By Ben Golliver
Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti had a lot of explaining to do on Sunday.
He knew that would be the case after trading Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, a fan favorite and top-30 player who is only getting better at 23, on Saturday night, just days before the start of the 2012-13 season.
Presti, perhaps the NBA's most buttoned-up executive, provided some important background and perspective on the trade during his press conference Sunday, even if he refused to divulge specifics of the negotiations.
Here's a breakdown of the key items. All quotes taken from press conference audio posted on DailyThunder.com.
Presti informed reporters that contract negotiation talks between the Thunder and Harden began in July and continued until Saturday, just hours before Presti traded Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks. As those negotiations unfolded this fall, Presti repeatedly stressed the difficult situation the small-market Thunder would find themselves in financially if Harden was re-signed, given huge salary commitments to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
The talks sounded cordial, according to Presti, but they included a clear difference of opinion regarding the size of Harden's contract.
"We knew there was a mutual interest in trying to find a common group at the end of the day we were unfortunately not able to meet," he said.
Presti would not answer how far apart the two sides were on a deal. Reports indicate Harden was offered $54 million over four years; the Thunder was able to go up to $60 million for four years.
"There wasn't a common ground and I think I'll leave it at that," Presti said.
Harden's final hours as a member of the Thunder, then, unfolded in a flurry.
"We made a final proposal on Friday morning that was unacceptable," Presti said. "We then came back prior to executing or beginning to execute a trade initiation with another proposal."
Presti said he was "very transparent" with Harden on Saturday, making it clear that he would be traded if he did not agree to Oklahoma City's latest offer.
"If this was not acceptable we were going to have to move and make the best decision for the franchise," Presti said he told Harden. "Given the fact that it was becoming a reality that he would more than likely be signing elsewhere at the end of the season. Once that reality was met, as we have in the past, this organization turned the page."
Before the day was over, Harden was heading to Houston.
"We made several efforts to try to make this work," he said. "I think there's a point in every negotiation where you start to realize where things are lining up. At that point you have to play the hand you are dealt. As an organization, we've made some tough decisions. This one was right up there with them. But once you know the landscape you have to look at everything and make the decision you feel is best for the franchise."
Why Trade Harden Now?
A major question that will linger with this deal: Why did the Thunder opt to trade Harden now rather than waiting until the deadline or arranging a sign-and-trade next summer.
Presti's response: moving Harden early produced the best return.
"The value in a trade was greater based on the fact that the Rockets could offer him the contract he was seeking," he said. "By doing it when we did it, I believe it will allow the Rockets to secure him and James will get the contract he was seeking. Because of that, we were able to capitalize on the trade and were able to get a little more than if we had waited."
The Return Package
The Thunder's haul for Harden is a logical combination of Kevin Martin, who can help fill Harden's on-court role and has a large expiring contract, Jeremy Lamb, a talented young wing on a rookie deal, and three future picks, including the Toronto Raptors' 2013 first-rounder. Together, the package gives OKC a stopgap Harden replacement this year and tons of young talent going forward.
Presti offered thoughts on both players and picks on Sunday.
"[Kevin Martin is one of the most efficient offensive players in the NBA," he said. "He's a guy that draws fouls at an unbelievably high rate. He has a great feel for the game."
Lamb was the No. 12 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Presti said former Thunder point guard Kevin Ollie, now coaching at UConn, offered a strong endorsement of Lamb, a former Husky, as a player and as a person.
"He has great length, he's a very smooth athlete who is getting a lot done," Presti said. "It's just easy for him, the way it looks. He's giving you maximal effort he's just very graceful. He'll be a work in progress. We've been down this path before. ... At only 20 years old has the prospect of being very good in this league. We feel like by adding Jeremy Lamb to Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson, we really feel good about some of the young players we have in this program."
After acquiring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Harden through the draft, it's no surprise that Presti was stoked about the incoming picks too.
"The draft choices are very valuable to us as a franchise because we've primarily built our team through the draft," he said. "We feel like, that's going to be an important factor in building depth on the roster given the significant of the new CBA. The stringent nature of the rules going forward."
Protecting The Boss
The initial quick-take from many: the Thunder should have paid Harden, as he was worth every penny of the max offer as he has outperformed other recent max players (Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, etc.). Presti moved to preemptively defend his ownership group, led by Clay Bennett, on Sunday.
"Our ownership group was nothing short of spectacular, I want to emphasize that," he said. "They put us in position to make several substantial offers. They have supported our players, they have supported our staff in every way imaginable. This was no different than any other situation that we've been in with this group."
Sad To See Harden Go
Just as some will paint Bennett as cheap, others will paint Harden as greedy. Presti wasn't having any of that.
"We're not going to judge anybody," he said. "We're not going to put anything on anybody. We're going to do the best thing for the franchise, in most cases the players are going to do the best thing for them. You hope that those things overlap. We've been very fortunate that they have overlapped in a lot of cases."
Oklahoma City has always preached a family culture, and Presti emphasized that he would miss Harden and reserves Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook, who were included in the deal as well.
"It wasn't easy to let any of the guys go," he said. "Once you're a member of the Thunder, you're in. We're going to support you as a player and a person through the ups and the downs."
Presti said that he spoke directly to Harden in recent weeks regarding his future and the situation facing the Thunder. He made it clear that he will miss Harden.
"I value my relationship with James," he said. "It's been great to watch James grow as a player and a professional. It was difficult situation to come to the reality that it probably wasn't going to work out and we weren't going to be able to meet his expectations. It doesn't change how we feel about James Harden. We wish him the best and the relationships he has here will continue on."
Many analysts are already predicting that Harden will have a breakout season with the Rockets, now that he will be a full-time starter and No. 1 scoring option for the first time in his career. Presti wished his former player nothing but the best.
"When guys go on from here and do well other places, we're excited about that," Presti said. "We're proud of them. We like the fact that they started their careers here and if they can't have success here for whatever reason, we're pulling for them in other places."
Trusting The Culture
One of the strongest arguments for keeping Harden, regardless of cost, was the chemistry hit the Thunder would take in losing Harden, who is close friends with Durant. It's unusual and risky to disrupt the core of a young team that has had so much success, so soon.
Presti acknowledged the loss but shifted the discussion slightly, expressing support in the ability of his team's leaders and coaching staff to manage the unexpected personnel changes.
"We have made some changes in the past, I've got a tremendous amount of confidence in our players, how they welcome new people," he said. "That's a credit to guys like Durant, Westbrook and [Nick] Collison, the people who have helped establish the standards that we work by on a day-to-day basis. I also think our coaching staff has done a great job as we have grown and changed the team in the past. I have tremendous confidence in them, I think they'll do a wonderful job in integrating the new players and developing Jeremy."
Without question, this trade will wind up being a focal point of discussion for the entire 2012-13 Thunder season. Should the Thunder fail to return to the Finals this year, the decision to move Harden will catch a lion's share of the blame. Presti sounded confident that the re-tooled Thunder would remain one of the strongest teams in the Western Conference, although he was typically discreet.
"With the group that we have, they've been through a lot together," he said. "They've won a lot of games together. For us, we're always going to feel like we have a chance to do good things. It's never been our approach to do a lot of talking about what it is we're going to do."
Presti's vision for the 2012-13 season, following the trade, seems to be two-fold. First, don't dwell on the old days with Harden. Second, foster an environment where other players step up now that he's gone.
"When there are changes, sometimes we get fixated on trying to replicate things," Presti said, explaining a tendency he has seen across all sports. "I think we'll be different, we'll look a little different, but I think we've got to let it play itself out a little bit."
He then pointed back to a previous blockbuster trade, when he shipped out Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics for center Kendrick Perkins at the 2010 trade deadline, as an illustration for how the loss of one player can impact the growth of others.
"James came into his own once we made a significant change with Jeff [Green]," he said. "Same with Serge. I'm excited to see the response. With the maturity of Russell and Kevin, the way they are impacting our team on and off the court, I'm confident in our guys."
In sum, Presti offered a strong, confident and clear explanation of a very difficult position for his franchise. He did very well to remain optimistic and level-headed throughout his explanations. It was the right tone to help Thunder fans process a surprising turn of events, one that will be heartbreaking for some, given Harden's popularity.
Near the end of the press conference, Presti came back to a maxim that he has used on multiple occasions in recent months. In so doing, he seemed to let fans know, ever so slightly, that he was struggling with the change just like they were. "The challenges of sustaining success are a lot more stringent than the challenges of achieving success," he said.