The Truth Behind The James Harden Trade
Senior NBA Writer & College Basketball Editor
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The Oklahoma City Thunder had a quiet offseason, opting to mainly stand pat after losing to the Miami HEAT in the NBA Finals. It looked like they were going to rely on internal development to help them get to the next level this season, but then an extension could not be worked out with James Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and they shocked the entire basketball world by sending him to the Houston Rockets along with Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick.
There weren’t any rumors or talk about this deal at all. It just happened and before we knew it, the last Saturday night before the regular season produced a blockbuster trade that changed the Thunder, Rockets and the entire landscape of the Western Conference. The blindsided nature of the deal has created a lot of questions. Here’s a look at the truths behind the trade:
The Thunder did not want to trade James Harden
The deal that occurred Saturday night was not Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s master plan all along. He maintained all offseason that their intention was to extend Harden, as they did starting power forward Serge Ibaka earlier in the summer. Their offer of $55 million over four years clearly indicates that they valued Harden and wanted to keep him. While it is short of the max, sources with knowledge of the negotiations say there were incentives that, if reached, would have basically made him a max player.
When Harden refused their final offer, the Thunder looked at the reality of what would have followed: A season with a serious distraction as they try to capitalize on their championship window being open.
Harden’s contract situation had already dominated headlines. He admitted it was a burden and something that weighed heavily on his mind. That’s despite assumptions that the two sides would find middle ground. Had they moved forward, the talk about Harden’s impending free agency would have trumped what the Thunder did on the court as a team on most nights.
Offering Harden the max would have forced the Thunder to let go of pieces they wanted to keep
A lot of people are looking at the $4.5 million that kept the Thunder and Harden from staying together and asking why not just pay it? On the surface, it seems like it’s a reasonable price to pay for a championship-contending team to stay together. However, the Thunder is staying away from the luxury tax and giving Harden the money he and his camp were looking for would have required them to make two moves.
The first would have been letting go of point guard Eric Maynor this offseason. Maynor, who missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL, is someone who they expect to play a vital role for them this season and beyond. They really missed him and his playmaking ability last year. His steadiness behind starting point guard Russell Westbrook helps anchor the second unit and give them an added playmaker when needed. While his contributions may not be properly appreciated by the masses, the Thunder know how much he helps them and want to keep him.
The second was amnestying center Kendrick Perkins, which seems to be the popular suggestion by many. Perkins did not have a strong showing in the NBA Finals, largely in part to injury, and while choosing Harden over him seems like a no brainer, it’s not that simple. Explosive shooting guards like Harden are not hard to find in today’s day and age. Centers like Perkins who are elite defensively and have championship experience are. Perkins may not fill the stat sheet like Harden does, but he’s one of the captains of the Thunder’s defense and someone who has taken over a leadership role. He’s won a championship himself and has helped the Thunder in more ways than most realize. The professionalism and toughness he brings is not something the Thunder want to do without or feel they could easily replace.
Houston offered a deal they couldn’t refuse
The Rockets were desperate to cash in the assets they accumulated in their quest to land All-Star center Dwight Howard, though. Unlike the Thunder, they are in a position to offer Harden the max and have no hesitancy to do so in the situation they are in. The Rockets can offer him a fifth year via the designated player provision, which the Thunder had already used on Westbrook. Harden, whose stock is peaked right now, couldn’t pass on the opportunity to earn another $15-20 million.
Harden, as good as he has been for the Thunder, has only started seven games in his career and they simply couldn’t give him the money he was demanding.
With that in mind and the path they headed towards without a deal, the Thunder couldn’t pass on Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. One of the first-round picks is from the Toronto Raptors, which the Rockets acquired in exchange for Kyle Lowry, and has protections that guarantees it’s a lottery pick, possibly as high as number two overall.
Martin has averaged 18 points a game in his career and has been yearning to be in a situation like the one the Thunder present. He will be a free agent at the end of the season, but that will not be a distraction at all. He’s motivated and will be rejuvenated by the chance to compete for a championship for the first time in his career. Playing for a contract does add fuel to his fire, but it’s not something he or the Thunder will worry about until the end of the season. In the worst case scenario, his contract becomes currency that the Thunder can either move at the deadline or let expire and turn into savings and added flexibility.
Lamb is a lottery pick full of immense potential. The Thunder already had a rookie they loved in Perry Jones III. Jones has exceeded expectations so far. Lamb gives them another promising young player who could develop into someone who helps them keep their championship window open and even help this season.
Also as a result of this trade, the Thunder have two open roster spots.
Presti has always incorporated much of what he learned during his time with the San Antonio Spurs in his moves as the general manager of the Thunder. One of the keys to the Spurs’ success has been acting with the future in mind just as much as the present. They don’t overpay what they see as fit, instead they replace when what they offer isn’t enough.
Presti wanted to keep Harden long-term, but when it was clear he couldn’t do that without limiting the team moving forward, he swiftly acted in a manner that could pay off more so than keeping Harden.
Martin and Lamb will have to learn on the fly and adjust quickly to the Thunder’s style of play. Chemistry was one of the team’s strengths, but this is a business and the Thunder did what they had to do without suffering a drop off in talent.