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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
East Side: Deal doesn't alter outlook

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

James Harden
Is new Rockets guard James Harden good enough to be considered the centerpiece in Houston?

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side.

J.A. is in L.A., a la the West Side. And Israel is down in Miami, home of the NBA champs, representing the East Side.

Enjoy.


Let's start with this, because apparently James Harden has a massive following with a bit of a mean streak now that he's been deemed replaceable on a championship-level roster:

Harden is a very good, All-Star level player who's young enough to improve.

He's not elite in the athleticism department, but he makes up for it with craftiness -- his old-man game matches his older-man beard -- and an ability to play the pick-and-roll to near perfection.

He's an above-average shooter with the potential of being an 80-50-40 guy (he was pretty close last season with his .846 free throw percentage, .491 field goal and .390 3-point field goal), he's got the Euro-step down to a tee, defensively he has the potential to guard two-guards and small forwards at an above-average effectiveness, and he's got the lefty thing going for him.

Now that all the flattery is out of the way, here's the bigger picture: His move from Oklahoma City to Houston won't change much at all in this year's Western Conference landscape. And frankly, it won't elevate the Rockets that much in the long term, either.

Before you Harden enthusiasts get your beards (real or fake) all tied up in knots, ask yourselves this question: Is James Harden a franchise player you can build an elite team around?

If your answer is yes, this might take a while.

Because what you have in Harden is a smart player, an excellent complementary piece on a championship team, but still a player with a ceiling just low enough to make him effectively a second-tier player in a league where only the top tier truly have the ability to elevate a franchise.

This has nothing to do with Harden's Finals last season being a near-complete disaster, or him continuing that pattern this preseason. Because all you have to do is look back at his conference finals against the then-dominant Spurs and you'll see a player who even exceeded his regular-season numbers.

But that was on a team with Kevin Durant, arguably this generation's second-best scorer behind Kobe Bryant, and Russell Westbrook.

If you take Harden and place him on a team where (a) he's playing another 8-10 minutes a game and (b) make him the primary option almost the entire time he's on the floor, you'll see more of a player who doesn't have the ability to maintain that level of efficiency.

You even saw it in last year's playoffs. Against teams with lesser individual defenders on the wings, the Mavericks and Spurs, he shot 50 and 49 percent, respectively, from the floor.

Against teams with better defenders at his positions, the Lakers and Heat, Harden shot 36 and 38 percent, respectively. There are those who use the Manu Ginobili comparison when making the case for Harden as a great, not just good, player. That's beyond fair.

They're both lefty, crafty, just athletic enough, good passers (though Ginobili's a notch ahead in that category) and both effective as pick-and-rolls players or spot shooters.

But Ginobili has also had the luxury of playing with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in each of their respective primes. Even at his best, if you would've built an NBA team around Ginobili, that team would be playoff good, but not championship good.

That's the point with Harden. If the Rockets are paying a guy max money because they plan on putting two other max guys around him, great, then they have championship potential and can afford to pay what the Thunder couldn't.

But if Harden's clearly the gem in their plans, then that won't take them very far. At least not far enough. Call it the Joe Johnson cap.

And that's why the Thunder figured he was replaceable, even if the two sides weren't that far apart in extension negotiations. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City's general manager, has done this before. He traded away Jeff Green, another good but not great player, with the future in mind while not affecting the present. He was right to do it then, and he's right to do it now.

Because this trade is not -- repeat, is NOT -- taking the Thunder out of championship contention.

Kevin Martin -- who, by the way, should probably be a little insulted by all those "Wow" tweets from players around the league responding to this trade -- isn't the same type of player as Harden.

In particular, he's not the pick-and-roll magician that Harden can often be.

Martin, however, is better than average at one thing: scoring. And if you slot him into Harden's role and Harden's minutes, with a healthy Eric Maynor doing more of the ballhandling in pick-and-roll situations with the second unit, you're looking at an excellent piece on a championship-caliber team.

You can look at this Beckley Mason breakdown for all the particulars, but Martin was one of the best scoring 2-guards in the league as recently as 2010-11. And since 2006, he has three of the top five seasons for free throws made per 36 minutes.

Put him on a team where he'll play significant minutes against reserves and still have either Durant or Westbrook at his side, and you're looking at a more than capable replacement for Harden.

The most aggravating argument in favor of Harden in Oklahoma City is that he's what made the Thunder unique/special.

I'm sorry, but no. What makes the Thunder special is they have a 24-year-old, near 7-footer who can score from any spot on the floor with ease. What makes them unique is that they have arguably the game's best athlete, and he plays the point guard position. What makes them special is that they have a 23-year-old who easily led the league in blocks last season and has scary potential.

Harden is an excellent player -- one whom Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will even say you must thoroughly prepare for defensively, which his Heat obviously did last postseason.

But will he turn the Rockets into contenders? No.

And will his absence drop the Thunder from the small group of elite teams? Another no.