James Harden boarded an airplane Sunday morning, bound for Houston. He was “devastated,” said someone who knows the Bearded One. Harden and his family both.
Said Harden was stunned that the Thunder actually traded him to the Rockets. He didn't believe the Thunder would do it.
But Sam Presti told him. Presti's lips now are sealed, but sources from both parties said that the Thunder appealed one final time to Harden on Friday. Upped its offer to $53 million over four years but told Harden if he didn't take it, he would be traded to Houston.
Presti didn't use that as a warning. He used it as a plea. He desperately wanted to keep Harden, but this was the last best offer.
And the Thunder gave Harden an hour to accept.
It wasn't that Presti was trying to play hardball, necessarily. He was on the clock. That deal with the Rockets wouldn't last forever; Houston wanted Harden early enough to sign him to a contract extension by the Halloween deadline. Presti had decided that if Harden wouldn't sign an extension with OKC, a preseason deal offered the Thunder its best leverage.
Harden, through his agent, said he needed three days. Presti stood firm on one hour.
And 60 minutes later, Presti called the Rockets and consummated a rare NBA October blockbuster trade.
So Harden got on that plane Sunday morning, and maybe “devastated” wasn't the accurate description. Maybe he just had buyer's remorse. Maybe he played a bad game of poker.
But Harden sounded awfully melancholy Sunday in Houston.
“It happened so fast, it happened very fast,” Harden said, a point Presti might dispute, since talks started in July.
“But this is the position I'm in now,” Harden said. “Just have to make the best of it.”
I don't know if Harden's chief goal was to get the most money he could get out of the Thunder, or get the most money he could get anywhere. His former comrades, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, made it clear. They wanted a big chunk of change, but they wanted it in OKC, and any compromise would come on the former, not the latter.
So who knows? Maybe Harden wants to be the face of a franchise, which he will be in Houston. He'll also have May and June free to host his yacht parties. The Thunder has turned into a sweatshop; you work virtually every day in May and maybe June, too.
But Harden misplayed it badly if he really did want to stay arm-in-arm with Kevin Durant and Westbrook, a status which in three short years has made him an Olympian, an NBA star and a cult hero far beyond little ol' OKC.
First off, Presti and Clay Bennett aren't exactly jokesters. They're serious men. You might not like what they say, but you can believe what they say — and yes, that means you, too, Seattle.
“We have to do what we say,” Presti said Sunday.
Plus, the Thunder contract offer not only was generous, it was borderline irresponsible. I have no idea how Presti thinks he was going to be able to pay Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden a combined $60 million a year, without luxury taxes endangering the franchise.
But Thunder ownership went out on a shaky limb and OK'd the offer.
Harden had been demanding a maximum contract from the Thunder and never really retreated. The difference between the Thunder's final offer and the max is about $5 million over four years — $1.25 million a year.
Of course, that's $1.25 million to Harden, but much more than that to the Thunder, because of luxury taxes.
Harden will get a five-year deal from Houston, upward of $78 million, an offer unavailable from the Thunder since the new labor agreement limits five-year deals to one per team, and Westbrook got the Thunder's exception a year ago.
So Harden has his max contract. Nice consolation prize for feeling devastated.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.