For those whose infatuation with the Thunder runs the deepest, the people who spend their money and time on games, jerseys, concessions and the long string of late weeknights for playoff games, the pleasure of watching the team rise and sense of participation in the local market has been nothing short of intoxicating. There are few other words to describe how people in Oklahoma City and elsewhere who have followed the Thunder for years, fiercely loyal to the likeable and precocious stars of a budding team, felt as expectations continued to be exceeded.
The basketball implications of the trade will take years to play out. But for those people with racks of blue shirts in their closets and season ticket packages, already paid for, sitting on their kitchen counters, the need to know the answer to one question is far more immediate. What message is the Thunder sending by trading James Harden?
It boils down to this. Fans should be willing to give the Thunder time before passing judgment if you believe Sam Presti, and by extension the ownership, viewed whatever becomes of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and the package of draft picks as more valuable to the team over the long term as a championship contender than paying Harden. But fans would be justified in criticizing everyone involved immediately, and taking it out on the team by spending their money elsewhere, if the reason the Thunder wouldn’t pay is because someone wouldn’t cut the check.
To be clear, in a free market or even a
rigged controlled free market like the NBA, “value” is determined what someone is willing to pay for something. Harden’s value as an NBA player is roughly an average of $16 million per season over the next five years, because that’s what the Rockets are about to pay him, and presumably what someone else would have paid for him. When you add the assets Houston surrendered for the opportunity to sign him, that’s a lot of value for Harden.
But the difference between Harden’s value and Harden’s presumed worth to the Thunder at his asking price (or what his actual worth will prove to be over the life of his contract) is an important distinction to make. Presti’s job is to think about what the roster looks like this year and in 2017, and everywhere in between. It’s to assess what the value and worth has been for other players around the league, whether it’s what a team gets for trading a star on a contract deadline or what a team is able to do at the end of its roster if you’re paying $70 million per season for four players, whether you’re willing to cut a luxury tax check or not.
So that’s where the key question comes in for a Thunder fan, lying awake in the dark of night contemplating the just-broken Harden trade news (and in a double funk for the significant portion of Thunder fans who are Sooner fans), wondering if all that “Team is One” stuff really means “unless it gets too expensive,” or deciding to put on the “In Presti We Trust” face and move along.
Let’s look at the two possible realities.
Possible reality No. 1: The Thunder were too cheap to sign Harden.
This is the uncomfortable one for Thunder fans to consider. But to be fair, even though you could judge people harshly for it right now if you knew it to be true, you don’t. Some day, it will come out if it is true. One day a source that is reliable and authoritative enough will get it out there. Sometimes it’s a leak or a series of leaks to reliable reporters. Sometimes it takes a while and happens when someone writes a memoir or gets fired and burns bridges on talk radio or whatever. But if Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon and the other members of the ownership group were too cheap, it will come out.
And it’s not at all unfair to describe it as too cheap. The Thunder are surely profitable now, even if it’s possible or even likely that a fair number of the prime years of the team’s current era could involve an operating loss. But no one should think that alone would make Bennett’s investment an unprofitable one overall. Bennett could sell the franchise today for hundreds of millions of dollars more than he paid for it. It will almost surely be more valuable years down the line, even in a post-Kevin Durant nuclear winter, especially if he was willing to sell to a buyer intent on moving the team to a bigger market.
So shame on the Thunder if it’s all about a commitment to operating profit, even at the expense of championship contention, and the perhaps 10 percent difference between what they were prepared to offer Harden and what Harden was willing to sign for was a bridge too far for the team financially. Of course that money would be multiplied in tax penalties. But it’s still the kind of money that would be returned several times over someday when Bennett sells the team, or even uses the team’s established market value to entice new investors. It would clearly be a case of rich guys being able to reap fewer millions from their flashiest investment.
But that’s not the only way to look at it. It might not be that way.
Possible reality No. 2: Clay Bennett was willing to pay. It was Sam Presti who wasn’t.
This is the potential reason to why Harden is no longer in Oklahoma City that should leave a Thunder fan only sad about the absence of a favorite player, but not despondent and feeling betrayed by a cruel and greedy system. This allows you to put on a brave face.
It’s also hard to swallow. It involves faith, and a lot of it. Back to the whole “In Presti We Trust” thing. Because, damn. James Harden is a hell of a basketball player, and a lot of those moments that had us jumping off of our couches in May and June involved Harden’s dunks, passes, drives and jump shots. And he was a true member of Thunder U, from his locker room fit to his blossoming-in-front-of-our-eyes progression, style and spectacular athletic plays.. Children, basketball junkies, the girls in the arena with the pink jerseys with shiny stuff on them, the grandmas, casual fans — everyone who liked the Thunder liked James Harden. And now he plays in Houston.
But if this is what’s really going on here, the only move as a soul-searching Thunder fan is to hang on for the ride. Because an argument can be made that Presti is right, and if you think this is really the reason, and not that ownership is cheap, he deserves the benefit of the doubt for now.
The good news is that, at least so far, a reasonable reading of the tea leaves when examining Presti’s quotes at his news conference Sunday can lead one to believe that’s the real reason why Harden is a Rocket.
Unless I’m mistaken, it was about half an hour into Presti’s news conference before he even mentioned the CBA and its restrictions. But he didn’t even make a direct reference to the luxury tax. He could have been just be speaking of the limitations teams have to offer their players as much money as their market worth in cases like Harden’s, and the limitations at the end of the roster for a team with so much money tied up with a few players. Maybe Presti ultimately thought $60 million worth of Harden on a roster structured like the Thunder’s did not have as much worth going forward as what potential trade packages represented in other players, draft picks and flexibility.
Just read Presti’s quotes from the news conference. He didn’t repeatedly lament the realities of the CBA. He just said they couldn’t find common ground. That’s a big difference. “You have to do the right thing for the program,” he told reporters late in his media session, summing it up.
Some people will insist right away that trading Harden now, and messing with a contender in general, is a bad move no matter what. They may be proven right over time. But it’s just impossible to know.
The basketball implications have yet to unfold. Harden has made his living playing against second stringers until the fourth quarter, when he finally shares the floor with Durant and Russell Westbrook. What’s going to happen when he’s out there with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as his primary sidekicks, with the best wing defender instead of the third-best wing defender locked onto him? What’s going to happen when Kevin Martin has to defend someone important in a key spot in the playoffs? Is Jeremy Lamb going to pan out?
The closest parallel I can think of in recent NBA history is a mixed one for both parties. Joe Johnson was a key member of the early Steve Nash era Suns teams. When he left, he became the star of a very good team. The Suns remained contenders, and had a higher ceiling than Johnson’s Hawks, but never made it over the top. What makes it even more potentially devastating for the Thunder is that OKC, with Harden, already made it farther than Nash and the Suns ever did, with or without Johnson. But the Suns remained viable contenders.
Years later, it’s also clear Johnson, a fabulously wealthy perennial All-Star and fantastic basketball player, could lead a team to about a No. 4 seed and that’s it. He would have absolutely had more success from a team basketball standpoint had he stayed in Phoenix and made about half what he has made now. The Suns would also have had more success. But Johnson proved he’s in that tier of basketball stars that are just one tiny, but critical, step below the truly elite. They are better than 99.998 percent of the basketball players they play against. But that’s just not quite enough to get to that last level and be the team standing under the confetti in June.
Look at the list of NBA Finals MVPs since, say, 1990. Isiah Thomas. Michael Jordan. Hakeem Olajuwon. Tim Duncan. Shaquille O’Neal. Chauncey Billups. Dwyane Wade. Tony Parker. Paul Pierce. Kobe Bryant. Dirk Nowitzki. LeBron James. With the exception of Billups, and maybe Parker, every single one of those guys is going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Billups was on the only team in generations to win an NBA title without one true star that was, at the time, one of the top three players in basketball. Durant is good enough already to know he probably belongs on that list. Harden?
There’s no shame in not being one of those players. But the Thunder already has one. When you’re talking about a truly invaluable asset, you’re talking about a player of that caliber. As much as Harden is an unbelievably talented basketball player, a good fit for the current roster and more, is he really capable of being on that list someday? Or will Houston be able to find someone who is capable of it and get him on the roster? That’s the risk Harden and Houston are taking. He believes in himself, and should. We’ll see if he and the team right.
The Thunder’s risk is not nearly as severe. I’m not buying the talk that the Thunder are immediately worse off as a title contender in the short term, and especially the long term. A contending core is still there. There is now the flexibility to find parts that can, as a sum, have greater contributions to the team than Harden, even in the short term. It might work. It might not. But the potential for it to work is there. It will just take time to bear out.
One thing I do buy, however, is the small ball movement. And though the Thunder were certainly well-prepared with Harden to be a force if small ball and positionless basketball continues its explosion, the Thunder remain well-prepared. The Heat’s success is predicated upon having LeBron James, the most positionless player in the NBA because of his combination of physical dominance and skill. The Thunder have a completely different player in Durant, but he also happens to be the guy who probably poses the second-most problems in a small lineup after James. And the Thunder, even after this trade, can go even deeper with flexible and athletic lineups, and have the current potential to keep doing so for longer.
Armed with Lamb, Perry Jones III, the Raptors’ draft pick next year, the other valuable -picks included in the trade and guys like Reggie Jackson and Hasheem Thabeet, the Thunder have been able to somehow lock up some primary stars while keeping a stable of low-risk, high-reward young and affordable players. That’s hard to do. As John Hollinger was the first I saw to point out, the Thunder were arguably able to get more than the Magic got for Dwight Howard, and there were already assets in place. In a completely different situation, look at the Lakers. They don’t have one guy with as much upside as any one of those guys (unless you don’t believe in Thabeet at all). The Thunder have several. And when you have that many, you don’t have to hit on them all. You can afford the swings and misses.
Then the Harden trade scenario will happen again. Say two of those guys, pick any two, develop into the kind of player who can command a $40 million salary as a restricted free agent. To be able to get to that point, they’d have to perform pretty well. Which bodes well for the Thunder. And then when those guys, like Harden, come off their rookie deals, the Thunder will have to pay or spin them off. They’ll have to keep investing one way or another — by paying a player or two what they wouldn’t pay Harden, or by being able to trade an up and coming player for talent and flexibility every few years.
And that’s the kind of thing that has to happen over the next several seasons for Thunder fans to be able to come to terms with what happened this weekend. This has to be a trade that doesn’t mark a new beginning as just another penny pinching small market pseudo contender, but really one that’s just another milestone in a continuing series of moves designed to create a sustainable contender.
The hard part is that it will take time for it all to sort out. For now, this is essentially a fan base in mourning. And rightfully so, because Harden played hard, played smart and brought joy to people in our community as part of something that has become part of the local identity. The new reality, whatever it is, will take some getting used to.