Oklahoma City Thunder: Why the James Harden move was the right move for OKC

The one-year anniversary of the most controversial transaction Oklahoma City's NBA history came and went Sunday. Darnell Mayberry looks back at the trade and why the Thunder did what it did.
by Darnell Mayberry and Anthony Slater Modified: October 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm •  Published: October 27, 2013
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The Thunder did not want to trade James Harden.

And the Thunder did not trade the James Harden you see today.

As the one-year anniversary of the most controversial transaction in Oklahoma City's NBA history came and went Sunday, those are the two most important things to remember.

A close third is the Thunder is still a consensus championship contender despite the trade, and it is projected to continue to be just that for the foreseeable future thanks in part to the assets the franchise took back — two of them, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams, will start showing their value in the season opener Wednesday.

Yet for the past year, those three facts have been the untold stories of the Thunder when it comes to the Harden saga. What you don't hear, largely because the organization has kept quiet about it while being determined to move on, is how Oklahoma City made the best decision it could have under the circumstances.

A perfect storm ultimately is what led to Harden's departure, not penny-pinching.

First, the Thunder hit home runs in three consecutive drafts, landing Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008 and Harden in 2009. Few franchises have ever had such a string of success.

Then, just as the first wave of that quartet became eligible for contract extensions, the NBA went through a labor dispute. The eventual agreement contained a complete set of new rules, most of which made it more taxing on teams to hoard talent. NBA commissioner David Stern even came through Oklahoma City on Christmas night 2011 trumpeting “player sharing” as one of the triumphs of the agreement. It was supposed to even the playing field and aid the struggling small markets.

Instead, it crushed Oklahoma City.

Star players like Durant and Westbrook suddenly became eligible for larger contracts — retroactively in Durant's case — and the penalties for retaining a star-studded roster and blowing past the annual tax threshold became more punitive.

What happened next was Harden outgrew Oklahoma City. He wanted to be the head honcho. Despite having never proved himself capable of being anything more than a sensational sixth man, Harden had his heart set on being the star and being paid accordingly, as evidenced by his refusal to accept an offer close to a max contract.

Had the Thunder given in to his desires, Harden would have become the first sixth man in league history on a max contract. Oklahoma City also would have had three perimeter players on max contracts, something else the league has never seen.

Additionally, the Harden that thrilled in Houston last season when given free rein never could have been the same player alongside Durant and Westbrook. With only one basketball, it would have been impossible.

Still, some say, the Thunder could have tried to make it work.

In that case, this would have been the final year of OKC's championship window.

Let that sink in.

Contract extensions on both Harden and Ibaka would have kicked in this season, joining high-dollar deals currently out to Durant, Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins. Amnestying Perkins has been a popular suggestion for how the Thunder could have saved money, but it's one that never comes with a logical suggestion on how OKC would then fill the gaping hole that would be in the middle.

Rising salaries, as well as a more punitive tax system, would have forced the Thunder to blow up the core before the start of the 2014-15 season. And with the entire league aware of this, the Thunder likely would have found it difficult to get equal value on tradable assets.

As it stands, the Thunder has a stable of young talent and other assets that should complement Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka well into the prime years of their careers, giving OKC a chance to remain in the title hunt.

So while some might say the Thunder should have tried to make it work, the reality is things have worked just fine.

The Thunder won 60 games, earned its third consecutive division title, posted the league's highest margin of victory and produced the highest ranked offense and defense in the OKC era last season, all without Harden.

If you still don't believe OKC made the best of a bad situation, ask yourself this question.

How much better do you feel about the Thunder's future today than you did a year ago?

A look at the other assets obtained in the Harden trade

Beyond the two rotation players OKC currently has in uniform — Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams — the Thunder received other assets in the James Harden trade.

Here's a closer look at some of the fringe benefits:

1. First-round pick — The Thunder owns Dallas' first-round pick, but it comes with a caveat. The pick is top-20 protected through the 2017 Draft, meaning the Thunder will only get it if the Mavericks select between 21-30. If still available in 2018, it becomes unprotected. But at this point, the pick serves as an intriguing trade chip more than anything else.

2. Alex Abrines — Using a second-round pick gathered in the trade, the Thunder draft and stashed Spanish guard Alex Abrines. He's not expected to come over for some time, but the 20-year-old sharpshooter who plays for FC Barcelona, maybe the best international basketball team, has a high ceiling.

3. Needed opportunity — With James Harden gone and Kevin Martin following him out the door a year later, backcourt minutes opened up in the OKC rotation. Enter Reggie Jackson. The Thunder's talented third-year point guard has shown enough flashes in limited opportunities that OKC's front office felt an expanded role was warranted, believing he has the chance to be something special.

4. Trade exception — Kevin Martin's offseason departure to Minnesota didn't leave the Thunder empty-handed. In a complicated sign-and-trade maneuver with the Wolves, OKC received a $7 million trade exception, allowing the Thunder to manipulate the financial limitations in a trade within the next year and potentially add a chip. This was a direct result of getting Martin in the Harden deal.


by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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by Anthony Slater
Thunder Beat Writer
Anthony Slater started on the Thunder beat in the summer of 2013, joining after two years as NewsOK.com's lead sports blogger and web editor. A native Californian, Slater attended Sonoma State for two years before transferring to Oklahoma State in...
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