fans that general managers like OKC’s Sam Presti and Houston’s Daryl Morey are disciples of the statistical side of player analysis. The question we should be asking, then, is how far do we have to dig into the mountain of stats to find something that makes Harden look like a max player?
We start at the top, his basic stats that everyone understands. No, not his 13.5 points per game and his 28.6 percent shooting in the preseason. Preseason action is not a particularly good gauge for veteran players. We’ll also throw out his dismal NBA Finals run last season, in which he failed to score in double figures in three of his team’s five games. Overall, he is a player who has improved across the board in each of his three seasons, and averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game last year for the Thunder. He also shot 49 percent from the field, 39 percent from three and 85 percent from the foul line – all career bests. Those aren’t exactly Kobe Bryant or even Joe Johnson numbers, but they are solid, and they earned him the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Still, a max contract is not due a player with Harden’s stat line.
Many NBA fans know to go at least one level deeper when looking at stats, taking into account a player’s PER, or Player Efficiency Rating. Even there, however, Harden ranks just 30th in the NBA, and there are a lot of players who ranked above him who are not close to being max contract players. Nope, we have to keep digging.
Taking a look at each NBA players’ “True Shooting Percentage,” which takes into account field goals, free throws and three-point shots, we start to find a little more value in Harden. Last season he ranked fourth in the NBA, trailing only Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak and Manu Ginobili with a .660 TSP. The next chart down is number of wins added, where Harden (10.0) ranks third among shooting guards behind Dwyane Wade (12.8) and Kobe Bryant (12.7). Now we’re starting to see why Houston thinks Harden has a great deal more upside than he has shown in his first three seasons.
What does all of that mean? In a nutshell, Harden scored 66 percent of the time when he shot the ball last season, and he was in a reserve role in all but two of his games. The Rockets would like to project that out and see if he can score at a similar clip when he’s playing 10 more minutes and getting, perhaps, 10 more shots per game. In short, Houston hopes that the numbers hold and Harden rises to become the best shooting guard in the NBA this season, eclipsing Bryant and Wade.
Of course, there is a bigger question facing Rockets owner Les Alexander, who is set to pay $70 million for Harden, and will shell out roughly $13.6 million apiece for Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik three years out. Can a team built around Harden, Lin and Asik compete for a championship? And if not, isn’t that a lot of money to spend on a team that, on paper, is not currently a playoff team? Also, while Morey and his staff look at the cap hit, which is roughly $8.3 million per season for three seasons for Lin and Asik, the checks they will cash in three years will be that $13.6 million number.
That’s going to be a couple of awfully tough checks to write for an owner whose team is not close to being in the mix of Western Conference contenders.
Patrick Patterson Wants To Start
In the NBA, the offseason is very often a time of change. Most teams keep their core together, making tweaks here and there. Some teams make huge, roster-shattering trades. Few teams, however, make the sweeping changes that we’ve seen from the Houston Rockets heading into the 2012-13 NBA season. One of the few returning Rockets is forward Patrick Patterson, and he tells HOOPSWORLD that getting names and faces down has been a challenge from the start of training camp.
“Early on, that’s basically the toughest part, who and what you’re supposed to do,” Patterson said. “This team has so many new faces, everyone is pretty much hungry and they’re determined to try and get as much playing time as possible, so it seems like a battle almost every single day. We got some great talents on this team, we got some great youth on this team and we can utilize that while on the court. So as far as names go, we pretty much knew everybody within a week, so that part was handled. But as far as on the court and working out, trying to utilize our strengths, personal development and player development, we work on that every single day and so far it’s good.”
It’s been especially tough for Patterson, since the Rockets added quite a few players at his position as they were trying to collect assets for a potential Dwight Howard trade. Donatas Motiejunas has joined the team, and Terrence Jones, Royce White and Marcus Morris are all considered power forwards (at least part of the time) by the Rockets’ coaching staff. As of today, they are all still on the team. Patterson likes the competition, but believes he should be the starter on opening night.
“Yeah, you always want to play alongside the best people that you can as a team,” Patterson said. “We’ve got a lot of competition at the four, we’ve got a lot of fours. We have a lot of people who can pretty much play on the court, a lot of guys who can use their skills to help this team out in anyway possible. For me, personally, I want to be the starting four, so I’m going to do whatever it takes in order for that to happen. So I’ve got to work hard everyday in practice, be the first one here and the last one to leave, and just show the coaches that I deserve it.”
With so many changes, it’s hard for Patterson to choose one new teammate who is the most surprising.
“Probably all of them, I just can’t say one,” Patterson said. “Jeremy Lamb (who was traded to Oklahoma City in the Kevin Martin/James Harden deal), from watching him when he was at UCONN, seeing the type of scorer he was, but he can also play defense, too. He didn’t really get praised for his defense in college, he was more of a scorer, but coming here he’s pretty good at it. He can use his length and he can use his quickness on the court. Royce, he’s basically a big man that’s a point guard all in one, I’ve been extremely impressed with his play. Terrence Jones, I’ve been following him since he was at Kentucky. I’m well-aware of his game and him as a person and playing beside him. The list goes on and on, these guys seem to contribute to this team in one way or another and it’s going to make us better.”
Normally, even the teams that make major changes have one or two veterans to lean on as the new identity starts to set in. The Rockets don’t have that advantage. Kevin Martin was expected to wear the label, but he’s now playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook a little further north.
“We don’t just have one person, we have to come together as a team,” says Patterson. “We lost all that, pretty much, veteran experience. We do have … Omer (Asik), same with Shaun Livingston … and Tony [Douglas]. We have players who have been in the league for a while but for all of us to be successful, we all got to come out as leaders, myself included, and just help out these young guys as quick as possible and build that team chemistry as quick as possible and just buy into what the coaches are saying.”
That task got even tougher when Houston took part in a trade that sent out Martin and Lamb and brought in four new faces. James Harden could prove to be a godsend, especially if the Rockets offer him a maximum contract extension and he opts to stay long-term. Still, this team is very much a work in progress, and Patterson has his work cut out for him in achieving his goal. The starting power forward spot is easily the most competitive spot on the team.
Joakim Noah Confident in Bulls
There is a temptation to write off the Chicago Bulls this season. After all, they will be without MVP Derrick Rose for the first fourth or so of the season, even by the most optimistic of projections. They are missing the second unit that pushed them to great heights over the last couple of seasons, and the new faces are struggling to fit in. Still, despite some additional injury setbacks, starting center Joakim Noah believes the Bulls are going to be competitive right from the start.
“I’m excited,” Noah said in an interview with WSCR in Chicago. “I think we’ve been working really hard. A lot of people are sleeping on us. We’re a team that’s been through a lot, dealt with a lot of adversity, especially with what happened to us in the playoffs last year. I really felt like we were set to make a run at it, then injuries happened, which sucks. But we’re hungry, hungrier than ever, and hopefully Derrick gets back in time and we can make a run at the end of this.”
Noah did admit that while the questions about how good or bad the Bulls might be with Rose get old, they are being asked internally, as well.
“You’re not a better team without your MVP,” admitted Noah. “He’s our star player. But we’ve got to hold the fort down until he comes back, and we don’t know when that’s going to be. So the questions that you guys have, we have the same questions.”
First and foremost, Noah was encouraged by the fact that Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton came into camp in great shape and were aggressive in preseason.
“I don’t know if it’s one specific person (who surprised me), but I think Carlos came in in great shape,” Noah said. “He’s very aggressive offensively, so I’m really excited about playing with ‘Los. … Rip as well. I think Rip is just such a big part of what we’re doing right now. … He makes it easier for guys like me to get easy baskets. But, like I said, it’s our whole group.”
Of course, no matter who is playing well offensively, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is going to make sure his team wins games with their defense.
“What people don’t realize is every day, at practice, during shootaround, we’re working on defensive rotations for about an hour, hour and a half, every day,” Noah said. “I don’t know how many teams in the NBA are working on defensive rotations for an hour, hour and a half. It’s very repetitive and it sucks — it really sucks — but at the end of the day it helps you win ballgames.”
Over the offseason Noah worked hard on his game, and it looks like he might bring a dependable jumper to the equation for the Bulls this season.
“When I’m not thinking, I’m just out there playing ball, the game just comes out a lot easier,” Noah said. “I’ve been working on my game a lot and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable out there shooting the ball and all that.”
Finally, Noah addressed an issue that will likely have a strong impact on him this season, and possibly throughout his career. The NBA’s decision to take the center position off of the All-Star ballot means he’s got a lot more competition in his quest to make that team.
“I don’t know, I think that there’s positions in the NBA,” Noah said. “I thought, to me, it was more like, wow, why would you [change]? I know that teams are going smaller, but I feel like the center position is still an important position. The center position is the man in the middle, the guy that clogs up the paint. If there wasn’t a center representing the East, and it was all forwards … I understand, because the game would probably be more exciting in terms of athleticism and dunks. Who wants to see a jump hook in an All-Star game? But I feel like it should still be appreciated.”
HOOPSWORLD Season Previews
The 2012-13 NBA season is rapidly approaching and there are plenty of early storylines emerging.
Can the Miami HEAT repeat their championship quest from last season? Is this the final championship run for the aging Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs? Will Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks finally put all of their talent together and join the league’s elite? Can the new-look Los Angeles Lakers, now boasting Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, unseat the Oklahoma City Thunder as Western Conference champions? Is this the year the Minnesota Timberwolves reach the playoffs behind All-Star Kevin Love? Likewise, the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors are poised to make playoff runs of their own, but can they seal the deal? Are the Dallas Mavericks toast, or will their new group of hungry veterans surprise us all?
The HOOPSWORLD team has these questions and more all covered and you can find season previews for all 30 NBA teams by following this link.
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