The stunning trade of James Harden changes a winning formula that drove the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals last season ahead of any reasonable schedule. The six-player deal that sent Harden to the Houston Rockets on Saturday night should keep alive OKC's hopes of winning the West while changing its dynamic for the long term.
For this season, the Thunder should be able to make do with Kevin Martin, the biggest name to arrive in the trade from Houston. Martin is a 29-year-old shooting guard with a career 18.4 points per game average and a $12.4 million salary that expires next summer -- which means he should be willing to prove he can contribute to a title contender in order to set himself up for a new contract.
For the long term, the Thunder may be able to use other assets from this trade to eventually replace Harden. The Rockets sent them Jeremy Lamb, the 6-foot-5 rookie shooting guard from UConn, as well as a pair of first-round picks, which can be expected to be used wisely by a franchise that has succeeded in building through the draft.
Thunder GM Sam Presti has been known to be an admirer of Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor's decision to quickly and unexpectedly trade Deron Williams to the Nets two years ago -- a bold move that prevented the Utah franchise from being consumed by questions of Williams' free agency. When Presti realized he wasn't going to be able to meet Harden's asking price for a new contract, he moved fast to complete a deal that not only met his standards but also enabled his young team to move forward with its high goals for this season. "We wanted to sign James to an extension,'' said Presti in a statement, "but at the end of the day these situations have to work for all those involved.''
OKC has already committed big contracts to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. With this deal, they'll be seeking to replace Harden with young prospects on relatively cheap rookie contracts, enabling them to budget their roster within the confines of the more prohibitive luxury tax that will take effect next season.
Will 23-year-old Harden become a leader for the rebuilding Rockets? Presti drafted him No. 3 overall in 2009 -- bypassing eventual rookie of the year Tyreke Evans, who at the time was viewed as a more highly-rated talent -- because he viewed Harden as a star who would complement Durant and Westbrook. That is exactly what Harden became, earning the Sixth Man award last season for serving as a playmaker and a scorer in support of his fellow stars.
The Rockets had spent the last year amassing draft picks and young assets in hope of acquiring a star of their own. Now that they're essentially committed to signing Harden to a big contract for the long term, they'll be hoping that he -- like Jeremy Lin, another young player upon whom they've gambled a lot of money -- will be able to elevate his role to fill their needs as they begin their climb back toward playoff contention.
Will the Thunder be able to beat the improved Lakers without Harden? It may not be a fair question, because they may very well have been unable to beat Los Angeles (or Miami) with Harden. And even if Harden should go onto become a bigger star in Houston, there can be no certainty he would have made the same gains for Oklahoma City in the shadow of Durant and Westbrook.