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Even without Harden, Thunder top team in West

Sam Smith of Bulls.com discusses the weekend’s trade of James Harden to the Rockets, what to expect from Houston, and how he believes Oklahoma City will fare without the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. He also takes an early look at how he sees the Eastern and Western Conferences playing out this season.

"I really do like Harden and believe he’s a very good player, though maybe not as my best player," writes Smith. "It will be interesting to see him in the go to guy spot."

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

You can already tell this is going to be a fun NBA season. Heck, practically on the eve of opening night Tuesday, the Western Conference champion and one of the favorites to win the title traded one of its best and core players for basically draft picks and a player with an expiring contract.

And I believe if there has to be a winner/loser in a trade, I think it is the Thunder.

The trade of Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and reserves to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy “the better Lamb from this draft” Lamb and draft picks, including a likely 2013 lottery pick, was effectively “forced” by the Oct. 31 deadline for third year first round picks to get contract extensions. Without that, Harden would become a restricted free agent next summer and would likely be offered a maximum contract, which the Thunder deemed too rich to match. So they decided to get something now.

It’s a risk given the team with Harden seemed on the verge of a title. Some would say the Thunder is being miserly in order to make more money. Of course, one could say Harden is as well at the expense of playing for a championship. Why is it only the teams are interested in maximizing money at the expense of success? What about players? I think it’s safe to say unless traded again, Harden has been in the Finals for the final time.

So this is the core Houston has committed more than $100 million to in the offseason: The league’s best reserve, a point guard you released last season coming off knee surgery, and a second round pick big man who averaged 14 minutes a game last season. It’s not exactly the Heat’s 2010 offseason Big Three. But the Rockets will have cap room next summer and can give someone like Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, David West or Tyreke Evans a big contract. So we’ll see. Watch out No. 8!

I really do like Harden and believe he’s a very good player, though maybe not as my best player. It will be interesting to see him in the go to guy spot. Not that it means everything, but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook out and the defense focusing on him, the Bulls chased Harden into two of 17 shooting last week. Harden did have a miserable Finals. But he came up huge in the series to help beat the Spurs last season.

Which is why, as the season is about to begin, this is such a delicious topic.

My first observation is always the same and I never quite get it right: If you are about winning, how could you do this? Harden was set up perfectly with a team that will be a title contender the next 10 years. People don’t notice your beard when you are not on national TV, which may be a good thing for him. I still question if Houston can even make the playoffs this season. But it is a start.

But what for Harden? He supposedly rejected somewhere between $52 million and $55 million from the Thunder because they declined to pay him $60 million. The Rockets can add a fifth year and will before Wednesday and he said Sunday he’ll sign.

But for basically less than $2 million a year over four years when you are guaranteed more than $50 million you give up being with a winner to where you will be fortune just to make the playoffs and be swept in the first round? Isn’t at least your quality of life much better winning? Aren’t you more famous as well? Yet, every time I see it and it makes all the sense to be just very rich and not super rich, they basically always go for the last dollar: Joe Johnson, Jeff Green, Ben Gordon, etc. Would they take those contracts again? Yes, LeBron, Wade and Bosh took a bit less. So did Russell Westbrook. So did Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. That’s basically all they were asking. Maybe Harden thought he was better than Durant and Westbrook. Maybe he resented being a sixth man with Thabo Sefolosha starting. I don’t know for sure.

The circumstances showed a few other things as well.

Like with the Bulls with Omer Asik, the Thunder drafted too well. They found Serge Ibaka and had to pay him well above a 24th pick. The Bulls are dealing with this now as well with Taj Gibson, a 26th pick. Asik was a second rounder. The Thunder story is even if you are a potentially great team the new collective bargaining agreement isn’t going to allow you to stockpile great players. With a luxury tax that expands exponentially the more you are above it, teams are going to basically be limited to three eight figure salaried players. That’s a core. The Thunder’s is Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. They would go on the edge for Harden, but it’s obvious there’s a limit to these maximum type deals. And you better get them right and pay only who gives you $10 million-plus in basketball returns.

I still think the Thunder, at least in the regular season, will win the West. Here’s a look at how I see the 2012-13 season. Subject to change quickly, of course.

Eastern Conference:

  1. Miami: I still think you can get them with size and maybe Dwyane Wade’s patched up body. But LeBron James playing point/power forward and finally accepting being a postup threat has changed them and him. There’s no question now he’s the elite of the game, which you can effectively trace back to Game 6 against Boston when he went from great to Jordan-esque. Now he is the best and knows it and wants everyone else to as well. They’ll just play off him with shooters and that should be enough to get back to the Finals.
  2. Boston: Unless the Celtics upset them. Which was closer than it should have been last season. You always look unbeatable when you win. But the Celtics were close to taking out the Heat last season with seemingly half the team undergoing heart surgeries. The Celtics may have had the best offseason in building probably the league’s best bench. If Kevin Garnett holds up all season they could win that sixth game this time.
  3. Brooklyn: It would worry me some that Deron Williams needs a shot in his ankle to start the season. But injuries change things for any team, as the Bulls now know best. But they may have the best, if still unfamiliar, starting five in the East and respectable bench with some chances like Andray Blatche. It’s a heck of a perimeter three with Wiliams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace. If only Dwight Howard hadn’t reupped with Orlando. Maybe Prokhorov would have stayed out of politics.
  4. Bulls: Get out of here! I don’t think I’m basing this on a pretty good preseason. Yes, I know Derrick Rose is out. And while the hope is he begins to return in February, it’s always possible the doctors say no and he sits out. Rebounds equal rings, Pat Riley famously said. They don’t without a healthy Rose. But the Bulls will rebound, be prepared with a terrific coach and compete harder than most. It wins you a lot of regular season games. That’s all I’m promising.
  5. Indiana: I’m obviously not sold on that easy ride to the Central, and not because of that preseason game. OK, maybe a little. The Pacers play a lot of isolation and I’m not a big Hibbert fan. Losing Darren Collison, I believe hurt, and Danny Granger is coming in saying he’s hurt. It’s tougher when you are expected to do something, which they now are.
  6. New York: I know. They’re not letting Stoudemire play with crutches. And it sounds like he may need them. But they still should be in competition with the Bulls/Pacers/76ers group for those spots. That four through seven should be fluid depending on health and a few lucky bounces at ends of games. And they still do have a bigtime scorer.
  7. Philadelphia: They looked a lot better getting Andrew Bynum, suddenly the East’s best center. Until he left for Germany for treatment and hasn’t played since. He’s really only played regularly in the short season last year and it doesn’t sound great. Without him they’ll look about like last season with a quick perimeter and good enough to compete for the playoffs.
  8. Toronto: I’ve got it! Raptors’ fever. We’re talkin’ eight here. Which isn’t great, but for them. They made a few nice pickups, especially Kyle Lowry. They seem together and working at it and could steal enough close wins to get in.
  9. Atlanta: They’ve been talking about being freed from so called “iso-Joe,” as if Joe Johnson were the problem. Josh Smith is a free agent, so who knows if they’ll trade him as they clearly are cutting payroll to retool with a roster filled with expiring deals. It’s tough to be a team when everyone knows the moving company number.
  10. Milwaukee: Probably enough talent to make the playoffs. But too many uncertainties with the whole backcourt potential free agents and the traveling Sam Dalembert. There’s usually a reason why you get dumped often when you’re a seven footer who’s working on his fourth team in four seasons.
  11. Cleveland: I’m not a fan of that Dion Waiters pick. So we’ll see. Losing Anderson Varejao last season was costly and Kyrie Irving is very good. That should get you at least fifth from last.
  12. Detroit: This is a team that is getting into good position. I like Andre Drummond to eventually team with Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight at point. They’re also getting under the salary cap and in two years could be in the mix.
  13. Washington: Losing John Wall and with Nene not recovering quickly sets them back in what is a learning process, anyway. They’ve at least ditched the goofy guys and are starting with professionalism, which is something. Bradley Beal does have some star potential.
  14. Charlotte: Hey, not last, which is something after last season’s mess. Finally, they’re headed for huge cap room, have a conservative basketball guy running things and should compete. I like Ben Gordon to begin to get his career back off the bench and a demanding, hold accountable coach. Which means Tyrus Thomas doesn’t play, which also should help.
  15. Orlando: I suppose they’ll win some games, and I do like Afflalo. But they are the NBA version of the Cubs. They’ll get rid of anyone on their roster they can and call us in three years.

Western Conference:

  1. Oklahoma City: So how do you trade one of your core players and beat out the Lakers’ 80-2 season? Kevin Martin for one season should score fine off the bench and I liked the Hasheem Thabeet pickup. Eric Maynor is back to play some actual point and Serge Ibaka can be a legitimate third.
  2. San Antonio: Since they refuse to go away when they are supposed to then they win. Tim Duncan is having such a career renaissance he’s actually funny. They’ve developed a strong bench that is so good they were able to let Eddy Curry go. And, of course, Manu, the anti-Harden, who plays off the bench for less just to be with a winner. How quaint.
  3. Lakers: No, I’m not in for 73 wins. I think the adjustment to all the new guys won’t be easy. And if Kobe plays the Princeton offense Mike Brown is trying, then Ron Artest is an Ivy Leaguer. Kobe comes in with some minor injury issues, but they are old. Still, I think they’ll get better as the season progresses and could be the favorite in the playoffs.
  4. Clippers: They loaded up with Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill and Chancey Billups returns. But it’s still an unbalanced team as Blake Griffin just tries to power through. But with the depth of talent they still could be the most successful team in the Staples Center.
  5. Memphis: I know Denver is everyone’s sleeper this season, but I’m not snoozing. Andre Iguodala has messed up better teams. The Grizzlies still have that power duo and Zach the second year after knee surgery, which is the better one. Mike Conley quietly has crept up the point guard ladder and if Rudy Gay ever exploits all that talent.
  6. Denver: They’ll win a lot of games with that home court altitude edge as Al Gore will tell you. But they’re still not sure what to do at center and if they think Iguodala is a three point shooter, well good luck rebounding. It seems they can get pushed around.
  7. Utah: They don’t really have anyone who cares to pass the ball, except maybe for Marvin Williams, who isn’t supposed to. But they have a lot of talent up front with Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors off the bench. With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap free agents they could be in for changes along the way.
  8. Phoenix: No, still not Houston. But I suppose it’s possible. The Suns added a bunch of potentiak scoring in Luis Scola, Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson. They have more postup players now with a pick and roll mentality. When you lose your stars it’s either the bottom and picks and cap room or play for eighth.
  9. Dallas: It’s usually a habit to at least put successful teams in the playoffs. But there’s too much uncertainty with Dirk having surgery, age, Chris Kaman always hurt. And the Grizzlies needed shooting. So they let O.J. Mayo go to Dallas. That championship seems a long time ago.
  10. Houston: Ok, they’re not as bad as they were. I’ve said at times Harden could be a 20-point scorer the way he gets to the line. Though I question more Jeremy Lin holding up. They’ve been hoarding all those picks for years. I suppose they had to eventually do something, though I’m not sure how far it gets you.
  11. Sacramento: I just sort of have a feeling. I know DeMarcus Cousins is wacky, but he is talented. Maybe they do something with Tyreke Evans and get John Salmons out of there. But they’ve got some guys in Aaron Brooks and Jason Thompson who can steal some games.
  12. Golden State: If they end up like this, that could be it for Mark Jackson. They’re counting a lot on the health of Andrew Bogut, who didn’t play in preseason, and Stephen Curry, who twisted his ankle twice. I like the under the radar Carl Landry pickup and if Bogut is OK they could be the one to sneak into eighth.
  13. Minnesota: This depends an awful lot on Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio recovering, though Rubio had the more serious anterior cruciate. Of course, shooting for third from last isn’t a goal. It’s just tough to see them not falling onto a deep hole to start with out-of-retirement Brandon Roy and back-from-Russia Andrei Kirilenko starting.
  14. Portland: I mostly wonder how LaMarcus Aldridge is going to deal with a reset. Yes, they’re finally done with Greg Oden. Really, has any franchise had worse luck that shouldn’t have been? It looks like they may have a good one in point Damian Lillard, but he’s a rookie. And Oden now might make this team at center given the inexperience there.
  15. New Orleans: They’re staying in New Orleans, which is the big win. They’re got a really, really good one in Anthony Davis. So the season will be about watching him do fun stuff. Fellow rookie Austin Rivers apparently doesn’t have pro ankles and who knows where Eric Gordon is. It’s not going to be any Mardi Gras.

Rule change could make All-Star bid tough for centers

-- Is Joakim Noah’s chances of being an All-Star over? I’m fairly sure Roy Hibbert’s final one was last season. In the evolving athletic NBA, especially since the rules change that limited contact only on the perimeter, the game has favored the perimeter player, and thus the era of the point guard. Which made at times even more uncomfortable the requirement to have centers on the All-Star team. Miami won a title without one, which probably was the final nail to close the coffin on the power position as also power forward has often become “stretch four.” And the end of All-Stars like James Donaldson, Jamaal Magloire and perhaps Hibbert. With the league designating All-Stars front court and backcourt, you could get the front court East All-Stars next season as James, Anthony, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Josh Smith and Danny Granger or Kevin Garnett without the presence of a center. And what’s Al Horford? … The Knicks closed the preseason starting Ronnie Brewer at small forward and Jason Kidd at shooting guard. … Had to laugh about Jeff Green telling Boston reporters he resigned with the Celtics because, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of something special like this?” As opposed to the, what not special, Thunder he rejected because they’d only offer him $50 million and not a max contract. Still, it’s a great signing for Boston. Green, by the way, needed surgery and signed for $14 million less. Yes, it does happen. … It’s a big season for one time No. 2 overall draft pick Evan Turner, getting Andre Iguodala’s starting job and especially with Andrew Bynum starting late being asked to carry a lot of 76ers’ offense. Coach Doug Collins is making the case Turner can double his nine-point scoring average. … Big surprise for the 76ers has been Maalik Wayns, undrafted out of Villanova. … Deron Williams admits his ankle problems date back to worsening playing in the Olympics.

Today’s stars should be more like Mike

-- The talk during last seasons’ Finals was Mike Miller would have to retire because of unending injuries and possible back surgery. Not only is Miller back with Miami but making 60 percent of his threes in preseason averaging almost eight points in 16 minutes. Ray Allen averaged 10 points in preseason and made a dozen threes. They’re going to be firing. … It’s become fairly routine for stars to sit out during preseason. LeBron James sat out one game. When the Thunder was in Chicago, Kevin Durant sat out. I understand coaches wanting to save players’ legs. But what players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson understood better than today’s stars is the obligation they owe to the game. Many fans get to see a game one a year, perhaps in preseason. Injury is one thing. Jordan probably needed games off more than most. But he always understood fans were paying a lot and wanted to see him play, if only for a few minutes. He rarely if ever sat in the preseason. Not that today’s stars are selfish, especially guys like Durant. But they’d do well to be more like Mike. … Seems like Charlotte coach Mike Dunlap may have seen enough of Tyrus Thomas already. The coach is talking about playing rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist some at power forward. … The Wizards did a fan team event at Six Flags amusement park and most players decided to take roller coaster rides. Likely symbolism for the season ahead with John Wall and Nene hurt.

NBA news and notes

-- Quentin Richardson was a heck of a college player at DePaul, one of the nation’s leading rebounders despite being about 6-5. But he made himself a heck of a three-point shooter, leading the league one season and averaging about 10 points in 12 seasons. But in being released by the Magic last week, that could be the end for Richardson, who has had back problems for years. It’s also likely it for Adam Morrison, once the No. 3 overall draft pick and college shooting star from Gonzaga, who was released by the Trail Blazers. … Tim Duncan praised Eddy Curry’s camp, calling his release “situational.” Curry was picked up by the Mavs and should stick after getting 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in his first game with Dallas. With Chris Kaman and Elton Brand listed as Mavs centers, Eddy could play often. Curry shot 64 percent in the preseason. Vince Carter has been playing power forward in preseason with the injuries. … The Trail Blazers are going with LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson in the so called front court. But even if they are extinct for the All-Star game, you need them. Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors pounded those two to close the preseason with a win. So size may matter if you don’t have LeBron James. … From the Salt Lake Tribune’s Kurt Kragthorpe on Kanter, who shoots better than Favors and has been alternating and playing some power forward with Favors at center: "His performance has been reassuring after he came into training camp facing more questions about his social media exploits than his basketball preparation. Instead of becoming another clown in the Kyrylo Fesenko tradition, Kanter has shown he's serious about improving."… The Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, averaging 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in 26 minutes preseason has teammates saying he’s a different player. … The Kings’ John Salmons left the team for personal reasons and coach Keith Smart said he’ll have to play his way back into the rotation.

-- The big news in the NBA last week—until a trade—was the announcement commissioner David Stern will retire, though in 2014 in his 30th anniversary as commissioner. There’s always much controversy regarding commissioners, and Stern drew his share with lockouts, odd suggestions like changing the ball and the dress. There was a phony betting supposed scandal and that brawl in the stands. And there was the bullying some said Stern employed to make his points. And, look, it’s not like the NBA was going to be hockey with Michael Jordan and the Bulls championships following the Celtics and Lakers. The league was going to take off. But what truly is different—and special—about Stern is the diversity he ushered in for the NBA that makes it the best workplace in America. Race is irrelevant for opportunity and advancement. No other sport supports the womens’ game like the NBA. Or female officials. Or female executives to the level of the NBA. Racial diversity is so ensconced it may be the only place in America it never becomes an issue. Stern did more to create a workplace environment where you can be proud to be than perhaps any business in the U.S. In this divisive, polarized national era I can’t be more proud than to say I’m involved with the NBA. And much of that is thanks to David Stern. Who also has happily has kept Warren Commission conspiracy buffs in business as well.

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