Why the James Harden Trade Raises the Thunder's Ceiling

Kevin Daly@@TheDalyWhatContributor IIIOctober 28, 2012

I learned about the James Harden trade (via Yahoo! Sports) when my friend messaged me: "Harden traded to Rockets!" 

As my eyes ran over those four words, the first thing I thought was, "Well this makes sense."  After all, Houston's GM Daryl Morey loves advanced statistics, and James Harden has enjoyed a considerable rise in stock as his name has floated near the top of those secondary stat categories—measurements that examine efficiency, facial hair volume, and other highly valued criteria.  It also fit in the sense that Morey has recently developed an affinity for overpaying players.

Yet, as did many people, I struggled to understand the Thunder's decision-making.

Why did they take back two shooting guards—one a rookie and the other a player who scores but does little else to help a team win—and draft picks for a player who many people view as a fringe All-Star.  Aren't they gearing up to take over the league?  How did they not acquire a king's ransom for one of their best players, at a time when they seemingly had almost no pressure to make a move?  Is this Oklahoma City essentially giving the Lakers the keys to the Western Conference?

Most importantly, I wondered, were the future tax penalties that daunting to the Thunder brass that they felt that they could not possibly hold on to Harden?

As I turned the trade over in my mind, I settled on the following explanation: Morey wanted Harden, Presti asked for Lamb in return, Morey told Presti that he had to take Martin's last contract year.  Presti proceeded to add Aldrich, Cook and Hayward to make the numbers work.

Whether or not my conclusion is off base, my main takeaway from the transaction is that it marks a new step in Presti's development as the Oklahoma City GM.  

The team's core, for better or worse, has pretty much realized its potential.  Durant can improve on defense, Westbrook can work on his decision-making and Ibaka can develop a post game.  There are small places for improvement, but what we saw last season is probably close to what we will see this season.  Which is not a bad thing, by any means.  The Thunder could have won the NBA Finals last year, but they were primed to contend for the next 3-4 years, at least.

Presti's decision to move Harden was primarily based on money, sure, but I have to believe that he also wanted to strive for more with this team.  This trade nets them a good scorer in Kevin Martin, but Jeremy Lamb is the piece that matters most for Presti.

Lamb is a typical Thunder guy: He won a national championship in 2011 as a freshman with Kemba Walker and Co. at UConn. Later in the year he emerged as a leader for Team USA in the U19 World Championships in Latvia, and has succeeded in both roles of go-to guy and secondary scorer.  While he will only play sparingly in the Thunder rotation this season (behind both Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha in the shooting guard pecking order) Lamb is in a perfect learning environment.

Presti's decision to shuffle the deck also reveals his faith in the team's other core players to keep the ship steady and continue moving in the right direction.

An offseason of minor adjustments followed by today's seismic trade shakes up OKC's bench: Last season's second unit was manned by rookie Reggie Jackson, James Harden, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Nazr Mohammed. 

This year's bench will have, in addition to Jackson and Collison, Eric Maynor (recovering from an injury), Martin, Sefolosha, Lamb, Perry Jones III, and Hasheem Thabeet, a draft bust and another former UConn Husky who takes over as the Thunder's backup center now that Cole Aldrich is on his way to Houston.

If you're a Thunder fan, you probably oppose the Harden deal and think that it will set back the team this season, which it likely will.  Martin is as good a scorer as the man he directly replaces, but does not have nearly the same playmaking capabilities as Harden.  He will also likely be a one-year rental.

This trade may give the Lakers a slight upper hand in the battle to return to the NBA Finals, but it will also end up having enormous long-term benefits for the Thunder.  Apart from the obvious financial aspect, the Thunder acquire a player with a big upside who has the opportunity to grow alongside fellow rookie Perry Jones III.

It may not seem like it now, but with the Thunder adding yet another very young player with tremendous potential, they might end up as the winners of this trade as soon as two seasons from now. 

While Harden prepares to make max money for a leading role that he has never experienced, Lamb will be growing and preparing for his own expanded role within a competitive OKC system.  If the young Thunder players develop in any way like Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka have over the past several seasons, nothing will stop Oklahoma from winning a couple of championships before Presti has to worry about contracts again.