How the Rockets' James Harden trade changed the NBA

Brooklyn Nets v Houston Rockets
Brooklyn Nets v Houston Rockets / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages
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How superstar trades changed after the Rockets James Harden

To fully understand how the James Harden trade changed the NBA trade landscape, we have to understand what a star trade looked like before and after. To do this, I had to make two decisions. The first was to determine what were the star trades, and the next was what lens to view them through. 

In the end, I decided to start in 2017 with the Paul George trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder and go from there. The sample includes Chris Paul (to HOU), Jimmy Butler (to MIN), Kyrie Irving (to BOS), Blake Griffin (to DET), Kawhi Leonard (to TOR), Jimmy Butler (to PHI), Kristaps Porzingis (to DAL), Paul George (to LAC), Russell Westbrook (to HOU), Anthony Davis (to LAL), and Jrue Holiday (to MIL)

The next major trade would be the Rockets trade of James Harden to the Rockets, which was followed by Rudy Gobert (to MIN), Dejount Murray (to ATL), and Donovan Mitchell (to CLE)

There are a few omissions, such as the Mike Conley (to UTA), Domantas Sabonis (SAC), CJ McCollum (to NOP), Chris Paul (to PHX), and James Harden (to PHI) trades, but Conley, Sabonis, and McCollum feel a step below the others in terms of production, Paul was well beyond his prime and the second Harden trade was an incredibly unique situation. I also wouldn’t fault anyone for removing Porzingis from the sample, but he was viewed as a future superstar at the time of the trade. 

Now that we know what trades were working with, we need a system to evaluate the trades. Because unprotected first-round picks have become all the rage, I decided to look at how many and how protected the outgoing picks were in each trade. 

In the end, I came up with Total Protection Score (TPS), which values picks and swaps like this: +1 for an unprotected first, +0.5 for an unprotected swap, +0.75 for top-10 protection, +0.5 for top-15 protection, and +0.25 for anything after top-15 protection. The higher the TPS, the more picks and the more unprotected the picks are. In the future, I hope to refine the scoring system, but right now, it’ll give us plenty to work with. On to the data. 

Grading the Rockets return for Harden. dark. Related

TPS Scores for Star Trades since 2017

The data clearly shows that star trades have seen a massive jump in TPS. The James Harden trade (5.0) is the second-highest trade in terms of TPS behind the Paul George (5.5) trade to the Clippers. While it would be fair to say that the Paul George and Anthony Davis (4.0) trades started the unprotected first frenzy, both of those trades were far more similar to your traditional star trade. 

Davis landed the Pelicans for three unprotected firsts and two swaps, but also Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart. The haul the Pelicans received for Davis is probably the largest trade haul in recent history, and it’s no secret why. Davis was a top-ten player still in his early prime. Players of his caliber and age are rarely available. 

The Paul George trade was also unique in that it was essentially a double-superstar trade. According to reports, Kawhi Leonard would only sign with the Clippers if they also traded for George and was prepared to sign with the crosstown Lakers if the Clippers weren’t willing to pull the trigger. The Clippers, in essence, were trading for both George and Kawhi, and they also sent the Thunder Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a fantastic up-and-coming player, and Danilo Gallinari, who was coming off a career-high 19.8 points per game and a top-15 offensive box plus/minus. 

The Harden trade was for a superstar and didn’t even net the Rockets a single player of the caliber of Josh Hart (with respect to Victor Oladipo, who hasn’t been the same since a quad tendon injury). 

While the Harden trade ushered in the era of prioritizing TPS in star trades, its influence is even more pronounced when you look at the quality of player that has been on the move. 

3-Season peak VORP prior to trade

I chose the peak value over replacement player (VORP) from the three seasons prior to the star being traded. I considered using the three-season average but didn’t want to penalize a player for missing time or having a breakout. 

What’s quite clear is that the quality of player being traded has actually been in steady decline, and all three of the players traded this offseason are far below many of their predecessors. In theory, a player’s talent should dictate their trade haul, and they largely do, but what teams want in return has changed dramatically. 

Now to compare VORP to TPS to see just how different the NBA star trade market has become since the James Harden trade. 

The James Harden trade doesn’t grade out quite as well here, but there’s a simple reason for that. Harden had the best peak VORP (9.3), and teams, by rule, can only trade so many of their own picks. However, the trend is crystal clear. Players have gotten more expensive in terms of TPS at a rapid rate. 

To put some numbers, and not just trend lines to it all, before the Harden trade, the average TPS score was 1.69 with an average peak VORP season of 5.55. After, the average TPS score ballooned to 3.58, but the peak VORP score dropped to 3.93. The desire for unprotected picks has skyrocketed in the wake of the Rockets’ James Harden trade.