The Oklahoma City Thunder shocked everyone last night, trading away James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks and a second round pick. The Thunder also traded Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook.
OKC was of course negotiating a contract extension with Harden. They had until Oct. 31 to get a deal done otherwise Harden would become a restricted free agent. Harden said he would sacrifice to stay in OKC but knew he could get a max deal (worth around four years, $60 million) elsewhere. The Thunder weren’t willing to go that high and apparently the most they offered was $54 million.
That wasn’t enough and now Harden is gone.
Harden will go to Houston and get paid (Houston will undoubtedly sign him to a 5-year, $78 million extension in the next few days). He will be the best player on that team immediately. He’ll get a chance to start, have his own team and has nothing but himself standing in his way of becoming an All-Star. Harden won’t be competing for championships anytime soon or even playing in the playoffs. He took the money and sacrificed the chance to do something special in OKC and create a dynasty.
You can’t replace Harden but Martin, Lamb and picks isn’t that bad of a deal. But nonetheless, the Thunder set themselves back parting ways with Harden and likely hurt their chances of returning to the NBA Finals this season.
Will it be worth it for OKC not to pay the luxury taxes on Harden? Can they still be one of the best teams in the West? Will they take advantage now of having more roster flexibility to surround Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka?
It’s hard to tell right now.
Harden will be missed though. He was beloved in OKC like he never will be elsewhere. No one really wanted this, not even Harden. But he made a very hard decision to do what was best for him.
The real shame is the fate of this team with this core will never play out now. They were so close to winning it all last season and now we’ll never know if they could had they stayed together.
It wasn’t crazy for us to think we were definitely going to find out too. That the worst case scenario would be Harden playing at least one more season in OKC and seeing if they could make a run back to the Finals. Maybe the Thunder would have lost Harden in free agency next summer or traded him then but not even finding out what these guys could have accomplished this season is troubling.
A trio like Durant-Westbrook-Harden doesn’t come around often. They were one of the best ever despite being babies in this league.
The Thunder were thinking long-term though. They would not have been guaranteed to get anything back for Harden if they kept him through the season. It would have been worse in a sense to see him walk for nothing, especially when a deal like this isn’t that bad.
The Thunder should keep the same starters with Martin as their new sixth man. Martin is efficient in his own right and isn’t the biggest downgrade from Harden. We just don’t know if he will be able to mesh with Durant and Westbrook as well as Harden. Martin can fill it up from deep, score bunches of points in a row and get to the free throw line as well as anyone in the league. Martin can’t create off the bounce like Harden but with Eric Maynor back, the Thunder might be able to live with that. Martin is an expiring contract too. Maybe the Thunder trade him this season at the deadline if it’s not working out so well.
Once Martin is gone, the Thunder get the rookie Lamb from Connecticut who was selected 12th overall in the NBA Draft. Lamb has plenty of upside himself and some said he had as much All-Star potential as any other shooting guard in the draft. Lamb will get his chances this season. Hopefully he can hit some threes and defend a little. He will essentially be replacing Cook who looked like he was going to lose his spot in the rotation this season.
The Thunder now have with Harden gone two promising rookies in Lamb and Perry Jones III that both have some star potential, but not guaranteed to become one like Harden. They also have two future first round draft picks, one from Dallas and the other Toronto which is a top-3 protected pick.
This is the Thunder Model. The future is still very bright for the Thunder, as bright as any team in the league. But that doesn’t make this any easier. The Beard era is over in OKC.