While it was clear that the Thunder and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year award winner were having some problems reaching an agreement on a contract extension with the Oct. 31 deadline looming, this move all but signals the Thunder aren’t willing to go all-in on a championship in 2012-13.
In exchange for Harden, Cole Adrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Haywood, the Thunder received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a handful of draft picks. The trade is somewhat defensible in the long run—two of the picks are first-rounders, and Martin’s contract is expiring—but it’s a clear downgrade for the upcoming season.
Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1 steal while burying 49.1 percent of his field goals and 39 percent of his three-point attempts. He’s an invaluable player off the bench and kept OKC’s offense clicking, even when stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were having tough shooting nights.
While Harden didn’t have the best NBA Finals—with averages of 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 37.5 percent shooting—he was an important part of the Thunder’s core and will not be replaceable by either Martin or Lamb.
There’s a reason why Rockets GM Daryl Morey pounced on the chance to give the former Arizona State Sun Devil a maximum deal, on top of trading a number of valuable pieces away. He’s trying to turn his team into a serious contender in the Western Conference and knows that acquiring surefire stars like Harden is instrumental in that process.
That makes it even more questionable as to why GM Sam Presti, widely regarded as one of the best front office people in the sport, would allow Harden to get away.
Perhaps it's because he realizes that OKC cannot compete with the Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat in 2012-13 or beyond with a core of Harden, Durant and Westbrook, and it wasn’t worth paying an exorbitant tax figure to keep those three—plus the key role players.
Regardless of the reason, it’s hard to consider the Thunder a real threat to challenge the Heat again for a championship and it’s also quite a realistic scenario to see the Lakers defeat them in the playoffs without Harden.
OKC is going to certainly be a postseason regular as long as KD and Westbrook are balling for the squad, but it isn't going to be raising a banner until it gets another player of Harden’s caliber back on the roster.