Harden Week: Emotional Rationality
Welcome to Harden Week, a celebration of all things James Harden!
Royce Young is an NBA writer for CBS Sports and the man behind Daily Thunder, covering the Oklahoma City Thunder for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network.
Every time James Harden has a big game, it’s inevitable. People start talking and writing how the Thunder made a major mistake and that ever thinking Harden wasn’t a max player was the dumbest thing ever. And it kind of makes me laugh. Well, laugh in one of those frustrating you-don’t-get-it-arrgggh ways.
The Thunder knew he was this good. The least surprised person by his season is Sam Presti. The Thunder knew Harden’s ability and his potential. It’s not like OKC’s front office is watching him torch opposing defenses thinking, “Man, if I knew he was this good, we would’ve kept him!” Harden hasn’t taken some sort of leap since his time in OKC. He’s just been afforded room to breathe, to show off his complet skillset over 40 minutes every single night.
And he’s been fantastic. No doubt about it.
He’s absolutely a max player. As much a max player coming off a rookie deal as pretty much anyone else. His contract will end up being $80 million very well spent by the Rockets.
But there’s some confusion there. Because while Harden in a general sense is a max player, he wasn’t a max player to the Thunder. There’s a difference there.
With OKC’s salary situation, having committed max deals to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with a four-year, $49 million contract to Serge Ibaka, inking Harden to a third max would’ve put the small market Thunder into luxury tax hell. And not just that, but they would’ve been completely handcuffed financially for the next five years. Not much ability to trade and move pieces, no opportunity to play the free agent market. Not to mention the $20 million tax bill OKC’s ownership would be paying yearly.
So to the Thunder, who already had two franchise cornerstones in place, Harden’s value wasn’t the same to them as it was to a number of other teams that were searching for their first centerpiece.
But it’s not like the Thunder didn’t try. They offered Harden a substantial deal — something like $54 million over four years, which would’ve sent the Thunder well over the tax anyway — but Harden and his representatives had their eyes on max money all along. And with Westbrook already using OKC’s one allotted five-year extension (Durant has one too, but it came under the previous CBA), Harden could have the chance for another year of max money guaranteed if he went elsewhere. So sacrificing even just five or six million to stay with OKC was really a lot bigger than that.
Presti, who lives and operates by making the smart, sensible decision, by always keeping an eye firmly locked on the long-term rather than the short, opted to deal Harden before the season while his trade value was at his highest. The Thunder weren’t keeping Harden past this season — they made their very best offer a day before the trade — so it was either rent him for one more season to make a run at the title and then watch him walk for nothing, or deal him and refocus the team around Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.
It’s easy to sit here and say Presti should’ve kept Harden, and it’ll be even easier if the Thunder don’t win a championship this season. But Presti is the one that has to actually make the decision and his job is to ensure the health and future of the Thunder franchise. And hanging on to Harden would’ve been a short-sighted move, something that would’ve flown directly in the face of OKC’s core values and principles.
Presti told me back in October if you could guarantee that the Thunder would win a title this year with Harden, he wouldn’t have made the move. But there are no guarantees. So OKC had to trade Harden. Had to. At least from the front office perspective.
But as someone that desperately wanted to see this core try one more time, it still feels wrong. The Thunder truly had something special and while Harden rightfully wanted his money, it felt like they earned one more crack at it together. And if it didn’t happen, the Thunder would still have some cap space for the summer and a chance to find help there. They wouldn’t have an intriguing young talent like Jeremy Lamb nor the top-three protected pick by way of the Raptors, but they would still have some options.
It’s still kind of surreal to see Harden on another roster, to see another fanbase wearing fake beards and making t-shirts telling me to fear it. That’s our beard.
The day Harden was traded still remains one of the most emotional days in Thunder history, and really was the official wake-up call to OKC fans that this pro sports thing is sometimes really ugly. Harden spent three months telling the fanbase how much he loved them, how much he loved the team and the city. He talked about taking less money, about sacrificing to stay. We should’ve known better though. That’s not the way it works. But we thought it was different here.
Nope, just like everywhere else, players lie, teams lie, and fans get hurt. Harden’s gone, and it still doesn’t feel right.