Irrespective of whether we believe he is truly worthy of it or not, it has surely always been known that it will take a maximum contract to lock up James Harden. If Eric Gordon can get the max on the open market, Harden certainly can. And it seems he now will. But not from the Thunder.

Reportedly, Oklahoma City went as high as $54 million in their offer to Harden. With a maximum salary of as-near-as-$60 million, the Thunder’s final offer left them a comparatively meager $6 million short of the maximum, $1.5 million per annum less to spend elsewhere on the roster should they yield and tender the maximum. That’s one less Lazar Hayward or Hasheem Thabeet type per season. That’s nothing, no hardship at all. And it’s therefore easy to find fault with Oklahoma City’s budgetary constraints, which had thus far allowed for spending as much as it took.

Similarly, though, Harden could be faulted for letting what is a trivial amount of money (in extremely, extremely relative terms) become an immovable obstacle that has broken up the league’s best young trio. Especially since he had previously spoken of the need for sacrifice. You can go either way on that one. Ultimately then, perhaps apportioning any blame is needless. It’s all too easy and helps nothing going forward. Both teams gave the others their instructions, and it seem the gap wasn’t bridgeable. Probably should have been, but it wasn’t.

Typically ballsy, Oklahoma City decided not to let the chips fall where they may. They dictated their terms, didn’t get what they wanted and acted fast. Whether they acted correctly or not, however, is a separate matter. Having not done much to upgrade the roster over the summer, save for the drafting of Perry Jones, the Thunder unequivocally and emphatically downgraded their roster with this deal. Even if Kevin Martin were to experience a career resurgence, he hasn’t the effect Harden does, and even if Jeremy Lamb realizes the best possible prognosis for his career, he’s not the half court weapon Harden already is.

They chose between Westbrook and Harden and chose Westbrook; they chose between Ibaka and Harden, and chose Ibaka. In a super teams era where it is demonstrably proven that teams need multiple consistent half court scoring options to succeed, Oklahoma City just lost a high quality one without gaining the means to replace him. They won’t have cap space, won’t pick from the top of the draft again, and now rely a great deal on the development of Lamb and the knees of Jones and Eric Maynor. They’re still good, very good, but they took a backwards step when they needed a final forward one. If an expiring contract doesn’t equal cap space, it doesn’t really matter how large it is. Not unless you’re going to use it in trade, as Houston just did.

After a summer of posturing, ready to make a move for a star, the Rockets finally did just that. They landed a top three player at his position, a sixth man extraordinaire, oft-lauded as the next Manu Ginobili who will now have an opportunity to be “the guy” that Manu never had. Indeed, Harden’s relentless ability to score out of half court sets via the pick-and-roll should help assuage any fears that he’ll struggle, and a couple of poor Finals performances shouldn’t be over thought. But to sign a scorer to a maximum value contract, you need to be pretty freaking confident that he can be the main offensive threat when teams are defending him accordingly. Never have we been able to establish that with Harden. Never have we been able to truly test the extent of his abilities. Houston are about to throw $80 million at a hypothesis.

And yet, how can they not? Houston’s plan has always been just to “get somebody.” The plan was always to stockpile assets, both basketball and financial, to be able to capitalize whenever an appropriate star becomes available. For a long time, it didn’t work, but now it has. They’ve now got that star for essentially nothing more than three mid-first round picks and an expiring backup they didn’t want anyway. Combined with Omer Asik (whose defensive abilities rival Howard and Chandler, and who can very soon be regarded as the second or third best center in the West) and Jeremy Lin (who will … earn them a lot of money), Houston is playoff relevant again.

They do have more to do though. They lack for veteran help (Carlos Delfino is their only player over 26, and Patrick Patterson is somehow their longest tenured), and they need more of the aforementioned consistent half court scoring that all contenders need. Lin isn’t it; indeed, as things stand, Houston has built itself a team capable of finishing roughly about ninth, which is exactly the same thing they worked so hard to blow up. Nevertheless, it’s a foundation, when last week there wasn’t. If they turn some of their remaining assets into another fringe star in the Rudy Gay or Josh Smith mold, they now sport the foundations of a 50-win, perennial playoff team.

Can James Harden be “the guy” on that team? We don’t yet know if he is. But, for the first time since McGrady, Houston finally has someone who might be.

Comments (14)

  1. Asik top 3 centre in the west? Do you really think that Chicago would have let him go for only 8 mil a season if he was capable of being a top 3 centre in west, come on man. They would have traded Noah instead and offered Asik 16m a season. This guy has gone from being a good bench player to Top 3 centre in the west?

    • I’d take:
      Howard, Cousins, Jefferson, Pekovic, M. Gasol, AND, Bogut over Asik.
      And I probably forgot about someone

      • He didn’t say right now, and soon doesn’t have to be next week. I think he can become a top 5 center no doubt. He’s got a better health record then a lot of centers. Has a lot of work to do but sleeper pick at C for sure.
        And you forgot Andrew Bynum

      • you forgot Gortat. and you’re right about that.

  2. Really overlooked the fact that the 1.5 million per annum would have adverse effects on the hard luxury tax system, especially when they only have 8 players on their roster if they extended Harden. And I don’t know if Harden is that good to say that Martin and Lamb won’t be half of what he is. He also owes half of how he is to the good system they had in Oklahoma, to the environment and the chemistry he shared with KD and Westbrook. Interesting if he’d find that same dynamic with a ballhog point guard and no perimeter threats in Houston.

  3. !s asik better than Howard? No. Gasol? No. Anthony Davis? No. Demarcus Cousins? No. Even Deandre Jordan has a higher upside than asik. To consider him the 2nd or 3rd best centre in the west is absolutely obsurd

  4. Yeah, I think you’re fawning over Harden’s game mildly here. He’s a bit of a ball-dominator, and although very very efficient, his internal clock often left Durant and Westbrook hands-on-knees in the corners. I have a sinking suspicion that Martin will bring the Thunder a different kind of weapon off the bench – a true catch-and-shoot 2 guard. Further, I am seeing this trade as a vote of confidence for Maynor. Harden was the Thunder’s backup point, really. And now with Maynor back, they might have bumped heads during those end of first quarter/start of second quarter runs. I hope Harden goes crazy in Houston with Lin. They’re both long and tongue-wagging and the style could be crazy. But I am starting to believe, despite your fervor, that the Thunder got better in the medium/long-term. Tons of picks. Flexibility. And TWO shooting guards to replace Harden immediately. Lastly, the gap between Martin/Lamb and Harden is about to be filled by Durant/Westbrook further asserting themselves. That actually sounds like a win.

    • I’m inclined to agree. Call me crazy, but I think Martin is an upgrade.

      • That seems dubious. There’s not a single thing Martin does better than Harden other than have a slightly lower turnover rate. Doesn’t mean it’s not a good medium/long term move for OKC, but I can’t see how it makes them better this year.

  5. Hardens no show in the finals allowed them to lowball.

  6. “They won’t have cap space, won’t pick from the top of the draft again…”

    Eh, really? How about those picks they got? Toronto’s just top 3 protected. A possible #4 pick doesn’t constitute top of the draft?

  7. Its too bad your Word-a-day calendar doesn’t teach you how to construct a sentence.

  8. The author is irrationally Bullish on the Rockets play off hopes and its players. Harden is a top 3 SG but I don’t see how him & some change equals a play off berth. And Asik is wildly overrated.

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