“When your sense got that much in common/And you been hustling since/Your inception, fuck perception, go with what makes cents.”- Jay-Z, “Moment of Clarity”
Decisions like this are made everyday in all facets of life— both Sam Presti and James Harden had their moment of clarity over the weekend.
As you probably know by now, the Oklahoma City Thunder dealt their Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for shooting guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two future first round picks and a future second round pick. We couldn’t fit this analysis in our preview and predictions of the Western Conference, so we decided to make it a separate HHSR feature.
Let’s start with this: It seems pretty messed up that OKC dealt away a top 25, maybe even top 20 player in the league, over $1.5M per year over four seasons (the Thunder offered the bearded one a four-year $53M deal; Harden, in search of a four-year $60M deal, declined). It also seems pretty jacked up that Thunder general manager Sam Presti reportedly only gave Harden an hour to make up his mind on Friday. It was very difficult, but it was a decision both sides made not in the best interest of basketball, but in the best interest of business.
That’s just how it goes sometimes.
Looking at it from a big picture standpoint, it was a necessary move from OKC to prevent themselves from being in luxury tax hell in two years. The word is, Presti wanted Harden to take a little less money in order to keep the team together, but Harden is under no obligation to do so. If you’re an elite player in the NBA, you typically only get two big payday contracts in your career. So while Harden is only 23 years old, the time for him to collect is now and by going to Houston and agreeing to an extension, he can earn himself another $25M guaranteed. The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement states a team can only offer one five year max extension to one of its players; OKC did this with Russell Westbrook last summer. So while Presti tried to guilt Harden into the previously mentioned contract, Harden could easily garner a five-year $78M deal from Houston (or someone else).
Update: Harden did in fact get his new deal from Houston today.
In the short term, this move will definitely have an impact on the Thunder’s title chances in 2012-13. This team had a special bond with James Harden, a chemistry that can’t necessarily be replicated in any GM’s office. And Harden was already under contract for this year, so many fans are left wondering why Presti did not simply play out the season and worry about Harden’s deal later.
Well, that’s not how Sam Presti rolls.
Russell Westbrook signed his extension in January of last season, which due to the lockout, was only a month into the season. KD quietly signed his extension in July of 2010, but most didn’t realize it because the world was fixated on “The Decision”. Serge Ibaka signed a new deal in August with little fanfare. Upon trading for Kendrick Perkins at the end of February 2011, Presti immediately inked the big man to a new deal before he even threw on an OKC jersey. Even head coach Scott Brooks signed a new four-year deal on June 30.
All business handed in the offseason, or early in the season, well before the season is in full swing and well before it can affect the locker room. This is Presti’s steelo. So for him, allowing the Harden situation to linger would go against a core belief of not allowing contract disputes to impact the team on the court. Moreover, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst raised an astute point; that for the Thunder to not have Harden take less than market value for his services, it could create a rift amongst the players. Imagine if you’re Russell Westbrook: You had to take less dough, but Harden didn’t have to? What up with that?!?
Presti is one of the sharpest minds in the NBA, so when he saw a deal of this quality, he jumped on it right away. We can agree that James Harden has all the potential in the world, but he’s a career 12.7 ppg scorer. Of course, this was in somewhat limited minutes coming off the bench, but he also piled up much of his 16.8 ppg last season against opposition’s second unit. In Houston, he’ll be asked to be the #1 scoring option every night. How will he handle that? How will he handle having other teams game-planning against him every night, as opposed to being a game-planning afterthought in Oklahoma City? In short, most believe (myself included) Harden is a dynamic talent. But we don’t know for sure if Harden will wind up like Kobe in ’05 or like Stephon Marbury in ’99.
Harden was electric in games against Dallas (his closeout performance against the Mavs was something to remember), the Lakers and San Antonio. But he was basically invisible in the Finals against the Heat, averaging only 12.4 ppg on .375 shooting (that was the last impression he left on the Thunder front office). Could that have played in the decision to deal him? Maybe. But the assets Oklahoma City received in return likely had a lot more to do with it. Jeremy Lamb is a talented young player who has the potential to be a good defender in the NBA. Some felt he could’ve gone as high as fourth overall in June’s draft (he went 12th). Add that to the two first round picks, one of which is from Toronto that has the potential to be as high as fifth overall next year, and a second round pick, and the Thunder will have more than enough firepower to build on their very young core long into the future.
And given his track record in the draft, can you blame Presit for betting on himself?
– Presti is credited with pushing the Spurs organization to draft Tony Parker late in the first round in 2001.
– His first draft selection when hired by OKC (then the Seattle Supersonics) was Kevin Durant in 2007.
– He drafted Jeff Green the same year, which he turned into Kendrick Perkins, a player whose value has never been higher for them now that Dwight Howard is with the Lakers.
– He drafted Russell Westbrook in 2008, when many people thought it was a reach.
– He drafted the unknown Serge Ibaka late in the first round in 2008.
– He drafted James Harden in 2009, when some thought years later that Stephen Curry should’ve been the pick.
– He drafted Perry Jones III late in the first round in this year’s draft, a guy many believe had top five talent (he’s having a solid preseason averaging 9.8 ppg on .571 shooting from the field in 21.3 minutes per game). He could wind up being a grand larceny at the 28th pick.
Now you’re adding to that a 2012 lottery pick that was a key component on a National Championship Team at UConn as a freshman, and two more first rounders? Not too shabby for the Thunder.
Oh, I almost forgot, they also added Kevin Martin!
Martin has averaged over 20 ppg five times in his career and 19.8 ppg one other season. He’s a terrific outside shooter and is one of the more efficient scorers in the league given his ability to get to the free throw line. This guy averaged 23.4 ppg in 2011, so it’s pretty safe to say OKC won’t be necessarily losing any of their scoring punch with Harden out of the picture. Plus, the return of Eric Maynor will help ease the blow of Harden’s playmaking ability no longer being around.
Are there question marks with Martin? Sure. He’s only played in six playoff games in his career and all the stats he’s put up have come on bad teams.
Sidebar: My father told me years ago to always be wary of guys who put up big numbers on garbage teams.
But Martin, 29, is in his prime and is hungry to play for a winner for the first time in the NBA. And if things don’t work out, they aren’t suck with him. K-Mart’s $12.9M contract expires at the end of this season, so Presti can either choose to resign him if Martin wants to return, or use that new found cap flexibility elsewhere next summer or later in the future.
The Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, on the other hand, has constructed a perplexing roster to say the least. Houston went into heavy duty…we’ll call it, “asset collection mode” in an effort to land Dwight Howard. When that fell through, they tried to bring in Andrew Bynum— that didn’t work either. So they have now essentially settled for James Harden. He’ll share the backcourt with the newly acquired Jeremy Lin (a good player who I predict will have a sub-par season) and will also join new faces Royce White (draft), Terrance Jones (draft), Omer Asik (free agency), Toney Douglas (trade) and Carlos Delfino (free agency).
Basically the Rockets have a whole new team. The only noteworthy holdovers from last year are Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Morris (not exactly Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, I know). Even with the addition of James Harden, it’s hard to imagine this group making the playoffs in the West, unless Kevin McHale pulls off one of the great coaching season’s in recent memory. History suggests that might not happen.
Morey is viewed in NBA circles as one of the brightest execs in the business. While I applaud his efforts to land a big fish, it unfortunately didn’t work. Though the Rockets still have some cap flexibility (currently the lowest payroll in the league) in the coming years, that will dry up a bit if they keep Lin’s balloon contract and sign Harden to a max deal. Furthermore, if Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Andrew Bynum decide not to join the Rockets as free agents, then it will probably be on Lin and Harden to save his job. I’m not confident this story ends well for Morey or the Rockets.
In the end, James Harden had to do what’s best for James Harden— you won’t hear any complaints about that from here. And Sam Presti did what ultimately is best for the Oklahoma City franchise. KD, Westbrook and Ibaka will continue to develop as all three are still under 25 and locked up for the long haul. Lamb and PJ3 will benefit greatly from being thrust into meaningful NBA games right out of the gate. The draft picks are stacked up and if Presti is half as good at evaluating talent as he’s been in the past, those picks will turn into quality players that will help the Thunder compete for championships for years to come.
So the next time you see the homie and his rims spin, just know Sam’s mind is working just like them…
The rims that is.