It came as somewhat of a shock to many on Sunday. Oklahoma City, last year’s runner up and this year’s high hope trading their reigning Sixth Man of The Year and ultimate play maker off the bench. There were predictions of a trade involving said Sixth Man, but few saw it unfolding as dramatically as it did. In the dwindling hours of Sunday afternoon, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! sports broke the news of a trade that could ultimately change the course of the Western Conference and indeed the NBA as a whole. Fans, teams, officials and players have been left to ponder a decision which may impact the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Championship hopes for at least this year. Here, we take a look at the trade which has seen ‘The Beard’ himself, James Harden accept an offer to join Jeremy Lin at the Houston Rockets, and leave a title hopeful Thunder in his wake.
23 years old, exceptionally gifted and undoubtedly one of the most popular players in the league, James Harden has had an enormous impact since being drafted by OKC in 2009. His accolades speak volumes for not only his style of play but also of his character and ability to mold himself into the quality player we have seen over the past year or two. Playing alongside Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has helped Harden become accustomed to a winning culture. He has proven that through consistently sound, and solid performances, even a player off the bench is capable of taking over games and being the difference between winning and losing. Last year, Harden averaged just under 32 minutes a game for the Thunder giving him as much time as most of the team’s starting lineup and averaged 16.8 points per game (a 4.6 point increase on the previous year). Not only that, Harden is also deadly from three point range, a monster in clutch and terrifying when penetrating the defense. For the Thunder, Harden was one of the biggest reasons they were so successful in season 2011/12.
So, all things considered why did this talented, chemistry-rich team trade the lynchpin that made them the favorites to take the West over the L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs? What are the reasons behind a move that makes people question their ability to beat other teams in a loaded Western Conference and, if it happens, a back-to-back chasing Miami Heat in the finals? Thunder fans need not disgrace Harden, or condemn their team for the decision they’ve made as both are investing in their future, but the unfortunate side of this deal is that it revolves around money, and not around the desire for a Championship. Truth hurts don’t it?
The fact is Oklahoma City were in a state of financial difficulty, with money tied up in their star players Kevin Durant, Russ Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins whilst also offering Serge Ibaka a 4-year, $48M extension leaving little to no room for Harden. The Thunder’s luxury tax would have been around the $4M mark had they offered him the desired $60M. Whispers around the league during free agency were that Harden would be traded but most expected the Thunder to re-sign their man, and up until Sunday that was still the theory. But for Sam Presti and co., staring down the barrel of financial disparity was an overwhelmingly big hurdle to cross.
Meanwhile Harden, still on a rookie contract, was searching for his first big deal which would ensure him a legitimate and high earning salary. The desired figure expressed by his agent Rob Pelinka? $60 million over 4 years. A very high price to pay for a role player coming off the bench, big minutes aside. Evidently, OKC wanted to keep Harden and offered a slightly less but affordable $54 Million over 4 years. For those who can’t be bothered doing the math, that is only $1.5 million (assuming a $60/4Y deal is reached with Houston) more per year to join a small market team which, let’s be honest, aren’t going to contend for a title any time soon. Doesn’t make an awful lot of sense until you mention the role Harden will play in Houston. He’ll be a starting shooting guard in a back court that also boasts Jeremy Lin and has the opportunity to become the Rockets franchise player. He can be the star in Houston. It’s also important to remember the situation Sam Presti and the Thunder were in financially and Harden may have thought he was calling their bluff, but in the end, he wasn’t.
For the Thunder, who received a scorer in Kevin Martin as well as Jeremy Lamb and some picks in the trade, this yields an interesting situation. On face value, it’s hard to view them as the threat they were two days ago when it comes to the West. The Lakers are now primed to overrun the Thunder as favorites to take out the conference. Harden was a huge factor in the their defeat of the Lakers last season and this fact will be exemplified come playoffs. At the culmination of the regular season however, the Thunder will still boast the best record in the West. They are still younger and faster than the Lakers who will rest their aging stars in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash often while also concentrating on Dwight Howard’s health throughout the season giving the young Thunder a good shot at holding top spot. But as playoffs role around, experience will win out. The Lakers are deservedly the favorites in the West now, but not by as much as people think.
How Kevin Martin fits in as OKC’s 2 guard/forward off the bench remains to be seen. Martin is an exceptional perimeter scorer with the ability to roll off the screen and knock down shots, but isn’t anything close to what Harden is on the dribble or in the paint and defensively he leaves a lot to be desired. He’s not going to be the impact player, or a highlight reel like Harden was, but rest assured he’ll register his fair share of buckets. The Thunder also benefit from 2 future first round picks that will inevitably become the main perk of the trade.
For the Rockets, the injection of Harden into the lineup gives them that edge they need to fully utilize Jeremy Lin. They should be happy. They wanted a star and they have one now in Harden. They took a shot at both Dwight Howard and Deron Williams by clearing cap space through shipping Kyle Lowry and Lois Scola but neither came to fruition and left the team in need of a scorer. Harden no doubt fills this role as a starter alongside Lin but will he prove as effective as he did with OKC? No telling yet, but Houston definitely believe so.
When all is said and done, the old adage that ‘this is the NBA and this is business’ does have to be remembered. This league will forever revolve around financial decisions that may or may not impact teams and this is exactly what has unfolded in the case of Oklahoma City and James Harden. I personally believe that James Harden moving to Houston to pursue what he sees as happiness is the most important thing of all and at the end of the day, no one can criticize him for that but it does beg the question, do players choose Championships over financial well being, or is the call of big money just too tempting? It’s hard to tell, but one thing is certain. No one in the NBA should be considered safe, and every one should be considered fair game. Enjoy Houston, James. We wish you all the best.