On Saturday night, the NBA world was rocked by news that the Oklahoma City Thunder had traded reigning 6th Man of the Year, James Harden, to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. For a team considered one of the three legit contenders for the Larry O’Brien trophy next summer (along with the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers) to ship out their third best player less than a week before the season began, well…it was a surprise to say the least.
Everyone knew that the Thunder and Harden were having difficulty coming to terms on a contract extension. Harden and his agent expected a max deal — because that’s what he would get on the open market. OKC wanted to get a hometown discount after giving max contracts to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as a deal slated to give Serge Ibaka over $12 million a year starting next season. However, neither camp was willing to budge.
So…what to do, what to do?
Many people (myself included) thought that the Thunder would just shelve the contract talks, take a shot this year with the hopes that they could improve upon last year’s results, and then deal with the situation next summer. That seemed to be the easiest solution for a team that was in the Finals last year and had a decent chance to repeat that this season.
Instead, GM Sam Presti decided to get rid of a potential distraction by pulling the trigger on the aforementioned deal.
As many people have already stated, this doesn’t make a lot of sense from a basketball perspective. The Thunder are practically ceding the Western Conference to the newly remodeled Lakers and their All-Star starting five (if they stay healthy — which is another story). Make no mistake about it — this was not a basketball move, it was a financial one.
As Bill Simmons pointed out in his column, the Thunder realized that they couldn’t afford paying four players 8-figure salaries going forward. At least, that’s how they will spin this. They are probably believing that the current Lakers have two seasons at most of being title contenders before Nash and Kobe ride off into the sunset. So, they’ll use Kevin Martin as a stop-gap measure and hope that Jeremy Lamb turns into a reasonable replacement they can ride on a rookie-level contract for a few years.
So…were they right or wrong? Only time will tell. They aren’t the first team to have to make this decision. The Grizzlies have made this call more than once. It led to the Pau Gasol trade. It was also the logic behind letting O.J. Mayo walk this summer. We already know how the Gasol move worked out for them.
Basketball vs. Business. Sometimes, you have to make a bad, short-term basketball decision in order to reap long-term financial benefits which can turn into basketball rewards, as well. That appears to be OKC’s process here. Their fans had better hope they don’t just wind up wasting a few years of Kevin Durant’s prime in the meantime.