4th and a Mile with Paul Muth

Let's examine just how irreplaceable James Harden is to the Rockets

The numbers are very telling. Photo by Pool/Getty Images.

It's been a tumultuous offseason to say the least for the Rockets. One person's pain is another's pleasure, however. While the front office of the Toyota Center stresses out over their disgruntled superstar, NBA fans in general have been eating up the drama—buffet style (assuming those are still a thing).

As of right now, two things are fairly certain:

  1. James Harden wants out of Houston.
  2. This entire ordeal is entertaining as hell.

The Rockets' front office has stated publicly that they're in no hurry to trade their superstar. It's a sound strategy considering the leverage that they hold—at least for the moment. Contractually, they're in the driver's seat. That doesn't mean that players are completely powerless in these situations, as Kawhi Leonard proved to the Spurs in 2017. So it's at least worth it for the Rockets to show some good faith.

The problem lies with the trade itself. Let's get one thing straight: the Rockets will not win any trade they complete. Period. It's important to understand that ahead of time, and we're going to explore why.

There's an analytics metric in the basketball nerd-verse known as "win shares." The goal of win shares is to quantify just how much an individual contributed to each win. The nuts and bolts can be explored here, but all you have to know for the purposes of this argument is that it's one of several metrics that tells you how valuable a player is.

So I put my nerd hat on and headed over to stathead.com to see just how valuable Harden has been to the Rockets' success. I knew he would rank fairly high among the league's elite players, but I wanted to nail it down. So I searched for total win shares from the 2012-2013 season (when Harden was traded to the Rockets) to now.

I was right:

1James Harden114.1
2LeBron James103.1
3Kevin Durant91.3
4Chris Paul91.2
5Stephen Curry89.7


What that is saying is that no player has contributed more to their team's success than Harden. LeBron has obviously contributed, but he's also been aided by great players that contribute their own sizeable win shares.

What this metric also proves is just how impossible it is to replace Harden. Whatever trade you're completing won't be even. Whoever gets Harden wins that trade.

The most intriguing trade suggested so far would be for the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons. Adjusting the comparison for the amount of time that Simmons has been (healthy) in the league, the number still isn't close:

Win Shares (2017-2020)
James Harden43.7
Ben Simmons24.4

I get it, they're at different stages in their careers and one of them wasn't forced to carry their team like the other. But Harden almost doubles Simmons in win shares and that's hard to ignore.

The counterargument is that the Rockets would be looking for a massive pile of draft picks. Picks are nice in theory, but picks don't average 34 points per game. The NBA Draft is such a crap shoot that in 2013 back-to-back reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th overall. The first pick? Anthony Bennett, who was out of the league after 4 years.

The Rockets find themselves in an incredibly unenviable position of moving one of the best players in the league. Losing Harden will be a massive blow to the franchise. What remains to be seen is just how severe it is.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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