Nylon Calculus: The (original) James Harden trade was worse than you thought

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images /

James Harden became a 35-point scorer whenever Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook sat, flashing glimpses of his future stardom.

Nearly a decade ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded away James Harden, a future MVP in only his third season, for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two future first-round picks (Steven Adams and Mitch McGary), and a future second-round pick (Alex Abrines). Countless retrospective articles have echoed what some critics did at the time: Clay Bennett and the Thunder should have just paid the extra few million to keep an all-time great player.

The team had plenty of signs. In 2012, despite moderate per-game averages, the 22-year-old guard finished second in the league in true shooting, seventh in Box Plus-Minus, and 13th in Value Over Replacement Player. The former third overall pick had improved each and every year of his career. Oklahoma City had reservations about handing out another max contract to a player that might be nothing more than a perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender. Maybe his success was just a product of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who made First-Team and Second-Team All-NBA, respectively, in 2012.

We know for sure now — the Thunder made a mistake. But the team did not need to look at advanced statistics or Harden’s results in Houston to figure this out. It simply had to look at Harden’s numbers when he did not have to play the third wheel to Durant and Westbrook.

Below are the statistics for Harden, Durant, and Westbrook in the 2011-12 season. It includes statistics per 75 possessions to reflect a player’s numbers if they were to play starter minutes. For example, Harden primarily came off the bench to score 16.8 points in 31.4 minutes. Prorating that to the playing time of most starters, 75 possessions per game, he scored 21.3 points.

Keep these season averages in mind, as these are the most common splits used to analyze players.

Now let’s figure out how well Harden played without the team’s stars. Did he replace their scoring? Did he stay efficient? How did he play when he couldn’t pick on an opposing team’s third defender? (Hint: yes, yes, and very well.)

James Harden with and without Kevin Durant

When he shared the court with Kevin Durant, James Harden looked like a medium-volume efficient scorer, leaving the tough buckets to Durant. He resembled a Joe Ingles-type — a quality shooter that contributed a little bit of passing as well — but nothing spectacular.

Take Durant off the floor and Harden looked like, well, James Harden. He became an uber-efficient, high-volume scorer with good passing skills. This was the James Harden we all know. Now, remember, these numbers are from 2012, Harden still played for the Thunder. Simply take away the second-best player in the NBA, and suddenly Harden had the path to be an all-time great.

James Harden with and without Russell Westbrook

The same pattern repeats itself when Westbrook and Harden played together. Harden put in an efficient 14.6 points per 75, along with a little bit of rebounding and passing. Nothing special.

When Westbrook sat and Harden took the court, Harden became a star again. His efficiency increased even while his scoring more than doubled. He also flashed the passing skills that flourished in Houston as his assists crept up to 6.1 per 75. Remove an All-NBA guard from the court and Harden shows off his suppressed stardom.

The Thunder had a star sitting right in their lap. When either All-NBA player sat, James Harden had the freedom to put up ridiculous scoring numbers on all-time efficiency. Oklahoma City made a massive mistake and left a warning for future teams — if you are going to trade a player, make sure he is not already playing like an all-time great.