Breaking Down How Oklahoma City Thunder Overplayed Its Hand with James Harden

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterOctober 31, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on court with his head down in the second half against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

You may not know who George Santayana was, but you've probably heard or read some variation of the Spanish thinker's most famous saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

It's safe to suggest that Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder and a man regarded around the NBA for his sharp intellect, has at least a passing familiarity with Santayana's oft-repeated warning. So, too, should he remember the recent history that might have otherwise dissuaded him from trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets so suddenly, just days before the Thunder's season-opener.

Rewind back to the 2011 Western Conference Finals. The inexperienced Thunder lose four out of five games to the Dallas Mavericks, who would go on to beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals shortly thereafter. As dominant as Dirk Nowitzki is offensively, Tyson Chandler is just as crucial on the other end, challenging shots at the rim and anchoring a stand-up defensive effort against arguably the most athletic team in the league.

Fast forward to late April of 2012. The Thunder and the Mavs are once again facing off in the playoffs, except this time, the young guns have the clear upper hand. Dallas has slipped from the No. 3 seed to the No. 7 seed in the West, just two games ahead of the ninth-place Houston Rockets. Their regular season is a grind unbecoming of a defending champion, what with Dirk rounding so slowly into shape and Lamar Odom stirring up drama, reality TV-style.

It didn't have to be like that, though. The Mavs could've kept the band together after winning the title, but opted instead to let Tyson Chandler, the now-reigning Defensive Player of the Year, join the New York Knicks for little more than a trade exception in return. The rationale, it seemed, was for the Mavs to maintain some semblance of financial flexibility under the new collective bargaining.

Or, better yet, roll the dice in pursuit of Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard during the summer of 2012, to gamble the future of the franchise on free agents.

Surely, one "down" year would be a fair price to pay for a superstar-studded lineup, right?

A lineup that never came to be. Williams re-upped with the Brooklyn Nets, and Dwight Howard, after opting into the final year of his contract with the Orlando Magic, was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Instead, the Mavs reloaded with stopgaps and assorted flotsam, albeit enough to handle the work-in-progress Lakers on opening night. Even with that victory, which came while Dirk and Chris Kaman were sitting on the sideline in street clothes, Dallas' outlook for this season (and likely for seasons to come) is bleaker than it has been in some time. Their championship window is slammed shut until further notice.

But it didn't have to be that way. Sam Presti should know, because he was witness to its opening and closing.

And because it was James Harden who helped to bury the Mavs this past spring. Harden ripped out Dallas' collective heart in that series time and again. His 18.3 points (on 50 percent shooting, 46.2 percent from three), 5.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists don't even begin to illustrate how he took over three close games in crunch time, how he turned what could've been a closely-contested series into an OKC sweep.

Not that the Thunder are completely devoid of clutch performers without him. Kevin Durant is still one of the most reliable late-game options in the league, as is Russell Westbrook.

Nor does OKC's situation run entirely parallel to Dallas'. Differences in market size aside, the Mavs were dealing with an over-30 Nowitzki and a soon-to-be-30 Chandler, whereas the Thunder's stars are all in their early-to-mid-20s and, as such, may well carry a contender again before their days are done.

And, at the very least, Presti got something in return for his pricey star.

Still, why sacrifice title contention now for what a trade bounty might bring down the line? Championship windows are tricky to open and even trickier to keep that, but the Thunder had the pieces to do just that—three perimeter-oriented stars in an even more perimeter-oriented league.

Was money really an issue for OKC? Its market may be among the smallest in the NBA and its television deal ($15 million per year) hardly on par with those of the Lakers and the Knicks, but it's not as though the Thunder were (or are) hurting for money.

According to Forbes, the Thunder have turned a profit in each of the last three seasons, making them one of only a handful of teams to do so. It certainly helps that they've sold out nearly every game since fleeing Seattle in 2008 and that they've been able to rake in additional revenue from the 22 playoff games they've hosted over the last three seasons.

A rising payroll would've made it more difficult for OKC to maintain its profit margin, though continued title contention (and the postseason appearances garnered therein) would figure to have offset at least some of those costs.

You know what might really hurt the Thunder's bottom line, though? Falling short of expectations. Squandering a golden opportunity. Going cheap on their roster and (potentially) paying the price with fewer playoff games and reduced fan fervor as a result.

Isn't the point of the whole exercise of owning an NBA team to compete for a championship? The Thunder came so close to in 2012. They managed to hang tough with the Miami Heat through the first four games despite Scott Brooks' stubborn insistence on playing big against Miami's small ball and despite LeBron James putting on a show like no perimeter player had since Michael Jordan.

So naturally, rather than allow the young core of that team to learn from its mistakes and grow into a group of grizzled veterans, Presti broke it up. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Harden's camp and OKC's front office were approximately $6 million apart—Harden wanted the full four-year, $60 million max, while Presti held the line at $54 million over that same span.

Even though ownership might've been willing to budge.

Once Presti showed his cards, once he made it clear to Harden that he either take the offer or prepare for a trip to Space City, James had no choice.

Because, in Houston, he'd be in line for a five-year, $78 million pact as the team's "designated player," with the opportunity to blossom into a superstar alongside another bright young talent in Jeremy Lin. Whatever Harden was leaving behind in OKC—a close relationship with Durant and Westbrook, his role as the sixth man on a Western Conference powerhouse, the small-town appeal of the locale—couldn't quite make up for the $24 million he'd be sacrificing. His role on the bench was cushy, but not cushy enough to avoid significant blowback from shrinking in the Finals, even after being such a difference-maker for OKC through the first three rounds of the 2012 postseason. 

Financially speaking, the trade was a win-win. Harden will get paid and the Thunder won't be pressed against the luxury tax 'til kingdom come. Kevin Martin will be off the books next summer, Jeremy Lamb will be a cheap asset for several more years and those draft picks could turn into valuable rotation players down the line.

What's the problem then? Shouldn't everyone be happy?

Not if, as mentioned before, the goal of any organization is to win at the highest level. As Grantland's Bill Simmons noted so astutely, what made the trade so stunning was that OKC so clearly put profit before product, in an industry (professional sports) where A) winning is everything, and B) profitability is icing on the cake, often resulting either from priming the pump for success or shutting down spending entirely.

Just ask Mark Cuban, who spent so lavishly to turn the Mavs into a winning outfit (and hasn't seen them turn a profit since 2003) that some of his minority partners were compelled to sue him for doing so.

And whose decision to cut costs since then has resulted in a downturn of his franchise's fortunes.

The terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, about which Cuban was so paranoid, may seem unfair to the small-market Thunder, but there's no need to cry for OKC's ownership—which, by the way, was complicit in the system-shifting changes. Team chairman Clay Bennett is a mega-millionaire hedge fund manager, and Aubrey McClendon, another one of the organization's principal shareholders, is a billionaire energy mogul in the Southwest.

Something tells me they could afford to take a loss, as they seemingly were willing to do.

Presti, though, appears to have been less inclined to put his team in a tough spot as far as reshaping the roster is concerned. With Harden signed for the long-term, the Thunder would've been mired in luxury-tax territory for the next three to four years, leaving them with very few avenues through which to bring in talent.

Then again, even that decision could've been postponed. Harden was still under contract for the 2012-13 season (at a cut rate, mind you). The Thunder could've played out the string, competed for a title and revisited the issue in the summer, when the prospect of a deadline wouldn't be quite so pressing.

Could OKC not have fielded similar (or better) offers in July? The Thunder would've been in control of Harden's restricted free agency either way. They'd be able to re-sign him if they so chose, and if a better sign-and-trade package was to be found, they could've jumped on that.

There would've always been the option of amnestying Kendrick Perkins to avoid the luxury tax hit, even if paying him not to play wouldn't have been ideal and/or that of entertaining trade offers for Serge Ibaka.

What's that? The uncertainty surrounding Harden's situation might've been a distraction for the Thunder, a crushing blow to their vaunted team chemistry?

Any more so than shipping Harden out in the dead of night and essentially replacing him with Kevin Martin, a 29-year-old free-agent-to-be who hasn't so much as sniffed the postseason since 2006?

Some segment of the Thunder's central cast may have understood it, or at least saw it coming, but what message does such a seemingly financially-motivated move send to a team on the verge of greatness? Will the faith of the team's stars in the process be so unshakeable if this gamble doesn't pay off and if the front office looks overly frugal as a result?

And what happens if/when the 23-year-old Harden comes into his own in Houston? What happens when OKC's offense stagnates and Durant and Westbrook are left to save the day in isolation, as was so often the case in recent years, without the Beard coming to the rescue?

Will his former teammates wonder what could've been, perhaps as the Mavs might've after seeing Chandler succeed in New York? What sort of undue pressure (if any) will Martin and Lamb feel to make up for Harden's absence?

More importantly, what's Nick Collison to do without having Harden put him to good use in the pick-and-roll?

Okay, so maybe that's not the chief concern here. The real point, the real tragedy in all of this, is that the Thunder had a chance to be special for a long, long time. Their championship window was wide-open, with three 20-somethings among the top 20 or so players in the NBA at their disposal and a fourth (Ibaka) who was poised to blossom into a superb front-court contributor.

Instead, Presti and the Thunder went the other way. Rather than enjoying the view and milking it for all it's worth, they slammed that window shut just when the sun was starting to shine through a clear, blue sky over the Great Plains.

Now, they can only hope that they didn't smash their fingers on the sill, that Martin can replace Harden's production in the interim and that Lamb-plus-draft-picks turn into something much more going forward.

Otherwise, Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder may well find themselves chasing playoff series wins rather than championships, as Dirk and the Mavs now are, while the famous words of George Santayana echo through the chambers at Chesapeake Energy Arena.


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