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.