Thunder fans shouldn’t resent Harden, he never demanded a trade. The decision to deal him was one made by the Thunder, and it's one it didn't have to make.
It's for the best, though.
Watching potential waste is sad, especially in the NBA, where youngsters are routinely given multi-year deals and tens of millions of dollars because of it.
Immediately, Bobby Simmons and Eddy Curry come to mind.
Watching a player meet and exceed lofty expectations? There’s nothing sweeter; fans just hope that the player is wearing their team’s jersey when he does it.
And when a player that fans love leaves, scorned fans often rationalize the departure in a way that vilifies the player.
All too often, we oversimplify in order to assist lesser minds with comprehension.
Here, the simplified version is straightforward: The Houston Rockets paid James Harden more money than the Oklahoma City Thunder offered him, so Harden is just another pro athlete that cares more about his pocketbook than he does about winning.
That the Thunder are fresh off of winning the NBA’s Western Conference and the Rockets are fresh off of a third straight trip to the NBA’s annual draft lottery gives credence to the argument.
But the first and most important thing to realize is that Harden was not a free-agent and he did not leave the Thunder, he was traded. And the reason why he was traded was simple: The Thunder did not want to pay him what he was worth.
Due to a new rule in the NBA’s 2011 CBA, the Thunder were only able to offer Harden a four-year extension because the new agreement stipulates that a team may only have one player on its roster at a time that signed a five-year extension coming off of their rookie contract.
For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is that player and the rule doesn’t apply to Kevin Durant because he signed his extension under the now defunct 2005 CBA.
So yes, the Thunder could only offer Harden an extension for four years, despite having his Bird rights. But if the Thunder allowed Harden to become a restricted free agent, he could have only received a maximum four-year deal from another team, and the Thunder would have had three days to match it.
If the Thunder wanted to keep Harden and pay him what he was worth, he would be part of the Thunder.
The Thunder did not want to pay him what he was worth, but the Thunder could have.
Instead, general manager Sam Presti decided to be proactive and traded Harden to the Rockets after reportedly giving him one hour to decide whether or not he would accept a four-year offer worth $54 million.
James Harden is a member of the Houston Rockets because of the Oklahoma City Thunder, not because of James Harden.
Resenting him for that is tantamount to resenting a cat for not being able to bark.
In the end, Presti decided to deal Harden and turn the page rather than enduring a season-long barrage of never ending questions about Harden’s situation. While that’s certainly understandable, it isn’t necessarily correct.
Regardless, Harden now finds himself in Houston. Yes, because the Rockets traded for Harden before the Oct. 31 deadline to sign him to a rookie extension, it was able to ink him to a five-year deal, ala Westbrook.
So Harden did end up with the most money he could have possibly gotten, something the Thunder couldn’t offer him.
But the Rockets have given Harden something that most players in his situation probably value more: the opportunity to fulfill his potential while earning the most money he could have earned.
Along with O.J. Mayo of the Phoenix Suns and Eric Gordon of the New Orleans Hornets, Harden is one of the better young shooting guards in the league. Deep down inside, Harden knew that and he also must have known that for as long as he was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, he would have been Durant and Westbrook’s third wheel, playing second string.
For Harden, a career with the Thunder could have probably seen him racking up Sixth Man of the Year trophies, but never a Most Valuable Player award.
And why shouldn’t a young player want that for himself?
As stated here previously, there certainly is reason to believe that the Rockets will be a choice free-agent destination over the course of the coming years, and along with fellow youngsters Jeremy Lin (24) and Omer Asik (26), who’s to say that Harden can’t help lead the Rockets to supremacy in the Western Conference?
Morey gave Harden more money than Presti could have, but he also gave him an opportunity that Presti couldn’t have.
Feel free to simplify the reasoning and proclaim that Harden chased the dollars, but it’s entirely possible that he decided to chase the legacy and just so happened to end up with the dollars.
In 2005, current Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Johnson—then a member of the Phoenix Suns—found himself in a similar situation. Johnson reportedly asked Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver to allow him to leave for the Atlanta Hawks.
This, despite the fact that Johnson’s Suns team was coming off of an amazing season in which the team won 62 games.What's more, captain Steve Nash, head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Bryan Colangelo respectively won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, Coach of the Year Award and Executive of the Year Award.
The Suns were prepared to match the $70 million offer that Johnson received from the Hawks, but Johnson knew that a career in Phoenix meant that he’d always be a small fish in Steve Nash’s pond.
Johnson wanted his own lake, though. And deep down inside, Harden did, too.
Johnson would spend seven years in Atlanta and would never get close to contending for a championship.
The same fate may await Harden, but for better or worse, we’ll all have the opportunity to find out how good he really is. We’ll know where his ceiling is and if he has the talent to lead an NBA team to the highest of heights.
Those are all questions that could only have been answered if Harden made an unofficial commitment to the Rockets before Morey pulled the trigger on the trade.
Resenting Harden for wearing white and red instead of Thunder blue is understandable, but that doesn’t make it right. One way or another, we’ll see if Harden can fulfill his immense potential.
That shouldn’t warrant jeers, it should command respect.