It's not often that a trade of this magnitude goes down on the brink of the regular season, but James Harden was dealt to the Houston Rockets on Saturday, just three days before the start of the 2012-13 campaign.
Fresh off training camp, most teams are looking to shake things up as little as possible, but with negotiations on an extension breaking down, the Oklahoma City Thunder's quiet offseason just got a lot louder.
General manager Sam Presti once again proved himself among the league's best, sparing his club a distraction that would have loomed over its attempts to one-up last season's trip to the NBA Finals. He did Harden a favor as well, affording him some certainty and the opportunity to secure a more prominent role—and a contract to match.
It's a win-win deal even before you consider what the Houston Rockets get out of it.
OKC would have struggled to afford the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year. That much had become obvious. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the organization was unwilling to push payroll above $95 million, and it's hard to blame it given implications for its luxury taxes and roster flexibility.
In turn, Harden would have had to leave millions on the table to make this work, and he'd have remained ever in the shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (justifiably so).
While the Thunder will miss Harden's all-around game, they could benefit in the short term and almost certainly will in the long term.
Fiscal wisdom aside, ESPN's John Hollinger puts Houston's package in perspective:
Just realized that OKC arguably got more for Harden than Magic did for Dwight.— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) October 28, 2012
OKC will bank on Kevin Martin to keep it in the title conversation this season. He doesn't have Harden's versatility as a slasher, and he's less adept at operating the pick-and-roll, but he's an awfully dangerous perimeter shooter when he heats up.
He'll stretch opposing defenses and provide Westbrook with a lethal drive-and-kick target thanks to his extended range and quick release. He can also get to the free-throw line (6.6 times a game for his career) and cash in while there.
Harden will obviously be missed this season, but Eric Maynor's return from a torn ACL should ensure the second-unit offense continues to run smoothly. Part of Harden's sixth-man appeal was his ability to handle the ball, but that won't be quite as imperative with Maynor at the point.
You have to read the fine print to appreciate this haul in all its grandeur, though.
The 20-year-old Jeremy Lamb could very well reach Harden-like status, albeit with a different style of play on the wing. Selected with the 12th overall pick out of UConn, Lamb gives the Thunder a long-term replacement for Harden with the potential to make a substantial impact on both ends of the floor thanks to his length and shooting ability.
Those two first-round picks Oklahoma City pried from the Rockets won't hurt either, especially the one originally belonging to the Toronto Raptors.
This deal reflects a team-building paradigm that couldn't be more antithetical to the Lakers' star-powered, win-now standard operating procedure.
Rather than exchanging youth for pricey veterans, the small-market Thunder are hoping to surround their elite, young talent with more young talent.
Between Lamb, rookie Perry Jones III and those first-rounders acquired from Houston, OKC now has a stable supply of affordable depth and potentially the opportunity to replace guys like Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha with inexpensive alternatives when the time comes.
As the team's 24-and-under stars glide through their prime years, they'll have plenty of help eager to prove itself and take part in what could be a special decade of basketball in Oklahoma City—a decade James Harden will miss out on.
In its stead, however, he'll find an opportunity to start and become the face of a franchise—or at least one of two faces. With Jeremy Lin, Harden will form a dynamic backcourt capable of shooting, driving and distributing with the best of them.
The 23-year-old probably won't get any more sixth-man honors, but he should get some trips to the All-Star game.
He'll also share in more responsibility, albeit on a smaller stage for now. As the Rockets grow into a playoff team, Harden will have some time to grow into their leader.
It doesn't look like it now, but in time the Thunder could find themselves face-to-face with Harden in some games that actually matter.
Or is it face-to-beard?
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