One year ago this past Sunday, the Thunder shocked the NBA world, pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
One year later, it remains a stunning move, with reverberations that will continue to shape the Western Conference race for years to come. It’s a decision we reflected on in Monday’s paper, which you can read by clicking here.
In reality, the trade can’t truly be graded until years down the road, with a majority of the exchanged assets far from their prime (James Harden is 24, Jeremy Lamb is 21, Steven Adams is 20) or still untapped entities (Dallas’ future first round pick, Alex Abrines’ draft rights).
But regardless, the national narrative has cemented, with most condemning OKC for willingly letting go of a talented two-guard who many now rank among the league’s elite.
And at the forefront of that charge is Bill Simmons, ESPN’s opinionated columnist who struggles to get through a paragraph or on-air sentence about the Thunder without mentioning the trade in some form.
“(The Thunder became) the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only. It’s never happened before,” he wrote days after Harden was shipped to Houston.
“One of the all-time catastrophic basketball decisions,” he recently called it.
But here’s the ironic part: Bill Simmons, the most outspoken critic of the Thunder’s decision, may have once provided the clearest explanation as to why OKC’s front office felt it was necessary to deal Harden in the first place.
In 2009, Simmons released ‘The Book of Basketball’, an in-depth 700-page exploration into the history of the game.
And in it, he has a chapter titled ‘The Secret’, which centers on a basketball theory he was first introduced to by legend Isaiah Thomas: “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”
For 25 pages, using anecdotes, quotes and historical examples, Simmons presents the idea that chemistry, sacrifice and a strict team-oriented mindset often matter more than talent-collection and star power to championship teams.
“We measure players by numbers, only the playoffs roll around and teams that play together, kill themselves defensively, sacrifice personal success and ignore statistics invariably win the title,” Simmons writes on Page 46.
And that, in some ways, is where the Harden corollary begins to fit in.
In the years leading up to the 2012 Finals, Harden gladly accepted and filled his Sixth Man role, providing OKC with an efficient and deadly scorer who could instantly change the direction of a game off the bench. He was an elite talent relegated to a secondary role, all because it was better for the team.
But as the offseason hit and negotiations for Harden’s next contract heated up, the then 23-year-old understandably felt it was time he received more. More shots. More minutes. More money. More fame.
It’s a great example of Pat Riley’s ‘disease of more’ theory, which Simmons alludes to on Page 38 of his book. It centers on the idea that once a team establishes itself as a winner, everyone comes back looking for greater personal opportunity.
The Thunder didn’t win the title. But OKC’s young squad had burst onto the scene, outdueling the Spurs to win the West and capturing the nation’s attention with its breathtaking athleticism and seemingly limitless future together.
And because of the stage, Harden’s supreme skill was finally being fully exposed and recognized.
It became clear that other organizations now viewed him as a franchise player. But the problem for OKC was it either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay him like one.
Harden’s departure has always been blamed strictly on financial reasons. And that certainly had a lot to do with it. Elsewhere, he could eventually receive max money. But internally, right or wrong, the Thunder couldn’t justify shelling out that type of cash to a guy who would never play higher than third fiddle. It would risk the team’s long-term financial future and jeopardize their ability to build a respectable supporting cast.
But it was never just about the money. Harden had clearly outgrown his on-court role.
He was capable of carrying the hopes of a franchise: playing 40 minutes a night, scoring 25-plus and serving as the face of the team.
It wouldn’t happen on a roster that featured Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It could in plenty of other places. Both he and his agent — Rob Pelinka, the same guy who recently had Andre Igoudala opt-out of his deal in Denver and orchestrated Eric Gordon’s attempt to get out of New Orleans — knew it.
So even if the Thunder let it play out, the writing was on the wall: It was likely that Harden would eventually try to force his way out. OKC’s front office acted in accordance, shipping him away while they still held leverage on the trade market.
In hindsight, maybe neither is to blame. Maybe the break-up was inevitable.
The Thunder had cultivated an environment of sacrifice. Durant committed to a five-year deal with no opt-outs, a ‘civic statement’ it was once called. Westbrook took 25 percent of the max instead of 30. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha all took less than their likely market value.
“He knew there was more to basketball than stats and money,” Simmons writes of Isaiah Thomas on Page 44, “that you couldn’t win and keep winning unless your players sacrificed numbers for the greater good.”
But Harden was being asked to sacrifice far more than anyone else. More shots. More minutes. More money. More fame.
So his unrest was warranted. And the Thunder’s uneasiness about the future was understandable, making the trade basically unavoidable.
And as we push past the year anniversary of that highly-scrutinized decision, and continue to play the ‘What if’ game, it’s also important to note that the future doesn’t exactly look bleak for any of the parties involved.
Who knows? Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. The birthplace of the NBA’s next big rivalry.
I can see it now: Rockets-Thunder. Durant-Harden. Westbrook-Beverley. Ibaka-Howard. The Western Conference Finals, next on ESPN.