Rockets’ Man: How James Harden Burned out his Fuse with the Oklahoma City Thunder

The departure of Kimbo Slice doppelganger James Harden from Oklahoma City severely stunts the playoff hopes of the Thunder. In a league building towards superstar-laden rosters, the Thunder dealt a great player for average picks and average players. They traded out of contention because of the luxury tax, which makes it hard for small-market teams without lavish TV contracts or sugar daddies with deep pockets to retain talent. They traded out of contention because of an ill-fitting jigsaw of overlapping skill sets, and they traded because of ego, of Sam Presti, James Harden, or maybe both.

How could you deal a 23-year-old core player, drafted #3 overall, on the heels of an NBA Finals appearance? James Harden is an electric scorer who can catch and shoot (like most shooting guards in the NBA) but also can create his own shots (an elusive trait inherent to stardom.) Harden is quiet and humble, willing to check his ego and come off the bench. And, thanks to his inordinately hirsute face, Harden is both incredibly marketable and terrifying to children.

Posting this to show Harden and former running mate Durant in the spotlight, not because of Kate Upton. Definitely not because of Kate Upton.

But Harden’s liabilities are already vulnerable in Oklahoma City. The reason he watches the tipoff from the bench is due to his poor perimeter defense, ceding time to lock-down defender and awful offensive talent Thabo Sefalosha. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were not also weak defenders. Each player has a parallel skill set, which yields a problematic symmetry where talents and flaws are equally amplified. All three players can’t handle one ball, and each possession only permits one shot to be created.

Could the Miami Heat have beaten OKC into submission? Did the 5 game Finals thrashing convince the Thunder to head back to the drawing board? Miami made it work without a true center and a rotating crop of token point guards who deferred on-ball duties to LeBron or Wade. Bill Simmons believes that the Heat eliminated both of those core NBA positions, creating a dexterous system where shooters space the floor from the corners while either of their stars can take over creative duties. OKC could have chosen to copy and implement Erik Spoelstra’s strategy, isolating all of their superstars and preying on the easiest defensive matchup. Instead, they traded out of their embarrassment of riches, choosing conventionality in a league experiencing sweeping change.

To his credit, Thunder GM Sam Presti has been successful rebuilding from the ground up. Besides the particularly heinous offense of spending a lottery pick on scrub Cole Aldrich (offloaded in this Rockets deal), Presti’s drafts have been successful. Westbrook, in particular, was a risky gambit that paid out handsomely. He only started one season at UCLA and scored less than 13 points per game, but Presti selected him 4th in the 2008 draft. He nabbed Serge Ibaka, nicknamed Serge Protector for his electric defense, with the 24th pick in the same year, Presti’s inaugural draft. Presti, who was hired at 31, isn’t afraid to take chances. He traded face of the franchise Ray Allen shortly after taking office, when the franchise was still in Seattle, and scored the draft rights to Jeff Green. Green was a solid contributor before being sent to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins, a player who hasn’t panned out for the Thunder, and with a yearly salary of almost $10 million, Perkins contributed to the cap conundrum that forced a move for Harden.

The bounty Presti scored for Harden includes veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin, a first round pick via the Raptors that projects near the late lottery area, a Lakers first rounder that should fall among the last few selections, a second rounder, and rookie shooting guard, rap auteur, and Scrawl so Hard favorite Jeremy Lamb. He parted with Harden and 3 negligible bench players. Martin is a prolific scorer but a poor defender. He may be most helpful for his expiring $13 million contract coming off the books after this season. His career has consisted of scoring buckets in droves while losing games. He’ll have to modify his game to become an off-the-ball shooter if he wants to play with Durant and Westbrook, but could generate scoring on the second unit. Lamb has a high floor and a high ceiling; he’s wiry and athletic, and is as likely to make the trade a gem for the Thunder as he is to self-destruct on the bench. He’s also not used to playing 5th banana, and many NBA scouts criticized his attitude and intelligence. The outcome of the picks will rest on Presti’s shoulders, but the NBA draft always produces busts. He’s mining for gold while playing Minesweeper.

This fascinating Grantland profile on Harden encapsulates his enigmatic personality; at times, he is selfless and stoic, a teenager who had to be convinced to shoot more and put the team on his back during high school. Other times, he is a “swaggering and smack-talking alpha dog,” going toe-to-toe verbally and on the court with the legendarily competitive Kobe Bryant. Harden was offered a 4 year contract for about $55 million to stay with the Thunder, but he rejected it. Is the alpha dog in Harden bearing its teeth, intent on being the primary conductor on a mission to orchestrate a winner? Unlike NBA royalty like the Miami trio and Tim Duncan, Harden was unwilling to take less to remain on a great team.

Disconcerting is the fact that the max deal Harden will get from the Rockets pays out $60 million over 4 years, only $5 million more than what he turned down from the Thunder. At such a negligible difference (percentage-wise, for an NBA player,) Harden’s departure suggests tension or frustration with being bottled up on the bench. Former players and current pundits Bruce Bowen and Jalen Rose believe Harden might regret eschewing a potential dynasty in favor of an increased role and salary. During negotiations, Presti laid out for Harden and his agent that he would be traded if he didn’t accept an extension. If it was really all about the money, the Thunder maintain they had no room to budge.

“We wanted to sign James to an extension,” said Presti, “but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved.”

Durant was surprisingly reserved. Both men have referred to each other as “brothers,” yet Durant tweeted a simple “Wow” before wishing luck to all four of the Thunder players traded.

“I actually talked to Kevin (Durant) last night,” Harden said. “He called me and he’s still in shock. Like I said, it happened so fast. I think he was at a football game when he found out and I think he said he stopped watching the game he was so upset.”

On Tuesday, Durant was so upset, he released a rap with Stephen Jackson.

Today, the Thunder roster is worse than before the trade. Potentially, Presti may be lauded for making the difficult move and improving the team in the long run. Harden could be heralded for moving on and carving out his own legacy in the eye of Linsanity. Whatever schism motivated Harden to depart, the exit from the talented Thunder core in a superstar-oriented league comes as a surprise to most fans. And it might have broken up the last challenger fighting in a valiant but fruitless stand against the heavy spenders in the major market. The hopes of a carefully crafted dynasty exit stage left and defect to Houston, while the Miami Heat return for a curtain call.


What College Football needs to do for Pro-bound Athletes

Ohio State University dean’s-lister Cardale Jones likely acquired his classroom chops while enrolled in Ginn Academy, a school founded by Glenville High School coaching legend and former security guard Ted Ginn. Jones’ tweet has ignited controversy, garnering coverage from media outlets like ESPN and Deadspin, and eliciting vitriolic backlash that has caused Jones to delete his Twitter account. Despite a grammatical lapse, I believe the criticism is largely undeserved, and that Jones has a valid point.

A 2009 ESPN article says that 78% of NFL players are broke within two years of retirement. The movie “Broke,” part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, profiled a number of penniless former pros. From bad investments, to family pressures, to child support, athletes surpass Rossian proportions of blowing money fast. The locker room is a Petri dish of envy, swarming with competitive and suddenly rich men prone to take drastic measures to impress. But the money is like a flood, gushing through the levies after a life of drought and providing an abundance of water, a fleeting abundance that will evaporate if not properly preserved.

Ryan Pontbriand was a talented high school offensive lineman who attended Rice University on a football scholarship. He settled into the smallest niche spot in football, becoming a standout long snapper. Tasked with delivering the ball for field goals and punts, a long snapper needs to be reliable, precise, and perfect. At their best, long snappers are an afterthought and a foregone conclusion. One mistake, and they find the spotlight.

Pontbriand was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 5th round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the highest selection of a long snapper in NFL history. He left Rice with a degree in mechanical engineering. Pontbriand had 8 quietly great seasons in the Dawg Pound, and the league threw him a bone with Pro Bowl selections in 2007 and 2008. In 2011, two poor Pontbriand snaps in a span of three weeks resulted in Browns losses. Both were in situations where they would have obtained the lead after the two minute warning in the 4th quarter. Pontbriand was, unceremoniously, released from the team.

I looked at Pontbriand’s Twitter and laughed when I saw a LinkedIn account in the bio. Is there some sort of NFL networking at hand, where they keep tabs on each other’s car washes and restaurants online? Would Pontbriand ask Kelly Holcomb or Josh Cribbs to write him a nice recommendation for his professionalism in times of adversity? But when I clicked, I learned that Pontbriand is a full-fledged member of the workforce. He was on the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason, but moved on to a job with a Texas energy company. Because long snappers get comparatively modest salaries and live from one snap to the next, Pontbriand had a contingency plan and looks to be financially stable. He is the exception, not the standard.

There’s two ways for NFL players to enjoy comfortable post-professional circumstances. One is to traverse Pontbriand’s path, and utilize football scholarships as a chance to obtain a sought-after degree without spending a penny. When the athletic career is terminated, the degree is a sprawling parachute of lifetime financial comfort. But so many athletes see school like Cardale Jones, as an obligatory and unnecessary burden instead of an opportunity. How do you short-circuit the cycle from poverty to wealth, back to poverty that engulfs athletes? The second way to preserve wealth is to teach future pros exactly how to manage their earnings, to make the money made on 1-2 major contracts last for a lifetime.

Let’s be frank: Schools don’t care what kind of an education players get. They’re a source of revenue, merely a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between player and program. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; but it’s wrong to operate under a pretense of seeing the athletes as students, instead of a means of profit and prestige. Many players wouldn’t be in college without their athletic abilities. They have poor test scores, or grades, and might not want to be in college at all. But they want to play football.

College football can’t be a one-size-fits-all prescription, because many players don’t want to take the educational medicine. We need to divide athletes into groups, and offer them tailored options to best benefit the rest of their lives. There’s a fundamental schism between players who want to take classes, and players who don’t. Let’s embrace that, and make academics an optional facet of playing college football. Want to take advantage of the allotted educational openings? Proceed in the present manner.

If a player doesn’t want to go to school, that’s fine too. College athletes who are considering leaving school early and entering the draft can consult with NFL scouts to gauge their draft stock. This tells players if they are cut out to be pros, and shapes their decision to enter the draft or return to school. Coming out of High School, players are already thoroughly scouted and assigned a grade of 1-5 stars based on their talent and potential. They are measured in many of the ways future pros are. Large football factory schools always fill their rosters with highly-ranked players, while smaller schools draw less coveted athletes. If they’re rated in high school just like in college, why can’t the players consult with a board of college scouts and find out if they’re pro material?

In this system, players who won’t make the pros and don’t care about school can simply elect to play football only. This will improve the schools, raising admissions standards and offering more spots in classrooms for attendees that actually want to be there. At the same time, it frees the players (who as adults should be able to make their own choices) from the burden of studying and allows them to focus on improving athletically. Players with on-field talent should not have to work harder in the classroom to play, because it is not a privilege to play for the school. Big-time athletics is a cash cow, profiting on athletes regarded only as a means. When players have to earn the right to be exploited, who benefits?

Players with a distaste for school but a shot at the pros could then be presented with another alternative: helpful tutelage in the art of being an athlete. The NFL already throws a Rookie Symposium, in which cautionary tokens Mike Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones preach a “Do as I say, not as I do,” message to the fledgling flock of pros. But how much can these players, many with a contempt for learning, soak up in just one weekend?

Jones told rookies that he once blew $1 million in one day

Instead, why not spend the years toiling away in irrelevant classes on educating future pros on how to handle their business? Develop courses in money management, communications, and business. Teach these players how to handle their finances, and where to find financial professionals. Show what makes an investment valuable. Help them hire a qualified agent, learn to budget income and set up a portfolio. Teach them how to speak to the press strategically, so that players can control their message and serve as a media advocate to their most valuable asset: themselves. Include courses on marketing, on game theory. Create a curriculum that gives players the tools to stretch the temporarily bountiful NFL earnings into lasting stability.

It’s impossible to expect the young and rich to make calculated business decisions when they have no formal training. Professional Prep should be a separate program, really no different than a Pre-Law or Pre-Medicine major, a useless course load for those not following the professional path, but an invaluable packaging of information to those progressing into the intended arenas. The track should use a simple pass or fail grading system, to incentivize actual learning as opposed to competing for a primary letter of the alphabet, as well as unburden schools from the academic output of big-time athletes, statistically lower than the student body, and prevent some of the purported chicanery of fabricated transcripts.

What we come out with is choices for players: Those settling on a Jonesian trope, the ones who “ain’t come to play school,” can choose their own adventure: No classes, or tailored programs less about rigorous studying and learning than about implanting life skills and lessons into future pros. Those who can balance the team and the textbook capitalize on the free college education offered to them. And the colleges boost their academic stats, retain academically troubled athletes on football teams, and ensure that their cash cows are still grazing on the green pastures of dead presidents.

Certainly, the stratification of athletics comes with some caveats. This proposal isn’t a panacea, but it’s an improvement; no plan is going to be perfect. I’m open to suggestion on how to handle athletes in lesser sports that hate school. On one hand, if the university needs them for a team, it should be an individual choice to graduate or not. At the same time, it’s easy to recognize that there isn’t much of a professional future in swimming, track and field, or golf, among many other sports. It would be the professional equivalent of advertantly swallowing a poison pill to refuse the free education. I think that, at this point, men’s football and basketball are the only sports with the professional infrastructure to support this plan. Also, BCS schools are the only places where talent is concentrated enough to employ this, so I would limit the availability of this track to the major schools. It would work as a recruiting advantage to maintain the hegemonic hierarchy of the NCAA, and is no less unfair than ensuring automatic bids for the power conferences, a practice in play today.

Also, some will still demand more benefit for players, a salary either contingent on a University’s income in the sport, or distributed among all Division 1 athletes, hammer-and-sickle style. While I identify the exploitation of college athletes, nobody is making athletes get a degree. Basketball wunderkind Brandon Jennings eschewed college for a foreign professional league until he was eligible for the NBA draft. Simply put, players who want to be compensated with cash can join a league that pays players. It’s a choice to enroll in college, and they are knowingly choosing to forgo income.

I realize that choosing to bypass classes to prepare for life as a pro will backfire in many cases. There’s no utopian predictor of success in college athletics or beyond that. We let students accrue hundreds of thousands in debt to grab a philosophy degree, even though it’s a statistically morbid move. But it’s their decision to make. Anyone saying that the players will mess up the decision or shouldn’t be allowed to choose is degrading their adulthood and denying the right to choice. Mill’s harm principle holds (and I paraphrase) that one should not interfere with the free will of another unless the action will cause harm to others. It is not acceptable to intervene if a person is only harming his or her self.

Offering a professional preparatory path will help to cull the alarming number of pros with no more dough, while freeing them of classroom obligations. And those who hate class and only want to do what they were recruited for can rest their brains until they get between the hashes. All around, we’re giving college players choices. If I said there was a way to improve the college game, strengthen the universities academically, and reduce the number of impoverished ex-athletes, everyone would jump all over that. You might even call it a no-brainer.