On James Harden and hypothetical team building

November 16th, 2012 | by Spencer Hall

By Matt Pacenza, special to Salt City Hoops

Something exceedingly rare happened a few weeks ago: an NBA team voluntarily traded a young star on the cusp of greatness.

The impact of the momentous trade of shooting guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets has only grown since Oct. 28. In his first eight games, the 23-year-old Bearded One surprised everyone–everyone not named Daryl Morey, apparently–as he smoothly stepped into his new role as Houston’s number one option. He’s averaging nearly 27-5-5, putting up vintage Dwyane Wadian statistics, and is in a virtual tie with Kobe Bryant to lead the league in points per game–easily exceeding the numbers he put up as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s third banana.

Of course, all the small sample-size caveats apply – it’s only been eight games! – but the trade and subsequent five-year contract extension looks like a franchise-invigorating move for the Rockets. Even if Harden tails off, he’ll likely be an indisputable All Star and one of the 15 best players in the league.

Now, here’s the question for Jazz fans: Could the Jazz brain trust – GMs Kevin O’Connor and Dennis Lindsey and CFO/Capologist Bob Hyde – have put together an even better offer for Harden?

Yes.

The Harden trade could go down as a huge missed opportunity, a rare chance for a small market team to take advantage of the constraints of the NBA’s new economic system to land a superstar.

Here’s what the Thunder got for Harden: a decent, aging shooting guard on the final year of his contract (Kevin Martin), a promising young wing who was the 12th pick in last year’s draft (Jeremy Lamb), two first round draft picks (Toronto’s 2013 pick, likely to fall in the 8-13 range; and a second pick from Dallas, which is top-20 protected.)

The deal had a few other pieces: a second-round pick and a few end-of-the bench guys from OKC to make the salaries line up, but, basically, the Rockets got Harden for two wings and two picks.

The Jazz have all of that. And could have traded it. And still had a strong nucleus. Built around a bonafide All-Star.

One obvious carrot for the Thunder? Gordon Hayward. He may virtually match Kevin Martin’s production this year – fewer points, but more rebounds and assists and better defense. And, of course, Hayward is just 22 and is signed for two more years at a huge discount. Nearly every NBA team would rather have two years of Hayward than one of Martin.

The Thunder, however, would have wanted one more player: a young asset with potential, a la Lamb. If they were set on a wing, the obvious choice is Alec Burks. It pains me enormously to write this – Burks is my favorite Jazzman – but he was drafted, just like Lamb, at number 12. He’s a better slasher, not as good a shooter. Each has potential on defense. They’re similar: They may end up as NBA starters, useful bench players or be out of the league in three years. Such are number 12 picks.

Those aren’t the only two options the Jazz could have offered. Derrick Favors would likely have been off the table: too high a pick, too much Tyson Chandleresque, game-changing defensive potential. Not to mention that the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, a player comparable to Favors.

But, if the Thunder decided instead they coveted a young big, what about Enes Kanter? Another young cheap asset with potential for the Thunder. Offer them a big and a wing. It would tough for the Jazz to give up on the big Turk, just as his muscles, game and charm are all blossoming, but we’re talking about the price of adding an All-Star.

So which big and a wing? I suspect the Jazz would have balked at Hayward and Kanter – two top-10 picks, in addition to a high draft pick, might have been too dear – but Burks and Kanter might have sealed the deal. [Editor's note: No way OKC goes for that.]

Oh, and, the Jazz have the picks. Golden State’s pick: likely better than Toronto’s (it’s only top-6 protected the next two years) and one of the team’s own picks from one of the next few years.

Lastly, the salaries work no problem. Hayward makes $2.7 million, Burks $2.1 and Kanter $4.3. Harden this year is earning $5.8 million. No matter the pairing, those numbers are close enough, with some end-of-bench guys thrown in if need be.

Add it all up, and the Jazz would have been offering a big package: two good players – half of the young core Jazz fans are building our optimism around – and two picks, one probably pretty high.

But we’re talking about James Harden.

Let’s imagine the core nine players of the 2012-13 Jazz if the team traded Hayward/Burks.

PG Mo Williams
SG James Harden
SF Marvin Williams
PF Paul Millsap
C Al Jefferson

Bench: Derrick Favors, Randy Foye, Enes Kanter, DeMarre Carroll, Tinsley/Watson.

Let’s imagine the roster if the trade was Burks/Kanter.

PG Mo Williams
SG James Harden
SF Marvin Williams
PF Paul Millsap
C Al Jefferson

Bench: Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Randy Foye, DeMarre Carroll, Tinsley/Watson.

I love this team. Especially if the team starts Favors. Harden takes up Big Al’s offensive contribution, and the second unit – led by Hayward, Favors, and Foye – would be incredibly difficult to stop.

It’s a heck of a thought experiment. Most rational Jazz fans recognize what we have right now: a roster packed with good, young players with a bright future. Mounds of cap space. The Golden State pick. A terrific front office. However, we all know what we lack. A star. A clear leader. A go-to guy. A crunch-time scorer. The linchpin who everyone else fits around.

Maybe Derrick Favors is that guy, but he simply isn’t there yet. Paul Millsap is a terrific third- or maybe even second-best player on a contending team, but it’s difficult to see how an undersized 27-year-old power forward will still make a leap forward.

Hayward? Kanter? Burks? All promising. All exciting.

None will grow up to be James Harden.

As we all know, the Jazz will find it exceedingly difficult to add such a player via free agency, no matter how much cap space they horde. Very few superstars come available in free agency, and those that do tend to migrate towards warm-weather, big-city environments.

The draft and smart trades are the other path, and so far, this front office is navigating it brilliantly. But the Harden trade – if they had a chance to make that offer – could have turned the traditional NBA narrative on its head. The economics of the NBA apparently forced the small-market Thunder to trade Harden. But, the small-market Jazz, with their enviable pile of picks and young assets, could have swooped in and grabbed him – laying the foundation for a contending future, while offering the Thunder a terrific haul for a player in the final year of his contract.

Could have. And should have.

P.S. An obvious caveat here: Would James Haden have re-signed with the Jazz? Taken the five-year, $80-million contract the Jazz would have offered him? Who knows, but he was comfortable in Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas and doesn’t seem to need the limelight of New York or LA or Miami to have his fun. Plus, his primary non-shoe endorser is Park City’s Skullcandy. And yes, this is just an excuse to post the following video:

Spencer Hall
Founder Spencer Hall has covered the NBA, Team USA and NBA D-League since 2007 and launched Salt City Hoops in 2009. Spencer is now the news director at KSL.com
Spencer Hall
Spencer Hall

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4 Comments

  1. Tguncurrit says:

    Been thinking about this since the trade happened. Seeing all of the options laid out convinces me we really missed an opportunity. Getting Harden would have taken a lot of pressure off of the Jazz to draft the point guard of the future in the next couple of years, drafts that look pretty weak in promising PGs.

    The suggested lineups would have been insanely exciting to watch.

  2. Matt says:

    I guess the tricky question, Tgun, is if they had a chance to make an offer. It would seem ridiculous to me that OKC would not at least look around at the other teams with picks/young talent, of which there are probably only 6-8, but maybe they didn’t! We’ll probably never know.

    • Tguncurrit says:

      I think you’re right Matt. It seems unlikely that OKC just pulled the trigger with Houston without looking around. My only other thought is that maybe the Jazz brass knew something or heard something that made them believe Harden wouldn’t sign with Utah…

  3. Jamison says:

    This trade kills me. you wonder whether the jazz had a chance… i just wonder whether they are even looking for a chance. my real questions are now, Why is nobody stating the obvious? Corbin has us playing the exact same ball that sloan would’ve played and its STILL not working. I’m not dogging on sloan, I’m dogging on Corbin. He needs to Get his own system or get with the times. Fouling doesn’t work anymore and let’s stop pretending that just because foye and Williams can hit a three that we should be shooting them all freakin day long. We’re an inside team first and we should be sticking to that.
    Further, if we’re going to sit around and throw away a season by losing where we obviously can’t win… Don’t you think we should be giving the young guys the time and not Tinsley and Ma Williams. Here’s the thing, they’re decent players, but they’re not the future and the longer we wait to give our kids the time they need the more we stifle their growth and possible progression. I don’t care who goes, but we need to make a trade similar to this harden deal and start planning for the future. Trying to win now is fine and dandy but when your obvious efforts to win now aren’t doing you any good, you should ave the man balls to admit the mistake and hand the reins to the kids… If the jazz think they can continue to play like this and be relevant at the same time, they’re kidding themselves. Somebody needs to see this and stir the pot or this season will be gone before we know it with absolutely nothing to show.

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