The James Harden trade has gone about as poorly as it could have gone for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before the 2012-13 season OKC sent Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a 2013 1st-round pick (No. 12 overall, from Toronto), a 2014 1st-round pick (no. 21 overall, from Dallas) and a 2013 2nd-round pick (No. 32 overall).
Harden immediately bloomed into the best shooting guard in the league.
At the same time, the players OKC got in return flopped.
Martin spent one year in OKC before leaving for Minnesota in free agency.
Lamb, who was seen as the centrepiece of the trade, has been a disappointment. He averaged 8.5 points in 2013-14 despite getting extended minutes when Russell Westbrook went down with an injury. In this year’s playoffs, he has played 20 total minutes in 13 games.
There is only one asset from the Harden trade who’s contributing for the Thunder in the playoffs — Steven Adams, the 20-year-old New Zealander who OKC drafted 12th-overall last summer.
If the Harden deal is to avoid going down as one of the worst trades in NBA history, Adams needs to become a legitimate starting center.
And as the playoffs go on and Adams plays more and more meaningful minutes, it’s looking increasingly likely that he can do just that.
The current scouting report on Adams is simple: He’s an exceptionally athletic, 7-foot-tall instigator who’s best known for his god-given ability to bait guys into punching him in the face.
It happened against Denver in the regular season, and Jordan Hamilton was ejected:
It happened in Game 6 of the OKC-Memphis series, and Zach Randolph was suspended for Game 7:
He tried to make it happen against Indiana in the regular season, but failed:
Adams is only 20 years old. He hasn’t been playing organised basketball for that long. But he has made an impact doing the things other players don’t like to do — setting screens, boxing out, getting under opponents skins, and, yeah, occasionally taking a suspension-inducing punch right in the head.
He told the New York Times about the rest of the league, “They just seem to not like me. I don’t know why. I just play hard. I don’t do anything else.”
He clearly made an impression on Kevin Durant, who talked for 55 seconds about Adams in his MVP speech, saying:
“I didn’t know who you were when you first got here, but I realised with the screens you set in practice. You elbow me when I come down the lane. You let your presence known man. You’re such a fun, spirited person. Never change who you are man, because you mean a lot to me. You inspire me too. You’ve been through so much at a young age, and I relate to that. I know your story. I don’t really talk about it a lot but I know.”
There was a great article by Jenni Carlson on the tough childhood Durant talks about in the Oklahoman. Adams is the youngest of 18 children. He was never close with his mum and grew up in the New Zealand town of Rotorua, a place best know for its overwhelming stench of sulfur.
His dad died of cancer when he was 13. After going through a rough patch where he kept skipping school, he moved to Wellington, took up basketball, and eventually made it his livelihood.
Adams is raw but instinctive. He seems to get better every game he plays. In OKC’s series-clinching win over the Clippers in Game 6, he scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds after Serge Ibaka went down with a calf injury. If the Thunder have any chance of beating San Antonio in the conference finals, Adams will play a vital role.
Oklahoma City may never fully recover from the Harden trade. You simply don’t get away with giving away a top-15 player in the NBA. But Adams is young and promising, and the Thunder can remain a title contender over the next few years if he becomes a significant contributor.
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