On Wednesday night at the Toyota Center, with the All-Star accoutrements only just boxed up and packed away, Houston Rockets guard James Harden showed that he could someday be the best player in the league.
The sweetest part? He did it against his old team.
Harden went ballistic in the 122-119 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. He finished with 46 points on 14-of-19 shooting, including 7-of-8 from deep. He hauled in eight boards, dished six dimes and added a steal and a block for good measure.
So you'd have to be crazy to trade this guy, right?
Tell that to OKC general manager Sam Presti. He's the one who chose Serge Ibaka over Harden.
And he made a huge mistake.
The OKC Model
Since 2008, the Thunder have been building the franchise around a team-first concept. Presti has been managing the roster like a Swiss watchmaker, cajoling players into signing deals on terms friendly to the organization.
In January 2012, Russell Westbrook signed a contract extension before hitting restricted free agency. He took the standard max deal instead of waiting for the "Rose rule" super-max deal he could have gotten.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix tweeted as much:
Chris Mannix @ChrisMannixYS
Westbrook agreed to the regular max, which guarantees him 25 percent of Thunder cap next season. He could have held out for the supermax...2012-1-19 18:39:19
Under the CBA's new Rose rule, a player can get a deal worth 30 percent of the annual salary cap if he attains certain benchmarks during his rookie contract (an MVP, two All-NBA teams or two All-Star starts), instead of the standard 25 percent max.
Westbrook made the All-NBA second team last season (his second appearance), meaning he walked away from money in the end. The difference between the max and super-max deals ends up being about $3 million-plus per year, so it's not chump change.
And it's precisely those savings on Westbrook that allowed the Thunder to discuss extensions with Ibaka and Harden before they hit restricted free agency.
Ibaka signed, but Harden did not. The Beard rejected OKC's beautiful model.
In late August of 2012, the Thunder inked their Serge Protector to a four-year, $49 million extension.
It was great to lock up the young shot-blocker at that price. Beckley Mason of ESPN called the deal an "outright coup for Thunder general manager Sam Presti."
But it also put into doubt Presti's ability to re-sign Harden.
As ESPN noted at the time of the trade, Presti "dismissed the notion" that Ibaka's extension would necessarily prompt Harden to skip town.
Ultimately, OKC offered Harden four years and $55 million. It was though the team had requested to shave off his beard. Harden wanted a max contract—period.
That showdown prompted October's blockbuster trade that shipped Harden to Houston. Due to financial flexibility, Rockets GM Daryl Morey was able to give Harden the max deal he coveted—five years, $80 million.
That's a lot of dough for a sixth man, though Harden is no ordinary sixth man. He's of the All-Star, Olympic, Sixth Man of the Year variety.
But as Presti told reporters following the Harden trade (via Royce Young of CBS Sports):
It's a combination, a mutual interest, a give and take, finding a common ground, but sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes there's just not a solution...We were very transparent with James that if this is not acceptable then we were going to have to move towards making the best decision for the franchise given the fact that it was becoming a reality that more than likely he'd be signing elsewhere at the end of the season. Once that reality was met, as we have in the past, this organization turned the page.
There was no common ground in that negotiation. No give and take. Presti offered fat stacks of cash; Harden wanted them to be fatter.
And because of Ibaka's extension, Westbrook's max deal, Kevin Durant's super-max contract and Kendrick Perkins' $8 million salary, OKC had no wiggle room to offer Harden more money.
Ibaka's contract was the last straw.
While it's true that Ibaka shows a preternatural instinct for shot-blocking and has developed an outside jump shot (raising his average from 9.1 points per game last season to 13.5 this season), he also can't crack an eight-rebound average because he struggles on the defensive boards.
Ibaka is not nearly as dynamic as James Harden, and even though the Thunder are cruising along in second place in the West right now, it's hard to say how we will judge this deal in three years' time.
Oh, what could have been had Harden stayed in Oklahoma City?
At the end of the day, you have to admire Presti's deal-making. He offered Harden what he could.
When Presti was rebuffed, he flipped Harden for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. Not a bad haul. Presti also preserved his leverage by making the trade before the season instead of waiting until the trade deadline.
Martin is averaging 15 points a night off the bench, which almost duplicates what Harden put up last year. Overall, OKC's scoring per game is up from 103.1 last season to 106.3 this season.
But there's nothing quite like actually having Harden instead of someone to replicate his production.
Harden is only 23 years old and still appears to be plumbing the depths of his talent. With Houston, he's raised his scoring average by nearly 10 points a night and is fifth in the league in points per game.
If OKC had found a way to keep Harden in a Thunder uniform for four more seasons, I'd venture to say that most prognosticators would bet on them winning a couple of championships—even if they had to trade Ibaka to retain Harden.
Currently, the Thunder have two of the best offensive players in the NBA in Durant and Westbrook. But with Harden, that offense was downright terrifying.
That young nucleus seemed like a certain recipe for success, but it wasn't to be. Such is the reality of the new NBA and its harsh luxury tax.
Ultimately, Harden is a better player than Ibaka, with a much greater reservoir of potential. Presti conducted his deals in reverse order and paid the price.
The Thunder will have another shot at the title this year, but there is an absence in the team; a melancholy, a yearning for something lost.
That's the beard they shipped down to Houston.