Should James Harden start?

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Now that training camp has officially begun for the Thunder, it is only natural that we would all immediately jump into our coaching armchairs and start getting down to the nitty gritty aspects of what decisions could make the most impact on the coming year. You know, the calculations and determinations that sparked rich debate last year and will undoubtedly spark even more debate before the tip-off of the 2011-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder season, especially the biggest powder keg of them all…

Can Royal Ivey raise his bench celebrations to the level of Nate Robinson’s All-Star machinations?

Okay, so maybe I’m the only one that thinks this could be a serious factor for the Thunder’s success this year, so let’s just hammer out if James Harden should start over Thabo Sefolosha.

Yes. Yes, he should.

But since I know you’re going to want some kind of reasoning behind such a quick and concise answer, let’s dive into why the most important statistics (in my opinion) absolutely leave no doubt whatsoever that James Harden has to, surely, for the love of all that is holy, start for the Thunder this season.

Now before we just leap headfirst into this, I’d like to point out that I understand the two most popular arguments for why Thabo should stay in the starting lineup: Continuity with the shortened training camp and crammed schedule, and, the second unit/bench needs some scoring punch and someone to run the offense through.

Like I said, I understand those perspectives 100%. I just don’t agree with them at all.

First off, continuity would really only be an issue if A) Harden was not entering his third year with the team and had never, ever started a game or played with the other four starters, and B) There were significant changes in offensive scheme (ha!) or additions to the roster. Since neither of those two factors come into play AT ALL, I feel safe in saying that the Thunder’s continuity should face no real danger by moving Harden into the starting lineup.

Secondly, and the argument that seems to grip more individuals and gain traction, is that the Thunder need some scoring punch when the second unit is on the floor. Obviously, I agree with that, just like I agree that the sun is bright and water is wet. What I don’t agree with is that the inclusion of James Harden in the starting lineup equals the second unit having absolutely no scorer on the floor with them or any individual to run the offense through during that time span (end of first quarter into middle of second quarter), but we’ll touch on that a bit later.

To kick start this all off, let’s take a look at how the five-man units with the two potential starting SG’s did last year for the Thunder, focusing primarily on the statistics that I feel are most important to a starting unit: minutes played together, the unit’s offensive points scored per possession, defensive points allowed per possession, and winning percentage (big thanks to 82games.com).

Unit

Min

Off

Def

Win%

 Westbrook-Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins

270.7

1.05

0.99

56.2

 Westbrook-Harden-Durant-Ibaka-Perkins

90.0

1.12 

1.02

61.5

This look into the value of Harden and Thabo playing with the other starters speaks volumes (small sample sizes aside, especially the minutes part, which kind of makes me hurt inside that Harden only got 90 minutes with the starters) about the gap that has developed between Harden and Thabo regarding their overall impact while on the floor for the Thunder (and it becomes even more concrete when you look at them without the lens of the starting unit, which we’ll get to in a few paragraphs).

The only real argument for keeping Sefolosha in the starting unit based on what he brings to the unit is his value as a defensive stopper. However these statistics show that his value is literally only half as valuable as a defensive stopper for the team as Harden’s value is to the Thunder as a scorer, since the Thunder only give up .03 points less with Thabo on the floor than when Harden is on, yet they score more than twice that at .07 more points with Harden on the floor than with Thabo.

And not only that, but if you calculate the +/- differential of points scored minus points allowed, Thabo gives the Thunder a net positive of .06 when paired with the other starters, whereas Harden gives them a full 10% (.10) net positive.

But maybe Thabo contributes more overall as an individual when it comes to +/- than this five-man unit graph is showing, because since Thabo has been selected to the All-NBA Defense Second Team, surely his defensive stopping ability is comparable to Harden’s offensive ability overall. I mean, it’s not like Harden’s defensive ability is closer to Thabo’s than Thabo’s offensive ability is light years behind Harden’s, right? I mean there’s just no way that there can be that big of a difference between them in net points scored/allowed, right?

Player

Min

+/-

Net48

Harden

54%

+205

+4.5

Sefolosha

51%

+102 

+2.4

Oh. I feel like I should look away, but I…can’t…help myself.

What was beyond clear in the second half of last year, that Harden’s defense has in fact caught up very much so to Thabo’s while Thabo’s offense is still LIGHT YEARS behind Harden’s in all respects, is absolutely crystal clear given the +/- statistics presented.

That’s why Harden has DOUBLE the positive +/- Thabo has, that’s why Harden brings a +4.5 points per 48 minutes to Thabo’s +2.4. And I’m sorry, don’t you think someone who posts nearly twice the differential that the incumbent starter is putting up should get a heck of a lot more minutes than a measly .03 percent more? [quote]

3% more minutes?!  It’s things like this that make so many DT commenters argue about Scott Brooks, but don’t worry, we’re not going to go there because it won’t be necessary. Because now that we have seen just how unbelievably more valuable to the Thunder James Harden’s minutes and time with the starters are compared to Thabo’s (again, I think Thabo has value to this franchise, just, you know, about half as much as Harden does unless extremely specific situations present themselves), let’s talk about how the substitution pattern can make it unbelievably easy for the Thunder to always have a scorer and offensive linchpin on the floor at all times with James Harden starting.

Royce touched upon this topic here and made some excellent points, but I’m going to disagree with him in the idea that minutes will be/should be cut down for Durant, Westbrook and Harden. The main reason being that I’m personally upset with Royce on many levels (just kidding), the actual reasons are that I don’t think that trio is going to allow Brooks to cut their minutes that much and will be harping in his ear as often as possible to get back into the game, but also because I believe their young legs and the Thunder’s playing style/offensive “scheme” requires those three to all average a high number of minutes a game if they want to be successful and win games.

For the purpose of this substitution pattern and the regular season (and based off of last season’s minutes), we’ll go with 36 minutes for Westbrook, 36 minutes for Harden (yes, finally!) and 39 minutes for Durant. So remember that, because this becomes an absolutely critical component when this point comes up:

“But what will happen to our bench without Harden? No one else who can score plays with the second unit…”

Um, it’s at this point that I really feel like individuals are just intentionally trying to get me to have some kind of meltdown where that giant vein in my forehead finally bursts because it just can’t take any more.

The second unit happens to start the game (in the second quarter) playing with the best scorer in the ENTIRE league. His name is Kevin Durant. I don’t know how this fact gets overlooked in nearly every single debate I’ve ever seen on this, but it does, and I think I’m going to have to go take some Tylenol before I get worked up again…

Okay, that’s better.

It’s the presence of Kevin Durant alongside the bench players that pretty much proves the entire point that the second unit will/can have a scoring punch even if James Harden starts. How so?

Because any coach with half a brain (and let’s be honest, that’s not always the case in the NBA) with even a rudimentary knowledge of basketball knows that you stagger your substitutions to ensure that your 5 man unit on the floor is as balanced as possible on offense and defense, unless you are intentionally exploiting a weakness on the other team (for example, you go small ball to utilize a clear speed and shooting advantage that you have over a slower, lumbering team).

So therefore, it’s to be expected that if Harden starts, he’ll be averaging a heck of a lot more minutes than he did previously (and mercifully, Thabo will be getting a lot less…still love you, Thabo). Thus if Harden, Westbrook and Durant are all at least averaging 36, 36, and 39 minutes a game, that means that for an entire game the Thunder coaching staff only have to manage the substitions in such a way as to make sure that at least one of those three are on the court for a minuscule 12 minute (NBA games are 48 minutes) time gap (a 9 minute gap for Durant).

So, just for funsies, let’s give this a try:

3:00 mark in the first quarter, Harden sits, Thabo comes in. (Westbrook and Durant on the floor)

Start of second quarter, Westbrook sits, Maynor in. (Durant on the floor)

9:00 mark of the second quarter Durant sits, Harden in, Thabo shifts to SF or gets subbed out for Daequan Cook (Harden on the floor)

6:00 mark of second quarter, Westbrook in, Maynor out (Harden and Westbrook on the floor)

4:30 mark of second quarter, Durant in, Thabo/Daequan out (Harden, Westbrook, Durant on the floor)

Rinse and repeat in the second half.

 

All right, that seemed simple enough, but what did the minutes per game equal out to? Well, that substitution pattern gave 18 minutes of playing time in the first half to Harden and Westbrook, and 19.5 minutes to Durant, which totals out to a nice and neat 36 mpg for Harden and Westbrook, and 39 minutes per game for Durant, if you double it (two halves to an NBA game, after all).

What can not be overlooked, though, is the fact that not only is one of the best three offensive threats for the Thunder on the floor at all times, but two of the three are on the court for all but six minutes a half, twelve minutes a game! That sure seems like an awful lot of offensive scoring punch over a 48 minute time-span to me.

And Thabo still gets around 15-16 mpg (which is where a somewhat one-dimensional specialist should really be in terms of minutes), but maybe a bit more if Daequan isn’t hitting.

It’s this reality, that a simple and uncomplicated substitution pattern is all that is required for the Thunder to have an offensive punch on the floor at all times during a game, that leads me to the belief that there can only really be one argument made as to why Thabo Sefolosha should continue starting over James Harden. And it’s one that is not based on statistical value, overall impact, or any measurable basketball-related factor. But boy is it a popular one.

Change is scary.

And I agree with that. Changing what has worked, what has brought you to the Conference Finals, changing what you know and are comfortable with, is scary. But there’s something even more terrifying than changing what has brought you to a great level of success and achievement.

Not doing something that could push you beyond where you have been, to the place that you can go, to the very pinnacle of all that you have dared dream to achieve, because you were scared.

So unleash the beard. Give Westbrook the complimentary skill-set that made the Thunder draft Harden in the first place, and let’s not let the fear of the unknown, or the terror of trying something different, hold OKC back from becoming what their talent, hard work and dedication dictates that they can be…

Champions.

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