Last night, I’m sitting in a restaurant enjoying some drinks and laughing it up with family. My uncle cranes his neck up towards the flat screen hanging above our table. “Oh Damn, they traded him” He exclaims. I look up to see James Harden and his beard smiling back at me. Flashing across the screen is the breaking story of Harden being traded to the Houston Rockets. I lower my head and gaze deeply into my glass. I think to myself, Um this is only my second margarita. No way am I already drunk.
“Wait, what?” I cautiously say. As if ESPN wasn’t already making it perfectly clear.
Apparently OKC couldn’t get Harden to agree to a four year extension worth in the neighborhood of $53-$55 million. Rather than let Harden leave via free agency, Sam Presti and company made the bold choice to trade their reigning 6th Man of the Year. They’re sending Harden, along with Cole Aldrich, Deaquan Cook, and Lazar Haywood to Houston. The Rockets are getting rid of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 first round picks, and 1 second round pick. The max Harden could have signed would have been $60 million. We’re talking about a $5-$7 million difference and $1.25-$1.75 mil per year over 4 seasons. At first glance it would seem as if the Thunder are breaking up a championship level team for relatively small amounts of money. However, signing Harden to the max would have pushed the Thunder over the salary cap and in to luxury tax waters. That’s no place to be for a franchise located in the third smallest market.
Meanwhile, 1,328 miles away in Los Angeles, Mitch Kupchak is sitting in his office puffing on a pre finals victory cigar. The Lakers and their monstrous television contract can construct pretty much any team they’d like with little regard to tax penalties. Small market franchises have to hope stars will be willing to take less money to play in a less attractive city with possibly less attractive women.
The Thunder groupies aren't that bad
Maybe Harden felt slighted by OKC’s offer. Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were maxed out when their time came. But Harden was the one asked to take less. James is taking a major risk by scoffing at the latest offer. He has to now play for a different team, in a different system, with a different coach, and a different point guard. All eyes will be on him, and if he under performs, he could see himself signing a contract for less than the one Sam Presti had on the table.
In my OKC season preview I didn’t think they would have any trouble getting Harden to accept less than the max. We kept hearing how close the Thunder’s Big Three were. How it was similar to a college atmosphere. There were no egos or agendas. They were all focused on winning the title and the money was a non issue. On the outside it appears James has let someone get in his ear. Possibly convinced that he deserved more…That he was owed more. This whole thing is starting to stink of greed and pride. Oklahoma City could conceivably still win the title. But if they do, Harden will have to watch it take place from afar.