Q&A WITH TOM PENN
FORMER PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS VP OF BASKETBALL OPERATIONS AND CURRENT ESPN NBA ANALYST
What was your reaction to the James Harden trade?
“Back then I was surprised when it happened because I felt like he was so critically important to their championship run and their chance to win that I had expected that there would be a long-term agreement. That being said, the deal Sam Presti was able to get brought back substantial assets for James Harden. They obviously made the strategic decision to trade him at a time when they could get assets for him rather than be all or nothing a year from that time.”
What made you look at the trade differently as time went on?
“The team's obviously performed very, very well. Kevin Martin's been what they expected, a positional replacement who puts up good numbers, provides spark off the bench and is thrilled to do it. That was the other factor with James, how satisfied was he going to continue to be in the second-fiddle role so to speak. He's obviously embraced the opportunity to be “The Man” in Houston. He's performed quite well. So it's difficult to know how he would have been had he stayed in that role in Oklahoma City with that collection of talent.”
Would the Thunder still have been able to get substantial assets had the team waited to make a deal?
“Well, next summer they would have had restricted free agency rights on James Harden. So they were not going to lose James Harden unless they chose to. But they would have been staring in the face of what I like to call a toxic offer from another team where there would have been many incentives for them not to match. For example, a large, frontloaded salary, or a signing bonus, combined with an all max-out offer that would have taken them year over year deep into the luxury tax. And next year begins the new luxury tax system, which is far more punitive than the old system. So all those factors combined would have made it a true all or nothing and an expensive one.”
What would have re-signing James to a max deal done to the Thunder's financial future?
“The next couple of years as constituted they're about $5 million to $8 million under (the tax threshold) for the next couple of years. And had they given a near-max deal, they weren't willing to give the max, they would have swung into tax territory year over year. They could have backed their way out by, you've heard about their ability to maybe amnesty Kendrick Perkins. But what would have been more likely would have been trade him to one of these teams with cap room. They wouldn't just amnesty him. But they could have found a home for him to relieve the financial pressure. But it would have just put them on a course where if they wanted to incrementally improve that core four they would have had to likely go deeper into the tax.”
Why might amnestying Perkins not be a realistic possibility?
“That gets thrown around a lot as an alternative. There are a couple of challenges with it. The first one is you have to do it early. I think we in the media try to come up with a laundry list of guys likely to be amnestied just so that we have a laundry list. But the likelihood in a lot of these cases is a lot more slim because you're just giving up on paying talent to go somewhere else and play. A player like Kendrick Perkins, if they wanted to move him, as a dependable big with championship experience, I would think they could park him in someone else's cap room because someone would have a use for him.”