Sam Presti, from the very beginning, gave it to you straight.
“There are some inherent challenges that we face,” he began saying at the start of July, when this four-month roller coaster first took off.
Through every twist and turn, and clearly there were plenty despite how silky the ride seemed due to 118 days of unharmed silence coming out of backroom negotiations, the Thunder’s general manager never gave up hope.
“James is somebody we value,” Presti repeatedly said. “We think he’s an important part to what we’re trying to do.”
But Presti never made any promises.
“I can’t tell you how it’s going to end.”
On a frosty final Saturday night in October, we received our answer.
The Oklahoma City Thunder traded reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to Houston, parting ways with a critical component in last year’s success that saw the franchise journey to its first NBA Finals.
Harden will be sent to Houston for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. The Thunder is also sending center Cole Aldrich and guards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Rockets.
The deal comes on the heels of negligible progress being made on a contract extension for Harden following nearly four months of negotiating that began on July 1. As a result, the Thunder parted ways with the fan favorite after stagnant talks made it clear Harden would be too much of a financial burden to keep.
“We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day these situations have to work for all those involved,” Presti said in a statement released by the team late Saturday night.
If no deal was reached on an extension by Wednesday’s midnight Eastern deadline, Harden would have become a restricted free agent next summer. Houston is believed to now be ready to ink Harden to the maximum-allowable contract that Harden has long been believed to covet.
A report by Yahoo! Sports on Saturday afternoon said Harden recently turned down a four-year extension worth roughly $52 million but was still in negotiations with the Thunder. The report also was the latest to say Harden is pushing for a max deal, expected to be roughly $60 million over four years.
But with max contracts extended to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as more than $52 million invested in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins over the next three seasons alone — the Thunder faced the possibility of stiff penalties under the new, more punitive collective bargaining agreement.
“Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers,” Presti said. “We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin’s caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team.”
The Thunder is believed to have offered Harden a deal closer to $54 million over four years. It was a risky proposition and one that proved that ownership, led by team chairman Clay Bennett, was willing to pony up to remain competitive. Had the Thunder been able to ink Harden to that $13.5 million annual contract, a franchise playing in the league’s third smallest market would have owed $69 million to just five players next season. That figure would have increased to $72 million in 2014-15 for those same five players.
The tax threshold for this season is $70.3 million. Starting next season, teams must pay an incremental rate starting at $1.50 for every dollar they exceed the threshold.
Though news of the trade was met with widespread shock and a bevy of backlash among the fan base, Presti stuck to his stated goal of doing what’s in the best interest of the long term health of the franchise.
“At the end of the day, you have to do the best thing for the organization,” Presti said at his preseason press conference. “That’s what my job is. The day that I stop doing what’s in the best interest of the organization is the day that you should get somebody else.”
NBA commissioner David Stern has trumpeted “player sharing” in this new collective bargaining agreement, and the Thunder becomes the first team to fall victim to the more stringent rules.
Oklahoma City, however, will receive a protected first-round pick from Toronto (that will be conveyed to the Thunder if it is No. 4 through No. 14), a pick the Raptors sent Houston in the Kyle Lowry trade, as well as a top 20 protected first-round pick from Dallas, which the Rockets received from the Lakers in last year’s Derek Fisher trade. L.A. received the pick from Dallas in the Lamar Odom trade.
The second-round pick is a 2013 selection originally belonging to Charlotte. Houston acquired it from Boston in the Courtney Lee trade. It’s the same pick the NBA recently forced the Thunder to convey to the Celtics as compensation for Jeff Green missing the entire 2011-12 season with a heart condition.
Martin, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard, is a career 18.4-point scorer who is known for his perimeter shooting and efficiency. The 29-year-old Martin is entering his ninth season and will make $12.9 million in the final year of his contract. He told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday night that he was “very happy” but called the trade “bittersweet.”
Lamb, this year’s 12th overall pick, averaged 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals last season as a sophomore at Connecticut. Lamb, 20, is among the most athletic rookies in this year’s class.
Harden will make his lone appearance inside Chesapeake Energy Arena as a member of the Rockets on Nov. 28.
“We appreciate James, Cole, Daequan and Lazar’s contributions to the Thunder organization and this community and wish them the best in the future,” Presti said.