The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the basketball world last night pulling off a blockbuster trade that sent James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks.
With just days before the start of the season in which the Thunder will look to defend their Western Conference title, they traded away their third best player who was the Sixth Man of the Year last season, made the U.S. Olympic team and is only 23 years old.
The Thunder had until Oct. 31 to reach a deal with Harden on a contract extension otherwise he would become a restricted free agent after the season. Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to cash in now while he still could upon realizing the two sides could not come to an agreement.
People will look at Harden and say he only cares about the money. If he would have accepted less to stay in OKC, the Thunder would have been competing for titles for years to come. The final offer Harden turned down from the Thunder was a 4-year, $54 million extension. The max the Thunder could have offered him would have been $60 million and that’s likely what Harden would have gotten next summer from another team if he became a restricted free agent.
It would have come out to about $2 million per year less for Harden had he chosen to stay with the Thunder. But Harden and his agent also had knowledge that if traded before Oct. 31, he could sign a deal for five years instead of four. And that’s what he is going to get from Houston who is now prepared to offer him a max contract extension worth around $80 million.
That’s why Presti pulled the trigger on the trade now rather than waiting until the trade deadline or after the season. He was able to maximize Harden’s trade value by sending him to a team that could offer him a contract for five years instead of four. It’s a risk in the sense that now we will never know what could have been with a Thunder team this season that still had Harden. But it’s definitely not all bad for the Thunder.
Martin is a downgrade from Harden but not as big of one as you might think. Martin has always been one of the most efficient scorers in the league just like Harden is. Martin averaged 23.7 points per game for the Kings in the 2007-08 season and then 24.6 points per game the next year. He is a career 37.7 percent 3-point shooter and 86.5 percent free throw shooter. He is also very adept at getting to the line like Harden averaging 7.6 free throw attempts per game over his career, including 10.3 per game in the 2009-10 season.
Last year, Martin averaged 17.1 points per game in 40 games with the Rockets. He had a rough season struggling from the field shooting 41.3 percent, his lowest mark since his rookie season. But the season before that Martin averaged 23.5 points per game and shot 38.3 percent from three. Martin is ecstatic about the trade too and finally getting the chance to play for a winning team.
“Oh my gosh!” Martin told Yahoo! Sports. “Feels like a dream. Sometimes words can’t describe it.”
Martin may end up being just a rental this season if the Thunder do not trade him. It is unlikely they will be willing to dish out any kind of money that Martin will demand in free agency next summer. So in line after him will be the rookie Lamb.
Lamb slid to No. 12 in the 2012 Draft to Houston but could have gone much higher. In a weaker draft, he may have been a top three pick. In this one, he had a chance to go top eight up until the day of the draft. He is a real talent with a ton of upside and has been described as a blend between Thabo Sefolosha and Harden, a player that might fit better than either down the road in OKC alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The best part though is that he is just starting his rookie contract.
The Thunder also got three draft picks in the trade. Two are first rounders with one being from Toronto that the Thunder will get in 2013 if the pick falls between 4-14. The other first rounder is from Dallas and the second rounder is from Charlotte which will definitely be very high in that round. These can be trade pieces or become the next gem that Presti selects. He has a great track record with the draft already.
The Thunder didn’t give Harden away for nothing. In fact, they got a whole lot back in return. But they still won’t have Harden this season as they try to make another run to the NBA Finals. Harden was so important in their playoff run last season taking over the fourth quarter of Game 4 vs. Dallas and then hitting the huge stepback three in Game 5 in San Antonio. He was a no-show in the Finals but if he were to get back to that stage, we’d all expect a better performance from him.
Letting go of Harden is giving the Thunder much more flexibility with their roster down the road. You can call them cheap for not wanting to deal with paying the harsh luxury taxes but it wasn’t just about that. If Harden would have accepted the $54 million deal, OKC would more than likely have still had to pay some luxury taxes in the coming seasons. And that would have come at the price of amnestying Kendrick Perkins as well and filling out the rest of the roster with veteran minimum players.
And if the Thunder kept Harden past Oct. 31 after not giving him an extension, how would that have affected Harden? We have already seen him struggling in the preseason more than ever before. Now he’d be feeling more added pressure to prove his worth on the team that sent him a message that he wasn’t worth a certain dollar amount. Harden doesn’t have the kind of personality to deal with something like that so well. Don’t think that didn’t play a factor in Presti making the trade now instead of later.
It’s time for the Thunder to move on from Harden now. It was an extremely hard decision for both sides, Harden and Presti, but both were just doing their jobs and what was best for them. That’s what this league is at the end of the day a lot of times.
By all accounts, the Thunder players have been understanding of the trade, realizing the situation that the Thunder were in and what Harden could get elsewhere. This isn’t going to tear this team apart. If anything, it will give an extra edge to them. It will motivate them even more.
Durant and Westbrook are now poised more than ever for huge years. The same can be said for Serge Ibaka. The newcomers, Martin, Lamb and Perry Jones III, they will see what it’s like to play for this organization and they will buy in to what is going on.
The Thunder will survive and keep winning and competing for a title. It just won’t be with the lovable Beard anymore who was impossible to watch without smiling after he did anything. It doesn’t feel good right now, but it will all be for the best in the end.