Sam Presti and James Harden don’t understand “The Secret”


In order to start this column let’s take a trip back to November of last year. I was searching for a sports book to read because my love for reading actual books had come back after an eight year hiatus. I scoured Amazon for anything that seemed interesting and eventually landed on Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball. I checked to see how much a used copy would cost and was stunned to see that I could buy a hardcover copy for a penny… A PENNY (There’s no reason to mention the three dollar shipping cost because it takes the fun out of saying that you can buy things for a penny). The book came in five days later and I couldn’t put it down for the next month.

Let me get this out of the way now in one sentence, I’m a big fan of Simmons’ fan perspective style of writing and the book is his wholly grail of blending comedy, sports, and multiple wrestling references amongst other random theories into basically a fun reference guide to the NBA. I found myself beginning to understand why certain teams won championships and others did not.

The second section of the book is entitled The Secret, it’s a homage to something Isiah Thomas said after the ’89 Detroit Pistons swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Those Pistons’ teams are often referred to as the “Bad Boy” Detroit teams because of their physical (and sometimes fighting) style of basketball that had all of the makings of a dynasty from 1987-1990. In ’87 the Pistons lost to the Celtics in the seventh game of the finals and ’88 Magic Johnson and the Lakers ended the Pistons hopes of winning a championship in game seven of the finals. In the 1988 offseason then Detroit GM Jack McCloskey traded Adrian Dantley (the 1976 rookie of the year; he averaged 24.5 ppg in his career to go along with 5.7 rpg) to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre (a three time all star and a career 20.0 ppg to go along with 5.0). The trade was viewed as a mistake by Pistons fans initially, but their opinions shifted after Detroit won two championships in ’89 and ’90. You might look at Dantley and Aguirre’s stats and say their similar players, why would that make a difference? Dantley didn’t want to give up playing time to Dennis Rodman and head coach Chuck Daly knew that Rodman had to have more minutes if his team was going to be successful, so the solution was simple, ship out Dantley for someone who was friends with Isiah growing up and more importantly someone who understands his role.

Cameron Stauth wrote a book entitled The Franchise which covered how those Pistons teams were constructed. Simmons’ book offers an edited-for-space version of a section from Stauth’s book which featured Isiah Thomas revealing “The Secret” of basketball:

“It’s not about physical skills. Goes far beyond that. When I first came here, McCloskey took a lot of heat for drafting a small guy. But he knew that the only way our team would rise to the top would be by mental skills not size or talent. He knew the only way we could acquire those skills was by watching the Celtics and Lakers, because those were the teams winning year in and year out. I also looked at Seattle , who won one year, and Houston, who got to the Finals one year. The both self destructed the next year. So how come? I read Pat Riley’s book Show Time and he talks about “the disease of more.”A team wins it one year and the next year every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots. And it kills them…It’s hard not to be selfish. The art of winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it. And I think we have.”

He goes onto say:

“Look at our team statistically. We’re one of the worst teams in the league. So now you have to find a new formula to judge basketball. There were a lot of times I had my doubts about this approach, because all of you kept telling me it could never be done this way. Statistically, It made me look horrible. But I kept looking at the won-loss record and how we kept improving and I kept saying to myself, Isiah, you’re doin’ the right thing, so be stubborn, and one day people will find a different way to judge a player. They won’t just pick up the newspaper and say, oh, this guy was 9 for 12 with 8 rebounds so he was the best player in the game. Lots of times, on our team, you can’t tell who the best player in the game was (remember this quote for later on in this column). ‘Cause everybody did something good. That’s what makes us so good. The other team has to worry about stopping eight or nine people instead of two or three. It’s the only way to win. The only way to win. That’s the way the game was invented.”

Simmons’ asked Isiah directly what “the secret” of basketball was, to which he responded “The secret of basketball, is that it’s not about basketball.” Sure is sounds like something that The Dude would say, but Isiah is right and it led Simmons’ to write this about those Lakers and Celtics teams on page 40:

“They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page.”

For the last two seasons James Harden has understood his role, in fact he embraced being the sixth man, it’s exactly the responsibility that he wanted.

Before Harden was drafted by the Thunder with the third overall pick in the 2009 draft, Thunder GM Sam Presti was impressed with Harden’s ability to play without the ball (from Jordan Conn’s Grantland article):

“It was clear that he didn’t always need the ball, he could be effective with or without it. He wouldn’t be shouldering everything the way players picked that high are sometimes asked to. He would score but also make plays for other people and find ways to impact the game in other ways.”

Being the first man off of the bench was Harden’s greatest impact on OKC’s rise to title contender status. Not only did he give the second unit a distinct advantage, but when he was on the floor with the most versatile scorer in the league (Durant) and a top 15 player (Westbrook), the Thunder resembled a Megazord of offense that scored at a historically high rate in the playoffs. After a game one victory against the Miami Heat in the finals, the Thunder were averaging 113 points per 100 possessions, which at the time was 9.7 points higher than the league average. Since the 1979-80 season when the three point line was installed, there was only one team that had a higher rate, the 04-05 Phoenix Suns (per Zach Lowe).

In those first 16 games of the playoffs Harden averaged 16.8/4.8/3.3 with 1.5 steals per game to boot; his regular season averages: 16.8/4.1/3.7 with one steal per game. Bringing over regular season consistency to the postseason is one of the more underrated aspects of winning a championship, just ask the Chicago Bulls of two years ago (if Derrick Rose didn’t get hurt last season I would have included that team as well because they weren’t beating the Heat, sorry Doug.)

On page 47 of The Book Of Basketball Simmons lists the four aspects that a team must possess if they want to kiss the Larry O’ Brian trophy come June, only three of the four apply here:

1.) You build potential champions around one great player. He doesn’t have to be a super-duper star or someone who can score at will, just someone who leads by example kills himself on a daily basis, raises the competitive nature of his teammates, and lifts them to a better place.

Hmmm, Kevin Durant happens to be a super-duper star who is the alpha dog of the team, who also happens to possess the ability to score at will AND goes out every night knowing that if the ball is in his hands with the game on the line, he’s going to make the shot. He’s a once in a lifetime franchise player who just happens to play in the same era as Lebron (I hope we as fans understand how fucking lucky we are to have that).

2.) You surround that superstar with one or two elite sidekicks who understand their place in the team’s hierarchy, don’t obsess over stats, and fill in every blank they can.

When the Thunder bowed out in the Western Conference Finals to the Dallas Mavericks two seasons ago, Russell Westbrook lost sight of where he ranked in the grand scheme. Remember there were legitimate reasons for Scott Brooks to bench Westbrook and start Eric Maynor because it appeared that Durant and Westbrook’s offensive styles didn’t mesh. Sure Westbrook still tries to break the rim on every dunk, but last year he finally understood that if he continued to take shots away from the best scorer in the league the Thunder couldn’t reach the maximum potential. The other elite sidekick?

James Harden.

This is a quote is from Harden’s college head coach, Arizona State’s Herb Sendek (again from the Jordan Conn article on Harden):

“James is like a martial artist, he uses the force of the game against itself. He doesn’t play with predetermined conclusions.” On the first game of a northwest road trip his sophomore year at ASU, Harden dropped 36 points on 21 shots in a win over Oregon. Two nights later, against an Oregon State team that trapped and double-teamed him all night, he played the decoy role, and the Sun Devils won again. “After that game,” Sendek says, “he was celebrating just as much as anyone. It didn’t matter that he had barely scored.”

Can anyone fit into this category better? Damnit I’m already getting pissed about this trade let’s move on.

This will be the year that determines if Serge Ibaka either goes into this category or fits more in this one:

3.) From that framework, you complete your nucleus with top-notch role players and/or character guys who know their place, don’t make mistakes, and won’t threaten that unselfish culture, as well as a coaching staff dedicated to keeping those team-ahead-of-individual values in place.

In no particular order here are those role players for the Thunder:

Thabo Sefalosha: Has the potential to be the best defensive two guard in the league. Has a knack for shutting down Kobe Bryant.

Eric Maynor: HE’S BACKKKK.

Nazr Mohammed: Great second unit center.

Derek Fisher: I’ll take championship experience for 1000 Alex.

Daequan Cook

Kendrick Perkins: The reason James Harden was traded to Houston on Saturday night.

At first that probably doesn’t seem like it makes sense, let me explain. You may or may not have heard that the Lakers landed Dwight Howard this summer (my money is on that you have), Jerry Buss not only landed himself the third best player in the league, but by bringing D12 on board it forced Sam Presti to keep Kendrick Perkins on the roster. Perkins has been a thorn in Howard’s side 24 times. In those 24 games Howard is averaging two points less (16.3) than his career average (18.3). Not surprisingly his field goal percentage dips from 57 percent to 52 when playing Perkins. Stats only tell part of the story though, Perkins is a throwback trash talker who sets out to get under the skin of his opposition. Howard is widely regarded as a 26 year old kid who still plays with Legos and is an all around nice guy, except when Perkins is pounding him in the paint for 30 minutes a night. Perkins is Howard’s kryptonite (pun was intended), so Buss bringing in the big man from Orlando to win Kobe a sixth ring made Perkins a valuable piece for the Thunder’s immediate success. Scott Brooks and Presti need Perkins if they’re going to upend the new show time Lakers. Amnestying Perkins and having enough money to sign Ibaka and offer Harden a max contract without suffering from the new luxury tax penalties was no longer an option.

Presti could have given Harden the four year $60 million max contract that he deserves, but then suffer the $1.50 per dollar penalty of the new luxury tax, but instead Presti offered a four year $54 million dollar contract which Harden turned down. We all know how the next couple of days played out.

So who is at fault? Should Harden have sucked it up taken $20 less million and played on a title contender for the next four years alongside two of the top 15 players in the league, or should Presi have sucked it up, paid Harden the max and figured out a way to keep his big three even if it meant paying the harsh tax penalties for one season?

The answer is simple, both parties are at fault.

If the Thunder had decided to hold onto Harden and not give him an extension before Halloween he would become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. That would’ve likely caused a toxic amount of unnecessary questions and speculations about where he would wind up next season because you know the media can’t help themselves. Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and everyone else associated with the Thunder organization would not have been ready for a bombardment of Chris Brossard on a daily basis. Unnecessary media pressure always equals a failing season; I’m having flashbacks to Terrell Owens driveway sit up display in ’05.

Yet, there is a small part of me that thinks an unsigned Harden would have fought off those distractions and still been a key component of a team that would have been fueled by the pissed off fury of succumbing to King James and his Heat jesters last June. Instead the beard will be paired up with Linsanity in what should be a great asset to those of us who play the fantasy version of basketball, but in the world where wins and losses actually matter Daryl Morey’s big acquisition won’t turn around a franchise destined for the 13th seed in the West this season. Harden is no doubt a key piece if the Rockets are going to be relevant once again, but relevancy might not be on Houston’s upcoming agenda if you look beyond the backcourt.

A case could be made that Sam Presti might have actually improved the Thunder in the long term due to the depth of incoming Rockets’ Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and the three draft picks (two in the first round, one in the second), but here’s the problem: We don’t know how Martin and Lamb will fit in with the rest of the team.

In all of the reports surrounding the Rockets this offseason Kevin Martin appeared to be rejuvenated after missing 26 games last season. This was the classic contract year theory in which a player works constantly to perform at a high level because he knows a future contract is on the line. Trust me it never fails, it’s the reason why I made sure to trade for B.J Upton this year in fantasy baseball (I gave up on him a month early, he went bonkers in September and I lost in the first round of the playoffs…). The injury bug has bitten Martin in three out of the last four years, he’s only managed to suit up 166 out of a possible 312 games. Jeremy Lamb has a ton of promise based on his college tape, but he’s still at the maturity level of a college junior who is trying to make the transition into a world of men, so we have no idea what to expect from him as a pro. The draft picks are a great asset, but they’re far from a sure thing. With the new pieces on board, Thabo Sefalosha now becomes an integral piece to the Thunder’s immediate success. If Sef can show that he’s improved his offensive ability, maybe it’ll be enough to erase the gaping hole that the beard will no longer be able to fill.

I just can’t help but feel that Presti could have talked the owner (Clayton Bennett) into suffering a year of luxury tax penalties to reap the rewards of bringing a championship home to a city that HAS NO OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORTS TEAMS IN A 100 MILE RADIUS. Did I mention that the fans bleed blue and white for eight months out of the year? Those fans treat the Thunder with their undying love and support and at the end of the day their the reason that Presti has the job to make these decisions. I’d just like to know if Mr. Presti thought trading James Harden was the right basketball decision, not the right financial decision.

It is impossible however to not shell some of the blame on Harden and his agent, Rob Pelinka for playing the role of the modern age athlete & agent who define their worth by how big the next contract is. Pelinka understood that his client’s value was at an all time high and there was no way he was going to let Harden turn down that extra $20 million. If Harden had turned down that money he would have been viewed as a hero, the anti greedy athlete that rarely exists anymore if at all.

Four months ago Harden made an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show and was asked if he’d rather be a starter or the sixth man of the year. Harden answered sixth man of the year.

So that means in a little over four months either Harden changed his mind, or he had been trying to play the good guy do anything for my team role that looks great on the surface, but looks that much worse when you don’t follow up on your word. Harden let every fan down that has ever paid their hard earned money to go the Chesapeake Energy Arena and relentlessly scream when the opposing team has the ball. The number next to the dollar sign on the piece of paper that’s referred to as a contract speaks the loudest voice in our sports society, while apparently the number of championships don’t mean that much to certain players.

That’s what is so frustrating about this trade. OKC was in prime position to be the perfect foil to the Miami Heat and give us the next great NBA rivalry. Now the dynamic has changed and I can’t help but think that the Lakers have to now be considered the favorites to win the West and line up across from the Heat come early June. There’s plenty of time for Presti’s moves to blossom and to make me look like a moron for writing this column, but for now it appears that he let the monetary value get in the way of what the correct move was. Same goes for Harden, who in a couple of years might actually understand how the chemistry of that Oklahoma City Thunder team made them different from every other team in the league, but for now neither he nor Presti appear to understand the concept of “The Secret.”

You know who does understand “The Secret?”

Dwayne Wade.

Follow me on twitter @scottdargis.

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