Tahlequah Daily Press

Thunder/NBA

November 1, 2012

Thunder's break-up with Harden a gamble

Oklahoma City will begin defense of its Western Conference championship today when the Thunder returns to the site of its most recent landmark victory, a come-from-behind 107-99 victory over the mighty Spurs.

James Harden contributed 16 points that night, none bigger than his veins-of-ice water three-point dagger with just over two minutes to play. He won’t score any in this one, though. He’s in Atlanta, preparing to play the Hawks, as a member of the Houston Rockets.

Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean that really got out of hand fast. One moment, Russell Westbrook was squirting mustard on Harden’s beard. The next, Sam Presti was stabbing a collective fan base in the heart with a trident. We knew this day was possible, but no one was braced for impact. Our seats weren’t even in the upright and locked position yet.

The Sixth Man of the Quarter Century was due $5.8 million in 2012-’13, then he would become an unrestricted free agent, at which point his qualifying number was set at $7.6 million. That number was arbitrary. That much was understood. If he made it that far, more than a dozen suitors would likely line up with maximum contracts worth more than twice as much. Harden would sign an offer sheet worth $80 million dollars over five years with a team like the Rockets, and the organization would bid him adieu.

If our bearded gunner was to remain in Thunder blue, Presti & Co. would likely ink him before he ever hit the market. Such was the intention on Saturday, when Oklahoma City offered him four years and a reported $55.5 million – $4.5 million under the maximum. Harden was given an hour to decide, balked, and was swapped for pieces.

It wasn’t totally delusional for the Thunder and its fans to expect Harden to play for a discount. After all, both Durant and Westbrook could have made more on the open market, but sacrificed – albeit, to very limited degrees – in order to stay in Oklahoma City. Since last season ended, Harden repeatedly insisted that he wanted to be in Bricktown, that he wanted to stick with this group, on this journey.

Moreover, inking The Beard to a max contract would have tied the Thunder to $65 million in annual salary, leaving an average of just $500k per player with which to fill the remaining 10 roster spots, while remaining below the $70.3 million luxury tax threshold – otherwise known as $1.5 million less than the average wage for current players not named Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Perkins/Martin.

The same level of reserve spending, in addition to $15 million per year for Harden, would have put the Thunder more than $10 million over the projected luxury tax threshold for 2013-’14 – which would cost Oklahoma City over $25 million in cap penalties next season, and $35 million in each season there after. In that respect, moving Harden for a shooter with an expiring contract, a lottery pick and future picks was a shrewd move from the NBA’s shrewdest GM.

Unless, of course, you consider the fact that the $4.5 million difference could have been more than compensated for by simply exercising the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins’ inflated contract.

Yes, basketball season started Tuesday and I am already complaining about the lethargic, over-paid, fake-tough guy once again. Perk is due $9.1 million next season. Subtract $9.1 million from $80 million, sign Kwame Brown for one-third the cost of Perkins, and you’re $4 million over the tax in a worst case scenario – with virtually the same guy playing center, minus the awkward chin-fuzz. Suddenly, that $35 million donation to David Stern’s retirement fund is down to $10 million per. Easily manageable for a franchise that raked in $30-$35 million in revenue during a lockout-shortened 2011-’12 season; a franchise that, according to Forbes, sits on more operating income than any team in the NBA other than the Bulls and Knicks.

Of course, that’s a purely hypothetical situation, but so is the alternate universe in which Perkins actually plays up to his paycheck – or, at this point, the one in which Serge Ibaka transforms into the All-NBA player that he’s being paid like.

I like Serge. He’s freakishly athletic, a consummate teammate, and, by all accounts, a wonderful person. Still, the Thunder had another year of James Harden on the cheap, another crack at the title with all of its pieces in place, and another 100 or so games with which to further evaluate Ibaka.

In the past, a good-to-great offensive outing by Ibaka, one like he turned in during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, was a luxury, a bonus, a pleasant surprise. No more. In dealing Harden a season early, Presti and the Thunder have levied the expectation of offensive contribution upon a player primarily known for his defense. Oklahoma City will need to replace nearly 17 points per game, and much of that must come from a player averaging half of that for his career.

Maybe Ibaka continues to develop, becomes a 15-10-3 guy, and Harden is still deemed disposable. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Serge is the same player in 2012-’13 that he was in 2011-’12? Wouldn’t you like to have the opportunity to then re-sign Harden, dump Perkins, and swap Ibaka for pieces? We’re talking about a Kevin Martin rental, Jeremy Lamb, and the first round selection of a team that figures to be bad, but not awful.

That was too much to pass up?

The belief that Harden should have signed for less than market may also be a bit misguided. The Thunder already used its two allotted five-year deals with Durant and Westbrook, meaning the most they could offer Harden was four years. By sacrificing a fifth year to stay in Oklahoma City, wasn’t he already making a considerable concession? By agreeing to play third-fiddle despite first-fiddle ability, wasn’t he already compromising for the betterment of the organization?

At the end of the day, it was never really about $4.5 million. For Presti and the Thunder, it was about staying true to a set of central beliefs – most notably, sacrificing me for we. Players like Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Nick Collison each allowed for a franchise-favorable contract structure that allowed Oklahoma City to save itself from cap penalties heading into the new collective bargaining agreement. The expectation for Harden was the same. His reluctance to provide even the slightest of contractual bargains essentially stamped his ticket to Houston. But is individual sacrifice only measured in dollars and cents? On the court, where games are won and lost, did Harden not exemplify the Thunder code of selflessness?

Presti weighed the risk of losing Harden versus losing a brick in the foundation of his negotiating philosophy and favored the latter. In doing so, he made the correct business decision. But, if sports are, in fact, all about winning championships, was it the correct basketball decision?

Seven years ago, the Phoenix Suns, trotting out a young, exciting trio of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, went head-to-head with those mighty Spurs, bowing out of the Western Conference Finals in five games. The following summer, contract negotiations with Johnson, a restricted free agent, turned sour. The Suns were reluctant to offer a maximum deal to Robin’s Robin. Prior to the 2005-’06 season, Phoenix dealt Johnson to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and two first round picks. Without Johnson to stretch the floor, the Suns, ever a contender, never realized their championship potential.

Years later, former owner Robert Sarver called the decision not to re-sign Johnson the biggest regret of his tenure.

Here’s hoping a clean shaven Presti doesn’t similarly lament the day he parted ways with Harden.

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