The takeaway from James Harden's not-so-long-awaited return to Oklahoma City Wednesday was that his former teammates did not appear to be wounded by his departure. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka -- the Thunder's new Big Three -- did not behave as if they were demoralized by Harden's trade to the Rockets. Just the opposite: They were unified and committed to beating their old friend and his new team.
They trapped Harden for three early turnovers and held him to an 0-for-8 first half on his way to 3-for-16 overall. Seven of his shots were blocked.
"We've moved on past it, man,'' Durant said after scoring 37 points in the 120-98 victory. "We're happy to see him, glad he's doing well out there in Houston, but we wanted this win bad.''
The Thunder act as if they're committed to a shared understanding of Harden's surprising trade last month to Houston. They appear to recognize that the team couldn't afford to keep Harden, and that they may yet be able to thrive in his absence.
Had Harden agreed to the Thunder's offer of a four-year extension -- amounting to roughly 95 percent of the money he requested -- then Oklahoma City would have been committed to player costs of more than $95 million next season, based on salaries and the more punitive luxury tax that will go into effect. Westbrook was faced with a similar dilemma during his negotiations last January, and it was his understanding of OKC's financial limitations as a small-market franchise that convinced him to accept an extension for less than the max.
When Westbrook was negotiating his extension, he was on the verge of becoming eligible to receive 30 percent of the salary cap. Under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, he would have been entitled to the same max terms as Durant by way of making the All-NBA team last season for the second time in his career. The upshot was that Westbrook could have demanded that his 30 percent share kick in retroactively. But he chose instead to accept 25 percent of the cap because he wanted to remain with Durant in pursuit of a championship.
For several years there has been speculation that Westbrook would not want to defer to Durant, that he would want a franchise of his own to lead. But when it came to express his ambitions truly -- in terms of money -- he chose to accept less money to play with a Hall of Fame talent. The same kind of decision was made by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who all accepted less than the max in order to squeeze themselves (as well as Udonis Haslem) within Miami's cap in 2010.
Harden was not willing to make that sacrifice, and there is nothing wrong with his choice. He is a 23-year-old emerging star who wanted to find out how good he could be. He was a sixth man for OKC last year who averaged 16.8 points while deferring to Durant and Westbrook. Harden was the best reserve player in the league, but his unwillingness to accept less money to remain with an improving young NBA Finalist spoke to his own ambitions. He wanted to see what he could do with a bigger role. He earned that right and he wanted to see it through.
It's easy to imagine some of his teammates on the U.S. Olympic team counseling Harden last summer to pursue a team of his own. It's just as easy to guess that some of them -- the insatiably cutthroat Kobe Bryant in particular -- wanted to see the breakup of the young OKC trio in order to improve their own chances of winning the championship this year.
The Thunder are chasing the highest stakes in basketball, and they've had no choice but to leave Harden behind. He may never again play with a team as talented as OKC, and if so, he will never win a championship. He has only to glance at the small number of franchises that have won NBA titles to realize how difficult it is for any team to amass and blend the talent necessary to win in June. OKC's roster last season met the minimum standard for talent, but was lacking for championship experience.
The ascension of 6-foot-10 Ibaka gives OKC hope of being able to not only survive Harden's absence but also to make critics of the trade forget about him. Not only is Ibaka a gifted shot-blocker who may contend for Defensive Player of the Year, but he also has improved his shooting from the elbow, averaging 15 points (roughly a half-dozen more per game than last season) while shooting a career-best 59.5 percent. He and Westbrook are 23, Durant is 24, and all three are under contract through 2015-16.
Kevin Martin isn't going to replace Harden's myriad skills, but since arriving from Houston, Martin has given OKC 15.8 points off the bench while converting 48.8 percent of his threes. The Thunder would have been hamstrung financially had they retained Harden, forcing the likely departures of important role players like backup point guard Eric Maynor this summer and starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha in 2014. They'll continue to face difficult budgetary choices over the next few years, but at least now they'll have some flexibility financially as well as three extra draft choices from the Harden trade to help replenish their rotation with cheap young talent.
It's not as if OKC's rivals in the West are unbeatable, either. Memphis has been the best team in the conference, while the Lakers have been in disarray (to be kind). Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are another year older, and the Spurs are coming off a postseason where they lost four straight in the conference finals to the Thunder.
Did the Thunder want to trade Harden? Of course they didn't. Their offer to Harden demonstrated how badly they wanted to keep him -- badly enough to approach $100 million in payroll and taxes next season. His response demonstrated that he wanted more than the Thunder could give him, both in terms of salary as well as control of the ball. Even if Harden had been content with his salary, he probably would not have been satisfied with his complementary role -- his actions demonstrate this.
And so there are no villains here. There is only a talented young star who now must try to make his own way in Houston, and a more talented team that remains in contention for the championship without him.
"I don't think anybody should get thrown out of a game," Rivers said. "So we all have to keep our emotions. ... If I'm Brooklyn and the league, you've got to think we're pretty soft. We're a soft team right now. We have no toughness. That [skirmish was] not toughness."
While Rondo may have been trying to galvanize his leadership of the team, he is now facing a suspension likely to further hurt the Celtics.
"We don't want to fool anybody anymore," Bogut said. "We don't want to keep creating a little bit of excitement of, 'Hey, Andrew might be playing Saturday. It might be Monday. He's back.' "
Bogut insisted he will be on "indefinite leave'' with hope of returning sometime this season. The Warriors are a promising 8-6 despite receiving only 73 minutes in four games from Bogut before he was shut down. In the meantime, Monta Ellis -- who was dealt in an unpopular trade for Bogut last season -- leads the Bucks with 18.9 points while playing in every game.
The 6-foot-6 swingman, who played two years at North Carolina under Dean Smith, is in his 18th NBA season. Stackhouse, 38, joined the Brooklyn Nets as a hybrid player-coach and hopes to become a head coach in the NBA sooner than later.
• He didn't imagine he would ever want to coach. "I didn't think I would have the patience for it. From my stop in Milwaukee [2009-10] when I was with Scott [Skiles], he gave me the chance to work with and talk with some guys, so I started to get the bug a little bit then. Then I started coaching my sons' team about three years ago, and working with 14-year-olds and seeing them getting better, and being able to show them some things and it actually coming to fruition on the court, it got my juices to flowing a little bit more.
"And the reception I got my last few stops -- even when I was down in Miami and doing some stuff on the post with Dwyane [Wade], and then in Atlanta, the rapport I had with Joe [Johnson] and Josh [Smith], I was thinking it might be a good little thing for me. The pro game is what I know.
"I don't know how good I'd be in college as a coach. I think I could figure out how to work it to my advantage, being able to share some of the things that I've done and have a positive effect on a parent and let them know I'd take care of their kid. But I'd rather deal with adults.''
• He was hard to coach as a younger player. "I probably was. I think all young guys are hard to coach -- but when you're a scorer and the coach has always been trying to find a way to get you the ball, I don't know how hard that is to deal with.
"The one that tried to take the ball away from me, that was the only clash I had. It was [Rick] Carlisle, and he had a rhyme and reason with it -- he wanted to use my ability to draw attention, to accept the double teams more and then pass and get the ball moving and swung to the other side. It was good: I learned to bait more during that year, I would bait guys and I would get the double team and I would get rid of it. I think I learned to hold onto it a little longer, to string the double teams out a little more. It helps the teammate, but it doesn't necessarily help the scorer; the scorer wants to get rid of it so he can find a way to get it back before the shot clock.
"There were guys like Rick and Avery [Johnson] and Nellie [Don Nelson] from an offensive standpoint, and obviously Dean Smith -- guys that I still take a lot from. Playing for Scott [Skiles] I learned some wrinkles: He's a guy that hates full rotating [on defense]. He wants to stunt everything. And I learned coaching my kids sometimes that's the best thing for us to do is stunt, where they don't have to get into rotation and figure that out. They just stunt and then get back to their own man. So I got a lot of playbooks from a lot of coaches I played for. I can pick and choose a bunch from a lot of them. Then from some of them I took nothing -- absolutely nothing.''
• Coaching his son's team was a revelation. "I paid more attention to some of the details, and I developed more compassion for coaches. Because, like, I couldn't understand how I could tell them something, and one game it worked, for two games it worked, then in the third game they still try to do something different. They want to take the path of least resistance every time. So I came to the conclusion that's why you need coaches. Players are always going to try to take the easier way, and that's why they need coaches -- to be able to tell them we have to do it this way every time.
"It's universal. As much as I know about the game, even I need a reminder every once in while on the basketball court. If I was over there watching on the sideline, I would know exactly what is supposed to happen. But being on the court, being in the heat of things, you need that reinforcement.''
• He knows how to confront players. "I think that would be my strong suit: Being able to relate to every player, from the star guy to the guy who still thinks he's the star but could be willing to accept a lesser role for the good of the team. Because I've done all that, so I think I could be able to relate to all my players and say I've been in your shoes.''
• He could yell at players without losing the team. "They've got to respect you for you to be able to do that. It's hard for these guys to respect coaches who haven't really been in the trenches with them. A few guys can get that respect, but it also comes with having some security too, of being able to have the people behind you [in the front office] so you can be who you are. That would be my whole conversation coming in: Am I able to be who I am? I don't need the blank check that you let me go and kick somebody's ass, but I need you to be able to at least let me threaten them.''
• Stackhouse has earned a reputation as one of the NBA's toughest players. "I just think it's from being honest in how you play. Whatever team I'm on, I like the guys on my team and that's who I'm for. I don't necessarily like the other team. Mateen Cleaves, he told a funny story one time: 'Stack had me hating everybody in the league.' Because that's how I approach it. It's about us. Even with coaches, I wasn't really cordial to opposing coaches. I would come and do my business and not a whole lot of speaking. But I would say I'm a lot more of a politician now," he added, laughing.
• He detailed the run-ins that enhanced his reputation for no-nonsense. "Maybe it was
• He may yet decide to play beyond this season, but he hopes to avoid serving as a full-time assistant coach in order to become a head coach in the NBA. "I want to do broadcasting a little bit, too. The ideal blueprint for me would be Doc [Rivers] and Mark [Jackson], to kind of back away from the game and get some distance from being a player. This has been a good thing [to be playing for the Nets] because everybody knew I was coming in as a player-coach. So once that's out there, people start recognizing and looking at you in the vein of a coach without having to be away from the game. Broadcasting and doing some analyzing work will also do that. That would be the ideal thing: Doc [and Jackson] got a chance to show through TV their smarts for the game, and then the opportunity came for them.''
"They could've had my back."
After spending his initial seven NBA seasons as an underachieving power forward with Washington, Blatche complained this week that the Wizards failed to cover for him when fans inevitably turned against him last season. They were booing him because he was, by his own admission, heavily out of shape; because he had committed numerous embarrassing mistakes, including his arrest for soliciting a prostitute who turned out to be a police officer; and because his production had regressed across the board. Blatche's relationship with the team and its fans grew untenable to the point that the Wizards preferred to pay him to play elsewhere. They put the remaining three years of his contract out to amnesty, even though it meant paying him $23.4 million to take a new job as a backup for the Nets this season.
"It's easy to be in somebody's corner when things is good,'' Blatche complained to radio hosts Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan in Washington. "That's the easiest thing in the world, that's for anybody. I'm talking about when things are bad, when things are going wrong. That's when you can tell if somebody is on your side or not -- when things are going bad. That contract was great because things were going good."
The same could be said of a player who chose to attack his former team during its 0-12 start. He waited to kick the Wizards until they were most vulnerable.
"They could've explained exactly what was going on,'' Blatche said of the booings he absorbed from fans as they watched his stats regress across the board last season. "They could've had my back. They could've done anything. I don't care what they could've done. It could've been small, than to say, you know what, 'This is our escape route. We're going to leave him out for himself. He's going to have to fend for himself now.' No, that's not what you do when it's your family. And supposedly say this is a brotherhood. That's not what you do. I don't care, whatever my brother, my uncle, my sister, whatever anybody does, I'm going to have their back 100 percent. And that's what you do with family. That's all I'm saying. If we're family, then act like it."
Family. Such an interesting way of looking at it.
"The Lakers have an awful bench, and they haven't had Steve Nash or Steve Blake," the scout said. "Their dilemma has come from using Kobe Bryant as their facilitator, which means he's been trying to do too much. Now it's as if he's taking every shot, and if he's not shooting then he's involved with the ball. The ball looks like it's in his hands 90.9 percent of the time. If Mike D'Antoni had been his coach for his whole career, then Kobe would have every scoring record in the NBA. It wouldn't be close.
"If Kobe keeps having the ball in his hands every possession, then somewhere along the way he's going to get hurt. Right now, he's having to do everything. He's putting that team on his back to try to win games and it's incredible. But when the ball is in your hands a lot and you're always involved in the action, that's when injuries occur. Kobe needs Nash back so he can move back into that slot where he isn't having to do all of the work.
"Once they get everybody on the floor and playing in D'Antoni's offense, I think it will work out well for them -- but not as well as they'd like it to.
"I'm telling you, Nash at 38 is going to struggle to stay healthy for the rest of his career. Let's say they had to play without him in the playoffs. I don't think they'd be able to get by Memphis without Nash. Even if Nash is healthy, I don't think the Lakers will be able to beat Oklahoma City. I don't know if I would put the Lakers ahead of San Antonio either. It's going to come down to those four teams, and you know that getting to the Western finals isn't going to be good enough for the Lakers.
"Dwight Howard looks healthy to me -- he has no issues I can see, he's diving on the floor. But one thing he lacks is that he doesn't have that fire that Shaquille O'Neal had. Howard can put up 20 and 10 every night, but I don't know that he has that edge that Shaq had.
"Then there's Pau Gasol. If you listen to Mike, the offense is going to work for Gasol. People are speculating that it's not going to work, but if you're asking me, I have to tell you I really don't know. It may work playing them [Gasol and Howard] together -- 20 or 30 games from now you'll know the answer. Right now, it isn't working, though you have to be aware that Nash hasn't been on the floor with Gasol yet either. They've been playing this high-low with Howard rolling to the rim and Gasol on the outside, but in a tough playoff situation I'm not sure they can count on Gasol to hit that outside shot consistently. His strength is around the rim.
"I look at a game like this and I can see Denver's trying to outrun the Lakers. The Nuggets can run with anybody. It will be a high-scoring game, but I think L.A. has too much firepower for them. Danilo Gallinari is a good player, but I don't think he's ever going to reach an All-Star level. Andre Iguodala is their best player, and that's a good system for him with Denver because he can run up and down the floor and play to his strengths. But I look at him as a borderline All-Star who has never reached his potential.
"This is another one of those games that will say something about the Lakers. They should have no problem winning at home against this team. If the Lakers aren't able to win a game like this, then you'll know the Lakers have got problems.''
In honor of Billups' recovery from Achilles surgery, consider the array of talent that has yet to appear on the floor this season, as well as the salary each player is receiving this season: