By Ben Golliver
Max contract negotiations are somebody else's problem now.
Yahoo! Sports reports Saturday that the Oklahoma City Thunder have traded 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, Cole Aldridge, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook to the Houston Rockets in exchange for guard Kevin Martin, rookie guard Jeremy Lamb and "significant future draft considerations." Those picks will reportedly include two 2013 first-round picks (from the Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors) and a 2013 second-round pick (from the Charlotte Bobcats).
The Thunder formally announced the trade Saturday night.
"We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved," Thunder GM Sam Presti said in a statement. "Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers. We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin's caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team. We appreciate James, Cole, Daequan and Lazar’s contributions to the Thunder organization and this community and wish them the best in the future.”
The deal qualifies as both a blockbuster and a legit surprise, as the Thunder and Harden were reportedly still negotiating a contract extension as recently as Saturday morning and because Harden is close friends with Oklahoma City's franchise player, Kevin Durant. The Thunder had until Oct. 31 to agree t0 a contract extension with Harden or he would proceed on the path toward restricted free agency next summer. Yahoo! Sports reported that Harden rejected a four-year offer worth up to $54 million on Saturday; the highest offer an outside team can make Harden in restricted free agent is $60 million over four years. The Rockets will be able to offer him a fifth year.
"Wow," Durant tweeted on Saturday.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has unsuccessfully sought an A-list star via trade and free agency for years, missing out on the likes of Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and others. In Harden, his roster gets a new best player, a smooth all-around playmaker who has the ability to become a 20+ points per game scorer as a No. 1 option. He will pair with point guard Jeremy Lin, signed to a 3-year deal as a restricted free agent this summer. Houston likely doesn't have sufficient pieces to make a playoff push in 2012-13, but Harden will make a nice franchise centerpiece as they look to build a winning program long-term.
“James is the foundational, franchise type player we have been seeking the past few seasons," Morey said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "He makes us better from day one and will play a big part in helping get us back to a championship level."
Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and shot 49.1 percent as a super sub for the Western Conference champions last year. He also won a gold medal with USA Basketball at the 2012 Olympics in London.
The Thunder's play here is all about flexibility and avoiding the potential luxury tax bill that would have come with re-signing Harden to a max or near-max contract. With Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka already on the books for eight figures per year each, Thunder GM Sam Presti made it clear in recent months that OKC would be restricted in its ability to retain Harden because of future financial considersations. The decision to trade Harden early is surprising, considering OKC could have had him for another run at the Finals, when he would still be paid on his subsidized rookie deal. Presti evidently concluded that selling early would maximize Harden's return value.
Martin, a capable scorer, is on a $12.5 million expiring contract. He averaged 17.1 points, 2.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds for the Rockets last year, but missed time due to a shoulder injury. Lamb, a scoring wing with good size, played his college ball at UConn and was the No. 12 pick in this year's draft.
OKC will plug Martin into the bench scoring hole created by Harden's departure. That's a step back, given Harden's superior passing skills, but Martin is a proven veteran who can space the floor and get to the free throw line. The Thunder will have the luxury of bringing Lamb along slowly with Durant playing huge minutes at the three and the experienced combination of Thabo Sefalosha and Martin holding down the two.
Aldrich, Hayward and Cook were all deeper bench players for OKC.
Aldrich, 23, averaged 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 6.7 minutes per game last season. A 6-foot-11 reserve center, he was a 2010 lottery pick who hasn't yet made his mark as a pro, playing just 315 career minutes.
Hayward, 25, was extraneous for Oklahoma City as a 6-foot-6 wing. He averaged 1.4 points in 5.4 minutes in 26 appearances last season. Cook, 25, is a 6-foot-5 guard who can shoot the rock if left open. He averaged 5.5 points and 2.1 rebounds in 17.4 minutes in 57 appearances last season.