By Ben Golliver
One day you're dreaming of championship rings with your buddies; the next you're stepping off of a charter plane as the face of a rebuild.
Rockets guard James Harden can be forgiven if his head is still spinning after the Thunder moved him in a blockbuster trade just days before the start of the 2012-13 season. Over the last 10 days, with his whole life turned upside down, he's signed an $80 million contract extension and keyed a nice start to the Rockets' season.
Still, it sounds as if he's not totally content with how the process played out. Yahoo! Sports reports that Harden wishes the Thunder hadn't rushed him to make a decision during the final stages of contract extension negotiations.
Why didn't officials give him longer than an hour to consider a final four-year, $54 million offer before trading him?
"After everything we established -- everything we had done -- you give me an hour?" Harden told Yahoo! Sports on Monday afternoon. "This was one of the biggest decisions of my life. I wanted to go home and pray about it. It hurt me. It hurt."
Asked if additional time might have caused him to accept a deal several million dollars short of the $60 million maximum contract Harden had long sought, he responded: "Who knows? Another day, who knows what another day would've done?"
Does Harden have a beef here?
As a reminder, here's Thunder GM Sam Presti's account of the final stages of the negotiations as told to reporters the day after the trade was executed.
“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.”
The two sides seem to agree on the specifics of the ultimatum: Presti told Harden, "Take this offer or we will trade you" and, after waiting an hour, he delivered on his trade promise.
This was clearly the culminating moment of the talks but the surrounding context is important, too. First, the two sides had been negotiating since July. Second, Harden was, until that last moment, steadfast in his desire for a max deal. Third, the Thunder had an offer on the table and offers can disappear at any moment. Fourth, the Thunder and anyone who acquired Harden faced a Wednesday deadline to reach an extension. Fifth, external pressure on the Thunder would increase considerably as time moved on, especially if the deadline passed. Sixth, trade offers for star-caliber players who indicate they want out tend to get worse over time, not better.
With all those factors in mind, we can't reasonably fault Presti for handling this situation as he did, and neither should Harden. Here, he's trying to have it both ways: he wanted a total victory, or close to it, in the negotiations and he wanted at least two organizations' best interests held up while waiting for his determination. Ultimatums concerning 23-year-old future All-Stars and fan favorites are a last resort and one borne from months of communication. If Harden was surprised by or unprepared to respond to the ultimatum when it was delivered, he has no one to blame but himself and his representative. Harden asking Presti to wait, potentially compromising the GM's already tenuous leverage with the Rockets and any back-up plans, is less reasonable than Presti delivering his "Take it or we trade you" ultimatum. A whirlwind deal is sure to stir up many emotions, but there's no need for lingering bitterness or hurt feelings toward Presti in this one. Thunder ownership wasn't willing to meet Harden's fair compensation request and Presti achieved a swift, clean break for all parties. Even better, Harden and his bank account are thriving in the immediate aftermath. Being upset that Clay Bennett wouldn't pony up is totally justifiable; being "hurt" by Presti doing his job, and doing it very well, is less so.