Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harden Exits Stage Right: Enter Kevin Martin and Lamb

While I was playing around with a model to predict wins for teams in the 2012-13 season, I heard the news of the Harden trade.

I was shocked.

He's a "mere" sixth man of the year, but he's a 23 year-old gifted scorer (and passer) who completed a season that by TS% and usage% (how efficient his scoring is and how often he shoots) has only been bested by Charles Barkley and approached by Nash, Kevin McHale, Amare Stoudemire, and Adrian Dantley. That's it. It was a historic shooting season, and at his age it's intriguing to wonder what will be. Obviously, without Westbrook and Durant the game will change for him, but given how well he plays as a ball-handler a bigger role will not be a negative: he'll play more minutes and put up more shots, averaging 20+ on stellar percentages. With the shooting guard position unbelievably weak (beyond Kobe and Wade the cupboard is bare), he has a chance to pick up all-star teams and other distinctions. He is by no means perfect, but with how his age aligns with the other Thunder big names -- Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are all within roughly a year of one another -- it pushes their core from very promising to unbelievable. Now that's gone.

Kevin Martin has an interesting story from the perspective of those who study NBA stats. From his box score stats, he appeared to be an underrated shooting guard star because of his elite TS%. (That sounds familiar, but Martin's was only in the 62% range.) He is, however, essentially a poor man's Adrian Dantley. This is not a compliment: Dantley was an amazingly efficient scorer, but he was known for not helping his team win by killing the offense through ball-stopping and not playing defense. Likewise, the evidence came in that despite Kevin Martin's shooting skills (and he's great at drawing fouls) he doesn't actually help a team all that much, mostly because of his defense, but even on offense he doesn't seem to add a lot of value. The funny thing is, he's not even a "star" on paper because his shooting is deceptively efficient: he'll shoot 8/19 from the floor, but he'll pick up 10 foul shots and hit 4 three's. In an earlier article, I discussed how there are microscopic (box score, numbers for single events) and macroscopic (how a team plays when a player is on or off the court) views of the NBA in terms of statistics. Kevin Martin viewed microscopically seems great, but from the big picture angle he's a detriment to his team and he's only getting older.

How will this affect Oklahoma City, owner of the youngest team in 35 years since the '77 Blazer, weighing their age by minutes played and by starting lineup? Since I was already working on my simple wins predicted model, I estimated playing time for the scenario keeping Harden and one with keeping Kevin Martin, and calculated some numbers. I predict the win percentage based on point differential, so it's best to compare the expected win percentage from last year in the table to this year's expected win percentages.

2012-13 with Harden
2012-13 without Harden
Win %
71.2 (69.8*)
Off. Eff.
Def. Eff.
*Expected win percentage from point differential and strength of schedule
-Efficiency scores are based on the league average (5 is significantly higher, while -1 would be below average)

The Thunder by my rough estimate will drop about 5.3 wins losing Harden, which is surprising considering most of their players are young and they should be improving. Their 2012 season was supported by an elite offense, and their moderate drop (due partly to a small decrease in minutes for Durant who shouldn't keep playing as much as he has) is recovered by better defense, which is what you'd expect from a young crew still learning how to compete. But losing Harden and replacing him with Kevin Martin's defense kills their offense and stunts their defense. 59 versus 54 wins may not seem like a terribly large gap, but when you're aiming for a title that's like plummeting an entire tier. What's worse is not next season but the ones after that -- instead of keeping a 23 year-old Harden they could either let Martin's contract expire or re-sign him or another cheap player, lowering their ceiling for years to come.

Of course, those are crude estimates, and I'm not stating they'll be accurate. The Thunder may not even keep Kevin Martin, instead dumping his expiring contract elsewhere and (hopefully) picking up a good player in the process. It's not a buyer's market for shooting guard, unfortunately, as Harden was the best piece remotely on the market now that Iguodala has switched teams. They could use the amnesty option on Perkins and pick up a quality big, but they'd still have a hole at the shooting guard position.

But there's still hope. The Thunder grabbed rookie Jeremy Lamb, an intriguing shooting guard with insanely long arms and an outside shot; with good luck he can turn into the kind of defensive ace with reliable three-point range so many great teams covet. There are also a couple picks thrown in, mostly notably a reverse-protected first round from Toronto, meaning OKC will net the pick if the Raptors miss the playoffs (an easy assumption). If Jonas Valaciunas and Kyle Lowry play well, however, the pick could end up in the 10-12 range. With fortune on their side, the Thunder will hope one of their rookies or draft picks will end up being as good as James Harden was.

The constellations have realigned in the west. Oklahoma City's dominant future has faded, though still potent through Durant and Westbrook; and Harden joins Lin and Asik on a pastiche of intriguing young players, as the Big Trade Morey was aiming for has landed. The Lakers and Spurs rejoice.

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