Western Conference Preview: The James Harden Edition

How does James Harden’s departure from Oklahoma City affect the Thunder’s prospects in the West?

So, James Harden. Yep. Gone. OKC is screwed. Or is it? You’ll find out in my Western Conference preview.

But first things first: Why did OKC trade one of its core stars, just before the season starts, and why was it that the Rockets were the ones who outbid the rest for Harden, a pricy commodity in a market that has few quality shooting guards.

The answer to the first is easy: cost. OKC owner Clay Bennett was unwilling to pay it, James Harden was unwilling to take less so he wouldn’t have to, and so a trade had to be made, even if not paying Harden might cost the Thunder an NBA title. This sends a horrible message to fans, and Durant and Westbrook should grab their mates and move the team back to Seattle.

The answer to the second is less clear. But I have a theory. It centers around Kevin McHale, Royce White, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and facial hair.

My theory goes like this: Having drafted point-forward Royce White, and subsequently discovering that Royce won’t be bringing much to the table this season (except increased awareness of the challenges of anxiety disorders), McHale and Daryl Morey concluded that in lieu of on-court competitiveness, they would  rekindle Houston’s rivalry with the up-and-coming Timberwolves.

They would do so by attacking an area of perceived Wolves vulnerability: facial hair.

McHale and Morey figured that after former Wolves beard Brad Miller – a former Rocket – retired, the Wolves’ claim to “Best Team Facial Hair” was up-for-grabs. Why not try to win something this season, and make White useful, all in one go?  By trading for Harden’s beard, and teaming it up with White’s  – White’s nascent beard already could put many Taliban to shame, and they go all-in on beards - in the NBA’s new Beard & Mustache Competition, which will be broadcast live just before the NBA Draft Lottery in the Spring, Houston has begun pursuing that strategy.

But McHale and Morey’s strategy is flawed. It neglects the fact that Kahn has armed the Wolves with a new Secret Weapon – a failsafe - in the form of Louis Amundson’s beard. In fact, RUMINT obtained by punchdrunkwolves.com indicates that Amundson’s beard has never lost in the “Most Pungent” competition in any Beard & Mustache Contest it has participated in.

Facial hair aside, there’s obviously a big story here: when you remove James Harden from the Thunder, it shifts the balance in the West, and also has implications for the Wolves. So what is the fallout? Find the answers to those questions and more in my Western Conference preview, located below the fold.

8. Golden State Warriors – A dropoff in quality between my 7th and 8th seeds in the West. In theory, the Warriors have a fairly nice starting 5 in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, and Andrew Bogut. The problem is that Curry and Bogut can’t seem to stay healthy, and Barnes and Thompson are first and second-year guys and likely to face the learning curve all young guys do, both in figuring out how to play effectively and, more importantly, how to win; in fact, I suspect the Dubs could narrowly miss the 8th spot in the West if a few extra close games go the wrong way due to inexperience. But hey, when you’ve seen as much bad basketball as Dubs fans have for the last half-decade, you look at the positives and just be glad you’re talking about playoff contention rather than the locations the team is rumored to be moving to.

Predicted record: 42-40

7. Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizz is an interesting team this season, as they have been each of the last two, but this time for a different reason: previously, the question was whether the Grizz could parlay its young talent into a competitive playoff team. Two years ago, the Grizz were an interesting surprise, sneaking into the playoffs and defeating the 1st-seeded Spurs, thanks in part to a breakout year by Zach Randolph. The Grizz retained their core last year and brought back a healthy Rudy Gay, who is arguably their best player, but both Randolph and the team lost its luster, failing to make the playoffs. Gay/Randolph/Gasol is a nice 3/4/5 on any team and should be enough to get them back into the playoffs, but I don’t see them going any higher than the 7th seed unless they change the fact that Wayne Ellington is currently their only guard you could trust to make an open 16-foot jumper. We Wolves fans know all too well how that works out.

Predicted record: 47-35

6. Denver Nuggets – Dropping the Nuggets to 6th in the West is probably still more controversial than elevating the Wolves as high as the 5th spot and keeping them there after Kevin Love broke his hand doing knuckle pushups in his condo and was predicted to miss the first 20-odd games of the season. I like the Nuggets for a lot of the same reasons others do – they’re fun to watch, have a bunch of dynamic guys like Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and Kenneth Faried, and remain respectable in the absence of an acknowledged top-level star player. But the last reason is also where my prediction regarding their prospects in 2012-13 differs from writers who hyped Denver during the preseason: they have enough talent to win some games, sure, but I like their roster less than I do the Clippers’  and the Wolves’ (though the Wolves/Nuggets talent distinction is admittedly blurrier with Love out of the picture for an extended period. You’ve got Lawson, Iguodala, Gallinari, Faried, McGee. Pretty nice, right? On the Wolves side, you’ve got Rubio/Ridnour (with Rubio presumably starting about 50 games and Ridnour about 30 until he returns), Roy/Shved, Kirilenko/Budinger, Love/Kirilenko (Love for roughly 60 and Kirilenko for roughly 20, and yes, I’m purposely leaving Derrick Williams out of this notional lineup), and Pekovic. Look, right now it’s a toss-up which team will win more games in the regular season. But if you’re gambling on which lineup has a better chance of winning a playoff series, I’ll take Rubio/Roy/Kirlenko/Love/Pekovic over Lawson/Iggy/Gallo/Manimal/McGee eight daysa week. The Wolves are clearly better at the four and five positions, Kirlenko’s good defense and mediocre offense should largely cancel out Gallinari’s good offense and bad defense, I think we play them to a draw in the backcourt, unless Roy goes down, and/or Rubio’s comeback is derailed. Even if you’re among those who view Denver’s acquisition of Igoudala as grounds for predicting that Denver will be significantly better than they were last season when they had Aaron Afflalo at the two, and I’m not – in my opinion Iggy’s better than Afflalo but is not game-changer for the Nuggets’ W-L column – I still think the Wolves’ superior frontcourt tips the scales toward the Wolves, unless our injured list gets even worse than it is now, which would be just plain old bad luck — something Wolves fans have learned not to take lightly.

Predicted record: 50-32

5. MN Timberwolves – I wanted to put them higher because, well, because I write a MN Timberwolves blog. Duh. I’m a Twolves fan – you got me.  Look at the rest of the site for more.

Predicted record: 50-32

4. LA Clippers – I wanted to put the Wolves here, or even go with the conventional wisdom and put Denver somewhere higher than I have them – possibly in this slot. But the Wolves’ have injuries, and I think Denver is good but so overrated my response is to underrate them. (When the word zigs, you zag. That’s how we do.) So the Clips get #4. Vinnie Del Negro is still their coach and that’s still worrisome, but with a year of CP3 and Blake Griffin under their belt, they should get their stuff together despite poor coaching and win 50 games this year. Andy and I disagree slightly on how highly both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin should be valued – we both like both, but Andy ranks Griffin higher than I do, and I rank Paul higher than he does – but when you have two talents of their caliber, you shouldn’t be any worse than a #4 team in the West. Even with Vinnie Del Negro.

Predicted record: 51-32

3. San Antonio Spurs – We know that the Spurs are always good. Is that likely to change this year? Probably not. Unless, that is, BOTH Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker get hurt. Which could happen. Assuming they don’t, the Spurs should be a lock for third-best team. Nothing to see here. (That said, does anyone else secretly wish San Antonio had drafted Manimal and Denver had ended up with Kawhi Leonard? Or not so secretly wish the Wolves had drafted either over Derrick Williams. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Anyway, Kawhi would fit right into the group Denver has put together because he’s effective but boring, and Manimal would inject some much-needed fun into the Spurs lineup, which their Big 3 can only provide so much of at this point. So yeah, the Spurs are boring, but watch them anyway because you’re going to miss Manu when he’s gone.)

Predicted record: 54-28

2. Oklahoma City Thunder – Durant. Westbrook. Harden. Ibaka. You know the drill. The Thunder are going to be good. Really good. The big question isn’t whether OKC will finish atop, or near the top, of the Western Conference, it’s whether they will keep that core intact what will happen with their core no longer intact. They key unknown is James Harden–can OKC afford to keep him? Harden is a unique talent and is still likely to achieve a significant more amount of upside. Losing Harden would be a big failure for Sam Presti, but would open a lane for Minnesota to conceivably challenge for the Western Conference title next season. Two years ago, very few of us would have been able to dream that we would be in a position to speculate about such a thing. (See the update below for more on the post-Harden Thunder.)

Predicted record: 59-23

1. Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe. Nash. Howard. Gasol. Whatever. This is the team to beat. Will the pieces fit together on the court? Will the chemistry work? This is a rare case when I don’t think that stuff will matter very much. Steve Nash is the key. Nash looks to be the glue that keeps this group hanging together even though he’s the new guy and regardless of whether it’s even possible for him to be used properly on a Mike Brown-coached team on which Kobe Bryant is the incumbent leader and egomaniac. Howard will obviously have a huge impact too, but for such an objectively poor fit in the LAL offense, he’s the main reason I think this thing will work. (And I say that with full realization that he doesn’t have a ring yet. In this context, a personality like his, as well as his experience and credibility, should carry the day even if it doesn’t always show up in the numbers.

There’s one other reason I’m fairly confident this experiment will work, and its illogic kind of makes me queasy: I felt almost exactly like I do now about the 2003-04 Lakers – the Super Group that featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton alongside Shaq and Kobe never quite clicked – except my intuition was the opposite outcome – that is, that the experiment would fail, which, of course, came true. For example, it seemed inevitable that Shaq and Mailman would end up vying for space on the block rather than freeing it up, which ultimately did become an issue for that group. In terms of position and style, I think this experiment will work a lot better, particularly given Gasol’s versatility on offense as a complement to Dwight Howard, who’s much more limited in what he does, but also much more overpowering and dominant in how he does it.

That’s not to say there won’t be a few bumps in the road – there almost certainly will be. But for my money, a Kobe/Howard duo gets you fairly close to the Finals even if you don’t have Gasol and Nash. Add them in, and you go far.

Predicted record: 60-22

UPDATE: I drafted the body of this post yesterday, just hours before James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets. So the stuff I wrote about in the Thunder preview has basically all happened. Knowing what we know now, what does this mean for the Thunder’s prospects? Will newcomers Kevin Martin or Jeremy Lamb fill Harden’s role? To answer the latter question, the answer is an unequivocal “no.” Neither Martin nor Lamb can play as a lead guard like Harden did, which made OKC so dangerous during 4th quarters last year when the ball was often in his hands. I’ve long been bullish on Lamb, and think he may flourish in OKC, but he’s a very different player from Harden, so the Thunder aren’t going to look like they did last year anytime in the foreseeable future. To the first question specifically,  the Harden trade has implications for their short-term prospects, and they aren’t good. None of the players they got back is nearly as good as Harden. I expect the loss of Harden, and the opportunity costs of adjusting to figuring out how to best incorporate Martin and Lamb, to cost OKC about 5-6 games. So my revised prediction if that they’ll go 54-28, still good for the third-best record in the West.   Stop-n-Pop has more on the Harden trade, and its implications for the Wolves, over at Canis Hoopus.

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2 responses to “Western Conference Preview: The James Harden Edition

  1. The Harden trade sure makes the West look like the Lakers to lose, huh?

    It’s going to be downright crazy to watch Dwight Howard be surrounded by so many playmakers — possibly more dramatic a change than when Kobe and Pau first joined forces. I think the Thunder posed a legitimate threat to the Lakers, mostly due to age and speed concerns. But without Harden, and everything he would’ve done to a shaky Lakers second unit, I’m heavily favoring LA in that likely matchup.

    • Yes, it does – now more than ever. As I wrote above, I liked the Lakers in that matchup even if Harden were still with OKC. Now, I could see them struggling with the Spurs, and I don’t think it’s unkahnscionable that the Clippers could beat them in a playoff series, and I wouldn’t have said the latter 48 hours ago.