Daryl Morey and Houston’s Big Freed Three

I can’t remember another NBA moment where a team added three players whose contracts were so openly questioned. Jeremy Lin? A flash in the pan that reflected brighter under those New York lights. Omer Asik? You’re entrusting $25 million to a guy who can’t catch a basketball? Are you an idiot or just stupid? And James Harden, man, I don’t know about him. He just doesn’t strike ya as ya know, a number one guy. An Alpha Dog. The MAN. If he’s your No. 1, you’re never winning anything. You’re seriously going to max out a reserve?

In paying all three, Daryl Morey trusted something quite simple; He trusted what they did. Because, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik were tangibly good when they played. These guys were doing decent work out in public. It was just a matter of someone trusting that public track record. We’re only three games in, but it would appear, at the very least, that Daryl Morey wasn’t a complete fool for going this route.

It would be ironic if stats-conscious Morey found value in ignoring small sample size concerns. Jeremy Lin’s critics fairly cite his too-brief track record, though some of them will ironically harp on Lin’s one Miami game as more meaningful than the body of work. It is difficult to know just how good Jeremy Lin will be, but we would do well to remember that his late winter success was the result of basketball skill, and not some fairy godmother’s wand wave. Just because “Linsanity!” felt magical, doesn’t mean it was magic. This was just a productive collegian, running a mean pick and roll at the next level.

Players like Lin are always battling against another statistical term–confirmation bias. If  a guy goes undrafted, we keep looking for signs that validate the initial assessment. In the other direction, look at how underperforming high draft picks keep finding buyers. Jeff Green has been consistently disappointing in his career so far. The Boston Celtics saw fit to give the 26 year-old a $36 million dollar contract, and he was subsequently hyped by fans and media in the run up to this season. Ask yourself: Does the undrafted version of Jeff Green get this contract or these expectations? Does DeMar DeRozan eventually get $42 million if he fights his way to the NBA through the D-League?

Jeremy Lin also battled a different kind of perception problem. While Lin’s ethnicity brought about a whole lot of positive attention upon his success, it also caused others to jump to some negative conclusions. As I see it, Jeremy’s flaws are, “shaky high dribble, balky jumper.” And yet, I keep hearing and reading about his lack of athleticism. Interesting assumption, that.

In any organization, in any endeavor, people can get locked into a placement. For Lin, that placement was, “Not drafted.” For James Harden, that placement was, “Sixth man.” Ask yourself this: Why was James Harden, and not Russell Westbrook, the sixth man? Westbrook is far more the prototypical bench scorer than Harden. Was there any special reason why the more productive player came off the bench, apart from incumbency?

Make no mistake: James Harden was the more productive player in relatively fewer possessions. This is a different conversation from “better” or “projects to be better eventually.” We’re talking raw efficiency. In his time with the ball, Harden maximized his contribution with three pointers and free throws. Westbrook produced free throws, but he also dominated the rock en route to many turnovers and missed shots.

But James Harden wasn’t specifically battling Russell Westbrook for playing time. He was backing up Thabo Sefolosha, somewhat ludicrously. I wonder what it would have taken for James to ever supplant Thabo in that lineup, considering that Harden, unlike Manu Ginobili, was young and healthy enough to play full games. Granted, Harden got more minutes than Sefolosha, but 31 MPG wasn’t exactly worthy of the production James garnered. The Beard tallied an absurd 66% true shooting mark and a Durant-equivalent .230 win shares per 48 minutes. By all indications, the Thunder planned on keeping up this arrangement in perpetuity.

Then, after Harden was traded to Oklahoma City, various pundits remarked on why he didn’t strike them as “a franchise guy.” They could still be right, but I would like such statements to be backed by tangible assessments, something better than, “he just doesn’t seem like the type.” Explain why James Harden can’t be who he was with Thunder–but with more minutes and more touches. Related, there seems to be this fallacy that an efficiency drop off for promoted players equals an efficiency cliff (credit Aaron McGuire for this observation). Just because a guy might get worse with more responsibility doesn’t mean he’ll get awful. If James Harden plays 39 minutes per night and gives you a .200 win share mark instead of a .230, you still spent that max contract money wisely.

Finally, Omer Asik dealt with the NBA’s strangest perceptual issue: He suffered from anti-defense bias. I swear, it sometimes seems like this league is in a price fixing conspiracy against its defenders. There are these odes to “defense winning championships,” but then Taj Gibson gets a lesser contract than the aforementioned DeMar DeRozan. David Lee gets over $15 million in 2016 and Ronnie Brewer struggles to stay on any one team. Unless you’re a big man with soft hands, good luck getting paid for defensive brilliance.

Asik was a big man, but his hands were made from WD-40-soaked apple jugs. Asik struggles to catch the softest of passes and gets thwarted at the basket more than Yogi Bear. The cherry on top is that .480 on free throws.

He also happens to play the kind of defense that can cripple an entire offense. Mobile, long, and smart, Omer protects the rim while hounding ball-handlers on pick and roll. Since frontcourt D matters disproportionately, this is no small value. When people scoffed at his $25 million contract, I wondered, “Why isn’t defense worth that much money?”

Asik also contributes offensively, but in subtler ways. He’s a nasty (illegal) screener who can set anyone up from anywhere. This doesn’t get talked about often, but mobility helps a screener. For all the touting of Kendrick Perkins’ screen ability, he’s too slow to get certain places. Omer creates space for Harden in a flash. After setting the pick, Asik juts his butt backwards, like Chris Paul, warding off a defender. This walls off Harden’s man as James sprints towards the hoop. Omer Asik can’t catch a ball, but he can play some offense.

To watch Houston flourish would feel like a revolution. Houston’s Big Three is also the NBA’s Freed Three, because basketball orthodoxy imposed glass ceilings on Harden, Lin, and Asik. Then, Daryl Morey broke the glass apart.

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