In the new collective bargaining agreement and the decreased flexibility to operate over the luxury tax, especially for small-market teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the reality of being unable to retain all of your stars will force more frequent trades like one that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets on Saturday.
The trade looked like an act of desperation on the part of Houston as it struck out time and time again in its attempts to land Dwight Howard. The Rockets were so desperate to obtain a superstar that they mortgaged their future to acquire a player who may not be the can't miss perennial All-Star that they paid for.
So how does this trade affect the Denver Nuggets?
From an initial standpoint, removing a very dangerous sixth man from the best team in the division seems like a win-win. However, the trade landed a huge haul that includes capable scorer Kevin Martin and his expiring contract, plus two first-round picks and rookie wingman Jeremy Lamb, who showcased his potential over the summer by averaging 20 points and four rebounds per game in the 2012 Summer League.
Martin is nowhere near the defender or all-around player that Harden was, but he will provide another scoring punch to the Westbrook-Durant combination. His contract is also expiring, so that frees up some flexibility for the Thunder in 2013 and gives them a decent trading chip if he doesn't fit in to land another piece in their quest for an NBA title.
Lamb may be the center piece to this deal. He should blossom into a very lethal scorer from the 2 position and has the length to be a good defender as well.
In 2013, Lamb may be added to the starting lineup or will fill Harden's shoes as the first one off the bench. Either way, look for him to be an affordable staple for the team for years to come.
The third component of this trade was the two first-round picks surrendered by Houston. One pick is lottery protected from the Toronto Raptors and the other comes via the Los Angeles Lakers, so neither will make a huge impact next year.
However, controlling a potential three picks next year, or four in the next two years, depending on the performance of the Raptors, provides a lot of firepower for moving up the board to land a long-term center to replace Kendrick Perkins down the road.
Next season, the Thunder should take a small step back, as Harden was their spark off the bench. His overall production will probably not be duplicated by Martin and Lamb, especially on the defensive end of the court.
This could give the Nuggets a window of opportunity to snag the division. They were definitely talented enough and deep enough to give the Thunder a run for their money before the Harden trade, and now it should be an even closer race down the stretch barring significant injuries.
However, with the flexibility that it provided Oklahoma City and the probable emergence of Lamb into a starting role, 2013 and beyond may see the Thunder actually become a stronger team down the road which does not bode well for Denver.
There are many wild card factors to this prediction, but knowing it would lose its star anyways, Oklahoma City management proved once again why it is one of the best in the NBA. It obtained a wealth of chips for the future, which is something that could hurt the Nuggets down the road.