My immediate response and description of Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti’s trade of James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round draft picks and a second round pick is that it was ninja-like — they killed Harden’s OKC career quietly and sneakily, and nobody really saw it coming.
Oh, sure, people were talking about a potential Harden trade for about a year, but surely nobody expected this to happen right now. After Harden reportedly turned down a four-year offer in the range of $53-54 million from Presti — an offer that was clearly of the “take it or leave it” variety — Presti must have called Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who apparently had an offer on the table and has been lusting after a max-level player ever since his Yao-McGrady duo failed to bear fruit.
This trade allows the Thunder to avoid losing Harden for nothing when he inevitably signs a max contract next off-season, replaces him with a dynamic scorer in Martin who is no Harden but averages more points per 36 minutes over his career than Harden scored last season (21.2 to 19.3), adds a promising rookie guard in Jeremy Lamb — who may end up with Martin’s sixth man job in OKC since Martin is an unrestricted free agent after this season — and some draft picks. To be clear, Harden is definitely a superior talent to Martin — aside from his more well-rounded game, Harden scored at a truly elite level of efficiency as a 22-year-old last season. He joined Amar’e Stoudemire (2007-08) and Steve Nash (2006-07) as players who scored at least 15 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage over .650 within the past decade.
Of course, it’s one thing to score at that level of efficiency when you’re the third option on a team, and it’s another thing to come close to that when you’re the first option, which he will be on the Rockets. Morey obviously thinks Harden is worthy of a max contract, or else he wouldn’t have made this trade. Whether or not Presti thinks Harden is worth a max contract is irrelevant, because the punitive measures of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in regards to luxury taxes must have forced his hand here.
In the immediate finger-pointing that is already occurring among Thunder fans in the wake of this deal, some people will deride Harden as being greedy while others will accuse Thunder majority owner Clay Bennett of being cheap. Neither side will be entirely wrong, but all of them should be considered a little bit unrealistic. It’s easy to pass judgement on a situation like this when it’s not your money, isn’t it?
What does this do for the Thunder’s title chances in 2013? Who the hell knows at this point? One thing that hasn’t changed is that the Lakers could stomp the Thunder in a Western Conference Final series if they figure out how to make their pieces work together. That doesn’t mean they will or they would have if Harden had played out this season in OKC, but let’s not pretend that Presti dashed a certain return to the NBA Finals with this trade. The Thunder remain a top-five NBA team and will most likely remain at that level for several seasons to come.
How this trade helps the Rockets in the long term remains less clear to me. Harden’s obviously an upgrade over Martin, but is he even a top 10 player? Looking strictly at their roster for this season, I think this trade simply makes them a better non-playoff team. One has to assume that Morey has designs on adding a second max-level player after this season. Someone like… Josh Smith, maybe?
A trade like this is always shocking, but once the initial surprise wears off it’s actually somewhat predictable considering the philosophies of the respective teams. There was no way Presti was going to be allowed to give Harden a max contract, assuming that’s what he wanted. And it’s well-established that Morey believes this is a star-driven league, and he just landed a star, in a manner of speaking.
At the end of the day, Thunder fans should keep in mind that it’s Presti’s job to be a businessman, and this is a business, man. As for Harden, we may never know if he would have accepted Presti’s final offer if he knew this would be the end result of turning it down. If that’s the case, there’s your reminder of what can happen when somebody at the other end of the poker table calls your bluff.
(Note: This trade was initially reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, because of course it was.)