First, let’s get the details here: The Thunder trade James Harden (WHAT), Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks and a second rounder (via Charlotte). The two first round picks come via Toronto and Dallas, with a top-three protection on the Raptors pick.
Now, let’s talk about this.
Actually, hang on, I still need a minute.
(Huffing into a paper bag.)
Why did the Thunder trade James Harden? Why now? Why not wait? Is this the best they could do? Has this been in the works for a while now? Did Presti have trade Harden launch codes in a briefcase this whole time? What happened?
One thing’s for sure: I was completely, totally, unequivocally wrong about this situation. I felt like I had a good read on it, but nope, not at all. When news broke of the Thunder offering Harden a $52 million, it struck me as nothing but good news. Oklahoma City and Harden were talking, an offer was on the table and if The Beard was truly serious about all the talking of “sacrifice” and staying with the Thunder, then a deal would get done.
At the very worst, a deal wouldn’t get done by Oct. 31, Harden would become a restricted free agent while the Thunder played out the season contending for a title and then revisit it all in the offseason either matching a max offer or signing and trading him then. Or letting him walk. But at the least, it was going to be one more shot with The Beard.
Instead, a haymaker has been thrown at the chemistry and make-up of the roster. Gone is the Sixth Man of the Year. Gone is the guy that scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to beat Dallas in Game 4. Gone is the guy that knocked down the dagger in Game 5 in San Antonio. Gone is that beautiful mass of hair on his face.
There’s good reason for Thunder fans to be blindsided by this. Harden led everyone on. He talked about taking less, about building a dynasty in OKC. Check these quotes:
- From media day: “Oh yeah, yeah. Sacrifice. I think everybody on this team has sacrificed in their own way just for the better of the team. I think that’s why we’re so close. Like I said, I think everything will work itself out eventually.”
- From media day on if he only wanted the max: “No, no. Like I said, I’m not really worried about that.”
- Harden after the Finals: “This team is like a family. Like, we’re really brothers. We hang out most of the time every single day. You won’t find any other team like this. I love it here. This is something special here. A dynasty is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it.”
So you can see why it feels like a gut punch. We took Harden at his word. And in the end, he valued the money over staying with the Thunder and competing for a championship. It’s his choice. It’s his money. His future. He can do what he wants. He just shouldn’t have led everyone on.
The Thunder replace their third banana — and often second and first banana, depending on the time — with a capable and wonderfully efficient scorer in Martin, an intriguing wing in Lamb and the hope of flexibility, cap space and potential lottery picks.
In terms of trading Harden, it’s a good deal. Maybe even a great deal. The Thunder got a whole lot back, stay good in the present and have the chance to reload in the future.
But that doesn’t excuse a) the message it sends and b) the current season. Talk yourself into Kevin Martin all you want (and know that I’m trying really, really hard to myself), but he’s not James Harden. He doesn’t have his creation ability, the skill to play on the ball or off it, the ability to fit seamlessly with Durant and Westbrook and the ability to own a game all on his own while at the same time completely involving everyone.
The Thunder aren’t as good right now as they were yesterday. Are the still a title contender? Can they still beat the Lakers? I think so. Maybe. Possibly. But I’m for sure that they’re worse right now. Also, your new backup center: Hasheem Thabeet. If you were worried about Cole Aldrich, tremble in fear, Thunder fans.
On the message it sends: What Oklahoma City fans are quickly learning is that the business of professional sports is ugly, nasty and deceitful. The Thunder came up to $55.5 million for Harden. A max was roughly $60 million. Yeah, yeah the luxury tax, but if you’re willing to come that far, why not go a little further? Clearly, the sermon Presti has been preaching about “challenges” is serious. The Thunder can’t compete financially with the big boys. They can’t keep their own players. They can’t re-sign a 23-year-old star that’s just coming in to his own and was a key piece on a championship caliber team.
Instead, they had to deal him away to try and spare some money in the future. It makes me wonder: If OKC can’t do that, what does the long-term future hold for this franchise here? If they’re willing to let a player like Harden get away over $4.5 million, does that give you great confidence going forward? Will they spend this new flexibility on free agents or just horde it for “later”? I asked this on Twitter but got roasted for it: If the team were still in Seattle with that big TV market, would Harden have been re-signed?
This is truly the watershed “welcome to the NBA” moment for OKC. The Jeff Green deal was big and wild, but it was also necessary. This wasn’t. This was a business decision, not a roster decision. The Thunder aren’t trying to add a critical piece for a title run. They’re fussing over dollars and cents. If James Harden is expendable, then who isn’t?
(Let me throw out the brief upside of this deal: Martin is an expiring deal, plus the Thunder have two solid first rounders. There will be some flexibility there and a whole lot of options. Plus, Martin’s not a bad player and Lamb could be OK. See, I’m already talking myself into this!)
It feels like a dark day for the organization and professional basketball in Oklahoma City. Again, it’s a nice trade speaking strictly about pieces. And if the Thunder had topped Miami in the Finals last season, I’m not sure I’d care all that much. But I wanted to see THIS team go for it. I wanted to see if this group could get it done. Now, we’ll never know. And there was no reason it couldn’t have happened.
Instead of thinking about this season, Presti tried to think about the next five. That’s always been the Thunder way, but until that banner hangs in OKC, what does it matter? You play for championships and the Thunder had a great shot to grab one this season.
Now? I’m not so sure.
What just happened?