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October 30, 2012, 02:33 PM ET
Fact Checking Daryl Morey

by Kevin Pelton

One of the wonders of the modern political process is that, within hours of debates or speeches at the conventions, the presidential candidates’ claims can be thoroughly checked for objective accuracy. In that spirit, I thought something Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey said during Monday’s press conference introducing James Harden deserved further research.

“I actually can’t come up with any examples of a player of his caliber and age getting traded at the time he was traded – it really has never happened,” Morey said when asked whether he was surprised Harden was available.

Just how unique is that? I set my parameters at players who were 23 or younger at the time they changed teams (Harden reached that age in August) and had posted at least 10+ WARP in a season (Harden had 11.3 last year). Here’s the list I came up with from the last three decades-plus:

  • Chris Webber, Golden State to Washington (13.0 WARP, age 21)
  • Stephon Marbury, Minnesota to New Jersey (13.7 WARP, age 22)
  • Tracy McGrady, Toronto to Orlando (10.4 WARP, age 21)
  • Elton Brand, Chicago to L.A. Clippers (9.8 WARP, age 22)

Of those four players, McGrady left via free agency under a system long since discarded. Marbury and Webber demanded trades, leaving just one example–the Bulls with Brand–of a team choosing to deal a player with established 10+ WARP track record (Brand had 10.7 as a rookie, before dipping slightly below that number in his final year in Chicago). So we’re certainly talking about something rare, and without precedent in the last decade, though I’d still grade Morey’s comment an exaggeration.

Since the trade, I’ve been surprised by how much more I seem to value Harden than the public at large. I liked Morey’s answer when asked why he felt Harden could be a first option: “I’ve watched him play.” That was a joke, sort of, but Morey continued by saying, “He played well in so many different environments. Obviously playing with Kevin (Durant) and Russell (Westbrook) he played well, but if you really studied the film, and I’d like to think our scouting staff is as diligent as any in the league – I think we are – when he had to carry the load with those guys off the floor he excelled. When there was just one of them on the floor he excelled. Really, frankly, in all environments.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that Harden was a top-three pick before ever playing with Durant and Westbrook. He led the Pac-10 in usage rate as a sophomore at Arizona State before declaring, and did so with above-average efficiency. As Bradford Doolittle pointed out in his analysis of the Rockets going forward, Harden was actually more effective last season with Durant on the bench (and presumably Westbrook, given Scott Brooks‘ tendency to rest both stars at the same time), pushing his usage rate to the stratosphere while increasing his True Shooting Percentage from .641 to .686, resulting in a jump from 16.6 points per 40 minutes to 34.7.

The counter to that stat is that Harden was playing against reserves. Ethan Sherwood Strauss raised a good question (I know, shocking): are second-unit defenders actually worse? The evidence suggests the drop-off is larger at the other end of the floor. Daniel Myers has studied the relationship between regularized adjusted plus-minus and minutes per game and found it much stronger on offense than defense. As in baseball, it appears that replacement level (and reserve level) is much higher on defense than offense.

Now, this does suggest Harden got a bit of a break at the defensive end going against backups, and I have argued that part of his poor NBA Finals performance was due to the extra energy he had to expend defending LeBron James. But I don’t suspect we’re talking about a big effect, and remember that Harden was much more valuable without the stars. If in reality his value to the Rockets is reflected by his overall performance in Oklahoma City, I’m pretty sure Morey would take that.

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