The NBA Draft came and went Thursday, and the Thunder did not trade James Harden. It was going to take a major draft pick to trump that piece of news. The Thunder gave it a good run by getting Baylor’s Perry Jones III, who just a year ago seemed headed for the high lottery.
Jones could be a steal at No. 28 overall. He also could be a bust, which is no big deal at No. 28. But Jones isn’t likely to help a lot during the 2012-13 season, which makes Harden’s situation the most pressing for the Thunder.
Harden is eligible to sign a contract extension beginning July 1. Can the Thunder afford to keep him, considering they’ve got so much money tied up in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? To be determined.
But this much we know. Trading Harden now would have been a violation of trust, seems to me.
The NBA is a business. We all know that. But trading Harden at this point would have gone against everything the Thunder has said it is and wants to be.
How could the Thunder trade Harden the week after he stood on the sidelines of American Airlines Arena, in the final minutes of the NBA Finals, arm-in-arm with Durant and Westbrook, watching Miami in victory celebration. It was a clear show of solidarity for the Thunder future. A declaration that the Thunder planned to change the outcome next season and that Harden was clearly seen as part of the OKC trinity.
How could the Thunder trade Harden the week after he declared “this is something special here” and said money would not be paramount in his upcoming contract negotiation. Said the Thunder has something that money “can’t buy. A dynasty could be, is being, built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. This team is like a family. Like, we’re really brothers. We hang out most of the time every single day. You won’t find any other team like this. I love it here.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that Harden is an automatic for signing with the Thunder this summer. The Thunder has some really tough choices to make on payroll, and Harden (and Serge Ibaka) has some really tough choices to make concerning his salary. The Thunder will not be able to pay him market value. There’s no way.
But despite the difficulty of the upcoming negotiation, the Thunder has to at least try. You can’t say you’ve built an organization by caring about people, produce a quality band of ballplayers who declare their allegiance to the franchise and each other, and then trade one of the cornerstones without at least giving it all a chance to work,.
The Thunder traded Jeff Green in February 2011, and Green was a building block affectionately known as Uncle Jeff around the OKC locker room. But Green was given the chance to sign a contract extension. He chose not to — totally within his right — and the Thunder had to act.
The Thunder did not have to act now. Particularly since negotiations haven’t really even started and could continue conceivably through October.
Of media reports that the Thunder was considering trading Harden for a high draft pick to take Florida guard Bradley Beal, general manager Sam Presti said, “I couldn’t tell you where that stuff starts, because we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. All I can say is it’s that time of year. James Harden is a coveted player. But I don’t think anyone covets him as much as we do. He’s a player that, as we’ve said before, has really grown with this organization and we’re really excited about having him.”
That’s GM-speak. And it’s all true until the moment it’s not. But in this case, it makes absolute sense. I didn’t see any way Presti could have traded Harden in this month of June and kept any kind of credibility with his players. You build something like this to keep it together, not to tear it apart, and while the Thunder will have some tough decisions in the future and clearly will at some point bid farewell to a building-block player, that time is not now.