Don't tell me Oklahoma City sold its soul and future championship rings when it dealt James Harden. I think the Thunder made a great trade.
I know, I know. I'm in the minority here. It isn't the first time. And maybe I'm dead wrong. That's the fun part of these arguments -- eventually, they do end, usually with a clear winner.
To recap the trade: for those raging at home: The Thunder traded Harden for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. (Oklahoma City also gave up Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward, but Aldrich and Hayward are spare parts, and Cook is a shooting specialist, and not a particularly good one.)
The Thunder did not want to sign Harden to a maximum-salary contract. So this looks like a salary dump, and a sad one -- Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook formed the best young trio in the league. But I like this deal a lot, for three reasons:
1. The conventional wisdom about NBA trades -- that whoever gets the best player won the deal -- does not apply to Oklahoma City.
The Thunder already have two stars: Durant and Westbrook. As long as those two are healthy and speaking to each other, Harden would be the third-best guy on his own team. So while the Thunder would have to pay him like a star, he wouldn't really have a chance to play like one.
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Oklahoma City needs depth more than it needs a third star. I feel the same way about Miami -- even though the Heat won a title with Chris Bosh, I still think Miami would be be better off if it used Bosh's salary on multiple complementary players. Now the Thunder should have plenty of weapons, thanks to Martin, Eric Maynor, Lamb, rookie Perry Jones III and those two first-round picks, one of which is expected to be a high pick.
Martin will be a free agent next summer. He may choose to sign elsewhere, but at this stage of his career he may want to stay with the contending Thunder at a much lower salary than Harden wanted. Martin is a career 18.4-points-per-game scorer who is only 29. He is clearly not as good as Harden, but the gap is smaller than you might think.
Martin's career three-point percentage (37.7) is about the same as Harden's (37.0). Harden was a more efficient scorer last year, but remember: Harden spent most of his time either playing against second-team players, or playing with Durant and Westbrook. That means he was either facing second-tier talent, or getting open looks because defenses had to worry so much about Durant and Westbrook. Martin has been a primary focus of defenses for pretty much his entire career, going back to his Sacramento days.
Again: Harden is better than Martin. But I'm skeptical that he can be the best player on a contending team, and even if he is, he is worth more to Houston than to Oklahoma City.
2. The Thunder are not as cheap as you think.
Hey, I love ridiculing rich people for being cheap. It's fun. But Oklahoma City's ownership just did what most ownership groups would do.
The Thunder owe Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka almost $46 million next season. Add Harden on a max contract, and OKC is around $60 million. The Thunder can amnesty center Kendrick Perkins next summer, though I wouldn't want to be the one to tell him to his face. But even then they would still have to pay Perkins almost $18 million in the last two years of his deal -- the amnesty clause just means that $18 million would not be subject to the luxury tax.
What happens when you pay $60 million for four players? Well, you can't just buy the rest of the roster at Wal-Mart. The bottom eight guys on the Thunder payroll right now make $16.3 million combined. So the Thunder would be looking at a minimum of a $76 million payroll, at least another $5 million in luxury-tax payments and the $9 million they would owe Perkins, for a total of $90 million.
And the penalties would get much stiffer after that. All those big salaries would rise. The new labor deal hammers teams that a) go way over the tax line and b) are repeat luxury-tax offenders. In Year Four of a Harden max deal, Oklahoma City might have to pay $30 million in luxury tax alone. Or more.
Very few owners outside of New York and Los Angeles would be willing to spend that much. So let's not pretend the Thunder owners are cheap.
3. This was a big haul.
Really, it was. Look at some comparisons:
Utah traded Deron Williams to the Nets for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and cash. (One of those picks turned out to be No. 3 overall, which the Nets did not anticipate. Utah used it on center Enes Kanter.)
Orlando traded Dwight Howard and Jason Richardson for three first-round picks, two second-round picks, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga. So basically: five draft picks.
New Orleans traded Chris Paul and two second-round picks to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and an unprotected first-round pick from Minnesota. Kaman left as a free agent. So really, the Hornets got Gordon and a pick that turned out to be No. 10 overall; the Hornets used it to draft Austin Rivers.
This trade is certainly in line with those, with one big difference: Williams, Howard and Paul are all better players than James Harden.
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I understand why the Rockets did it. Harden is a very good player, probably an All-Star, and he is young. The Rockets will now do what NBA teams do: Pay a very good player like he is a great one.
But I love what the Thunder did. Thunder general manager Sam Presti set his team up extremely well for the next five years. He gave himself flexibility to build around his two true superstars, and now he can assemble the deepest contender in the NBA. And since Durant and Westbrook are just entering their primes, Presti could afford to take a short step back (if that even happens) before rising again. Maybe I'm wrong, stupid or both. But I think the Thunder have at least as good of a chance of winning a title after the trade as before it.