By Ben Golliver
You can't have a surprising trade in today's NBA without an immediate, hyper-emotional overreaction following in short order. Saturday night stayed true to form: The Oklahoma City Thunder shipped reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster deal that sparked outrage and frustration from their fan base and impartial observers alike.
Harden, who surely saw himself teaming with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for playoff run after playoff run, may very well be shedding some tears into that thick, signature beard of his this weekend. A truly fun era has ended and he wound up as the odd man out, after three seasons of sacrificing playing time, shots and personal glory in the name of team success. Meanwhile, his close buddies turn a longing eye toward his old locker, and remember the good old days.
OKC media may question why Harden wasn't willing to sacrifice more to reach a compromise; they may also ask why Thunder ownership didn't just step up to the plate and pay the man, luxury tax be damned. "Harden is greedy" and "Clay Bennett is cheap" will be arguments that will make the rounds.
The grand irony here: The deal that sparked so many emotions was swung by two of the most logic-driven, analytical minds in the NBA, Thunder general manager Sam Presti and Rockets GM Daryl Morey. The trade was driven by financial factors, certainly, but it was also a textbook example of some basic principles. For OKC, sell high and aim for maximum flexibility when you sell. For Houston, package minor assets in pursuit of a star, but don't mortgage the franchise in the process.
Houston Rockets receive: James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: B+
First, some simple math as a reminder. The NBA's salary cap is $58 million. Next year, Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will combine to make more than $44 million. Adding Harden to that mix at the numbers being discussed (OKC reportedly offered him $54 million over four years) would have brought the Thunder right to the cap line with just four players. The rest of the roster (up to 11 players!) would need to have been assembled for $16 million to avoid luxury-tax payments. That's virtually impossible. Without a green light from ownership to go deep into luxury-tax penalties (complete with eventual repeater penalties), it was going to be a tight spot. Presti publicly warned of this reality on numerous occasions.
That Presti traded Harden can't be seen as a total surprise; that he traded Harden now instead of waiting until the deadline or as part of a sign-and-trade next summer was the shocker. By moving him now, the Thunder miss out on the final season of Harden's subsidized rookie salary; they throw a chemistry monkey wrench into what is sure to be another deep playoff run; and they open themselves up to "Why didn't they just take one more crack at it?" second-guessing if they don't win the 2013 Finals.
On the flip side, they got the initial drama out of the way early, ensuring the new team will have a full season to jell; they don't have to deal with the constant questions during the playoffs; and, importantly, they sold off when they still had significant leverage. The Rockets, you see, aren't just getting Harden's next four or five years, depending on how his next negotiations go. They get him this year, too, as an All-Star-caliber player making just $5.8 million. At that number, he's one of the best values in the league, and he will be fully acclimated to his new team, his new coach and his new city once his next deal kicks in and his contract increases. On top of that, Harden is coming off of a Finals appearance, the Sixth Man recognition and a gold medal in London. Sure, he could have taken a step forward in Oklahoma City this season. But Presti sold him at his career peak and before things could get truly messy.
The Thunder can't take home an "A" in moving Harden. He's too good as a player and he was too perfect as a fit. The "A" play for Presti was to persuade Bennett to step up and swallow the tax bills. But he earns his "B+" for getting the exact package you would expect him to acquire: a large expiring contract, capable players to fill the hole he created and draft picks that offer future flexibility. Moving from Harden to Martin is a noticeable downgrade, but it's not exactly falling off a cliff. Martin has been aching to play for a winner, can draw fouls like nobody's business (notwithstanding last season) and is a career 37.7 percent three-point shooter. That can work well. Lamb, meanwhile, is all upside. The Thunder will have the luxury of developing him slowly and incubating him in a winning culture. Their track record on getting the most of young players is pretty solid, to say the least.
The picks, especially Toronto's top-three protected first-rounder, are just icing on the cake. Did you think it was almost unfair for the Thunder to get Perry Jones III in this year's draft? If the Raptors head to the lottery and don't move up to the top three, OKC could be in position to take a blue-chipper like Alex Poythress or Archie Goodwin. Now that's unfair.
Morey has been looking for a date for so many freaking years now. This guy has been rejected, and rejected, and then rejected in a totally unforeseen and incredible manner (David Stern stepping in to nix the three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers). Here, he finally gets a top-30 player worthy of being his franchise guy. He gets him as he is still ascending, with a cheap rate in the first season. And, perhaps most important, he gets a franchise guy who fits with his other big-salary commitments.
The only two players to whom Morey has given real money are point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik. Harden makes Lin better by giving him a second shot creator and playmaker to help carry the offensive burden. Harden, an offense-first shooting guard, and Asik, a defense-first center, don't overlap in any meaningful way. The trio, together, is complementary and flexible. It's not an overwhelming talent base, but it's a good start and their combined salary figure isn't backbreaking. Together, the three players should command just a little more than half the salary cap. With so many existing players on rookie deals, the Rockets get a talent infusion without totally sacrificing their flexibility down the road.
What's not to like about this trade from Houston's perspective? Martin was a veteran on a rebuilding team, and therefore completely expendable. Lamb is a nice prospect, but the Rockets literally cannot play all of their youngsters, not even if coach Kevin McHale were a professional juggler. Cook and Hayward are effectively expiring contracts, so they are simply there to get the trade math to work; Aldrich is an unknown so far, but could get a shot at some minutes. In short, none of the pieces that Houston took back will be damaging.
The nitpicking starts with the draft picks, pun intended. You can bet Presti was particularly insistent on the Raptors' pick, which came to Houston in exchange for Kyle Lowry. Had Morey found a way to offer a different package of prospects and/or picks to save that Raptors pick, he would have been looking at a home run. Alas, he will be too busy planning Harden's All-Star campaign and marketing push to lose sleep over his "A-."
JAMES HARDEN: B
The "A" scenario for Harden was for Thunder ownership to conclude he was an irreplaceable piece and pay him every last cent possible under league rules. That clearly didn't happen. While that knowledge surely stings in the short term, things could be a lot worse for Harden.
It will be clear in the coming days exactly how much he will be paid and for how long (four or five years, up to around $80 million in a best-case scenario) but there's little doubt Morey will be highly motivated to max him out quickly. That solves the money question. In terms of minutes, shots and leadership opportunities, he will have a full share of all three. No more sacrificing for teammates; teammates will be sacrificing for him.
Oklahoma City's grass is likely to remain greener than Houston's for the entirety of Harden's next contract. He knows that better than anyone, and that's a difficult pill to swallow. The first year is likely to be the toughest, too; there just isn't much proven talent on the roster around him.
Going forward, the Rockets are an excellent consolation prize, and that reality should eventually sink in. Harden now has: a big market and gigantic fan base; an ownership group committed to winning; a proactive GM looking to cash in minor assets for major players with flexibility to do so; no dead-weight contracts or bad attitudes around him slowing down the process or making life unnecessarily difficult; a ton of money; and as many shots as he can take and as many starter's minutes as he can play.