James Harden Proving OKC Thunder Made Wrong Decision

Marshall ZweigContributor IIFebruary 21, 2013

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 20:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets celebrates a three point shot during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center on February 20, 2013 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Call me crazy, but I'm guessing it wasn't James Harden's career-high 46 points on February 20th that hurt the Oklahoma City Thunder the most.

No. I'd speculate what hurt more was how easy it was to picture Harden doing it in a Thunder jersey, as the Bearded One sank shot after shot, free throw after free throw, leading the Houston Rockets to victory over the Thunder.

The Thunder traded Harden to the Rockets simply because he wanted more money than they were willing to pay. Looking to avoid losing Harden to free agency at season's end, thereby getting nothing for him, the Thunder took Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey up on his trade offer.

Instead of getting nothing for Harden after the season, they got a prince's ransom for him and two unheralded teammates before the season: guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, as well as two first-round picks and a second-round pick.

But oh, how I bet they would have reversed it all for a night.

Don't misunderstand me. To the untrained eye, the burgeoning juggernaut that is the Thunder franchise, recently one of the NBA's most consistently profitable, skipped nary a beat after the trade.

They are a wonderfully constructed team, and the deserving owners of the league's second-best record. Further, Martin, an extremely competent player, stepped in for Harden and has acquitted himself quite nicely, providing the Thunder's third-most points per game and rock-solid bench scoring.

Were Martin, an upcoming free agent, to leave the Thunder at season's end, Lamb, a superb athlete in his own right, might well be able to fill Martin's shoes for a fraction of the price—and he's signed until 2016.

In addition, those draft picks may allow the Thunder, in San Antonio Spurs-like fashion, to extend the longevity of what appears to be a potential dynasty.

Finally, the Thunder avoided significant luxury tax had Harden remained in the fold.

All in all, it seems the Thunder did the right thing on paper.

But paper doesn't always tell the whole story.

Draft picks, for all the analysis and research and interviewing put into them, are still a pig in a poke. Witness Houston's acquisition of former fifth overall pick Thomas Robinson.

Though I believe Morey will soon be proven to have made out like a bandit in this trade as Robinson continues to develop, I doubt one NBA general manager would take Robinson as high, were the 2012 draft to be redone today.

Martin provides a sure shooting touch, but lacks Harden's dynamism and playmaking ability. Further, Martin might leave, which would give the Thunder back one of the problems they tried to avoid by trading Harden in the first place.

Martin already makes $12.4 million a season. Harden, by comparison, is due to make $13.6 million next season. If Martin gives the Thunder a small-market discount, it will all have been worth it. If not, comparing Harden's and Martin's salaries next season will look like the punchline to a joke.

So in that scenario, the Thunder will almost certainly economize and go with Lamb. And though Lamb is the heir apparent, he's not played enough for anyone to be sure he can fill Martin's shoes.

Count me among those who had no idea Harden would be this transcendent in a starting role. I even questioned the deal for Houston, because I liked Martin and I hated giving up those picks.

But there's a reason they say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Looking at the way the chips have fallen, I can't help but see Harden as the one who could have been in hand, and Lamb and the draft picks as those waiting in the underbrush.

Harden doesn't just score in isolation, get the foul calls, share the ball and create in transition. He also, from his style of play to his singular look, energizes a fanbase. There were plenty of long faces when Harden left because, simply put, the guy's fun to root for. Much more fun than Kevin Martin or Jeremy Lamb.

Watching Harden light up the scoreboard Thursday like it was a Pachinko machine, I couldn't help but ask myself the question that I believe is the defining one for this trade:

If the Thunder had known Harden was going to be this good, would they have accepted the trade?

I say no way. I say luxury tax be damned, chances of losing him at season's end be damned. If the Thunder had had a crystal ball, James Harden would be in a Thunder jersey right now.

If this makes it easier to believe, assume Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich are back on the Rockets, and ask both Morey and Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti if they'd reverse the trade right now, with Harden's contract structured as it is with the Rockets.

It's patently obvious Morey would say no way in hell. What would Presti say?

I daresay Presti would trample his own mother in his mad rush to say yes, whether or not he'd want him on the court. You know why?

Because Presti would have the option of trading Harden again. And trading Harden now, based on the season he's had, would net Presti one of the game's elite players in return. In other words, at this point in time, that same Harden trade would be worth a whole lot more than Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two draft picks.

That ought to tell you everything you need to know about who the real winner of this trade is.