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OKC Thunder: James Harden trade on brink of season lifts cloud

COMMENTARY — Just when the question of James Harden threatened to hang over the Oklahoma City Thunder season, Sam Presti answered it.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 29, 2012

Walking into the Thunder practice facility as the team finishes practice, the differences are obvious.

There is no James Harden doing moves to the basket. No Cole Aldrich practicing post moves. No Daequan Cook firing 3-pointers. No Lazar Hayward shooting free throws.

There is no cloud of uncertainty either.

Many were shocked by the timing of the big trade that sent Harden to Houston. Players tweeted their surprise. Pundits voiced their astonishment.

Clearly, they thought the Thunder would keep Harden this season even if the two sides couldn't reach a deal for a contract extension by the Wednesday deadline. Keep the young core together for one last run at a title, they surmised. Play it out. See what happens.

But doing that would've left a dark cloud hanging over this team. There would've been uncertainty. There would've been questions.

Lots of questions.

Would Harden be dealt before the trade deadline? Would the team be changed in the middle of the season? Would they have to go through all of this again after the season when free agency opened?

How would the Thunder handle all of that?

“That's a great question,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said when I asked him after Monday's practice. “It's something we haven't experienced before.”

No, they haven't.

And that's not by accident. Sam Presti refuses to allow contract questions to linger long, especially where core players are concerned. The Thunder general manager showed up on Kevin Durant's doorstep at 11:01 p.m., the first minute of the first day the team could negotiate a contract extension with him. They had a deal done by 11:02 p.m.

There was no late-night visit to Russell Westbrook when he was eligible for an extension last season, but that was because of the lockout. Still, Presti and Co. could start negotiating with him on Dec. 1, and only six weeks later, they had an agreement.

The closest Presti came to allowing a big question mark to hang over the team was with Jeff Green. The two sides broke off negotiations in late October 2010, and for three-plus months, everyone wondered what would happen.

But before the February trading deadline, Presti dealt him to Boston for Kendrick Perkins.

Presti hasn't been one to let things linger.

He was true to form with Harden.

“We got to a point ... where we needed to make a decision,” he said.

Want to know why the Thunder did this deal now?

It starts with Harden's desire to have not only a max deal but also a five-year max deal. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are only allowed to have one player with that kind of contract, and the Thunder had already signed Westbrook to a five-year max deal. OKC couldn't give Harden what he wanted, and truth be told, neither could some other teams who already had players with a five-year max contract.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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