In the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum hangs a picture of Thunder general manager Sam Presti touring the landmark with a group of young players, solemnly describing the events of April 19, 1995. Presti requires that all his new employees take the tour, usually before their first training camp, to learn about the day that shaped the community they now call home. It is a crucial part of building the connection between town and team. In the photo, Presti stands in front of the players, and they stare at him intently. One of them is James Harden.
The snapshot was taken in Sept. 2010, back when Harden was looking like a bust and Presti like a goof, because he didn't draft Tyreke Evans instead. The Thunder were fierce in their defense of the pick, maintaining that Harden was the right choice for a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, because he was the rare lottery pick willing to grow in their shadows. The Thunder believed in Harden, and just as important, trusted in their ability to cultivate him.
All NBA teams talk about player development, but in Oklahoma City it is more than a catchphrase, and Harden became the latest evidence. Today, there isn't a general manager alive who would prefer Evans. Of course, Durant would have been a megastar even if he'd landed in Charlotte, but the Thunder helped turn Westbrook into a point guard, Serge Ibaka into a stopper and Harden into an Olympian. They built this team, step by methodical step, from 3-29 in 2009 to No. 8 seed in 2010 to the Western Conference finals in 2011 and to the NBA Finals in 2012. Finally, the construction was over. The finished product was ready. The only step left was the championship, the parade and the ring ceremony.
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When Harden, Westbrook and Durant stood together on the bench at American Airlines Arena in June, arms slung over each other's shoulders as the seconds ticked away on that mortifying Game 5 loss to Miami, they were both suffering and savoring their last growing pain. The disappointment would not break them. It would only steel them. Which is why, when Oklahoma City dealt Harden to Houston late Saturday night, it felt like a classic movie was getting cut off just before the climax. We will never get to see what should have been a stirring ending in the NBA's most unlikely hotbed.
Kevin Martin, who was devastated by the vetoed trade to New Orleans last year, will flourish in a catch-and-shoot role alongside Westbrook; Presti will make valuable use of the draft picks; Jeremy Lamb will be groomed in the same manner that Harden was. But the whole point of scouting, drafting and developing players is to guide three or four homegrown stars into their primes, then turn them loose and enjoy the rewards. If you're lucky, those players will all be close friends of similar ages, and if you're really lucky, they will have different personalities and skill sets. The Thunder essentially created the NBA's dream house -- and then tore up the kitchen so they could try again.
Oklahoma City is obviously a miniscule market, and the new luxury tax is indeed punishing, but according to reports, Harden and the Thunder were about $6 million apart in negotiations on a four-year max contract. For $6 million, Harden is forfeiting a clear title shot, and the Thunder are risking their ability to return to the Finals. If Presti's track record is any indication, he will simply recast a contender in a different from, but it's hard to imagine the Thunder will be better than before. Championship hopes in the NBA are fragile, especially in the age of LeBron James and the super team, and the Thunder's chemistry will be difficult to replicate. They got good players back from Houston, but they gave up a great one, and now they will have to face the Lakers' four stars with just two-and-a-half.
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Harden may not be a true No. 1 option -- his deference, which appealed to Oklahoma City, should give Houston pause -- but he made the Thunder the deepest team in the NBA. No one draws fouls as easily, no one scores more with the ball in the pick-and-roll and no one irritates the Lakers quite like Harden. The Thunder would have decimated L.A.'s second unit, and while their bench remains superior, the margin is not what it was 48 hours ago. Suddenly, the Lakers aren't the only ones with a chance in the West. Add the Clippers, the Spurs and perhaps even the Nuggets to the list.
At times, the Thunder seemed immune to the challenges that hound the rest of the NBA. Players lived in the same suburb, and after practice, went to Durant's house for video games and chicken wings. They stayed deep into the night. They signed long term. But the image of Harden, Westbrook and Durant, arm in arm on that difficult night in Miami, was a prelude to nothing. It was just the end of innocence.