The Oklahoma City Thunder made a very tough decision this offseason trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Harden was a star in the making that Thunder management felt it couldn’t afford to keep.
The Thunder reached an agreement with Serge Ibaka on an extension earlier in the summer for four years, $49 million, much less than a max deal of $60 million that Ibaka may have been able to get next summer as a restricted free agent.
In light of the Harden deal, many people felt like the Thunder were choosing Ibaka over Harden. That’s not exactly true. The Thunder could have gone a number of other routes with this. It wasn’t just between them too.
In fact, it was more closely a choice between Harden Russell Westbrook. The Thunder could have signed Harden to a 4-year, $60 million extension and decided to trade Westbrook after the season or before.
This is what a lot of people were kind of calling for in a sense. Keep Harden one more year then decide who to trade next summer if you absolutely have to whether it be Harden, Westbrook or Ibaka.
That’s not what happened and Thunder GM Sam Presti decided to cash out with Harden taking advantage of his very high trade value at the time and getting a decent package in return from Houston.
Did the Thunder make the right choice though choosing Westbrook over Harden?
Westbrook is one of the best athletes the league has ever seen. He’s one of the most polarizing too often taking bad shots and making bad decisions that superstars don’t usually make. He can be so good for most of the game though that you tell yourself to live with the bad and it will be worth it.
Harden is very different in that he is super efficient and rarely is caught doing something wrong. He couldn’t hide on the game’s biggest stage in the NBA Finals last year but even then we just chalked it up to youth and inexperience. Harden has shown us in a very small sample size the kind of potential he possesses in Houston leading the league in scoring so far this season.
But it’s not about what they’d do on their own, it’s what they’d do in OKC down the road.
Westbrook probably has more potential and you can even make the case he is further away from hitting his ceiling than Harden because he can be so inefficient at times. Westbrook is the more dynamic player and better defender. He could grow into the league’s best guard over the next few years. Imagine getting a chance to pair the best guard in the league with Kevin Durant.
We have less of an idea of what it would be like to ship out Westbrook and see Harden become Durant’s Robin. Harden’s possibly giving us a glimpse of what that could have been like with his play in Houston but it’s hard to say if he could have done the same in OKC. Harden and Durant are closer in position too. Right now both essentially are wing players and the skills may have overlapped more than a Durant-Westbrook duo down the road.
If you were making the decision a little over a week ago like the Thunder did, then Westbrook is the choice. He is more proven to this point in his career, shown a higher ceiling and more versatile.
We may have a different answer to the Westbrook-Harden choice after this season though or after three seasons. Harden may blossom into the best two guard in the league, more versatile than we ever imagined he would become.
The Thunder didn’t have that luxury (at least in their eyes) to wait and find out. They were committed to Durant-Westbrook and that meant no more Harden. It was the right choice now, just too bad one had to be made so soon.