I woke up to an e-mail from my buddy Kid breaking the bad news to me, and over the past three days I've gone through the stages of grief. The first three stages went by pretty quickly. I didn't want to believe it, but a quick Google search assured me it was true. I tried to assign blame, and wavered slightly in that process before I read that James Harden was essentially blindsided by the news. He hadn't asked to be traded, he wanted to stay, but for some reason Sam Presti and the Thunder management thought that anything over $53 million for four years wasn't worth the possibility of winning multiple titles.
I even went through a short bargaining phase hoping that maybe someone wouldn't pass the physical and the whole trade would be called back. I tried to ignore the news, but I had to come to accept it: the Thunder don't care as much about winning as we were led to believe. I fell for the Thunder because Sam Presti was a graduate of the Spurs system, which shows that you don't need a big market to win, you just need the right combination of players and a rabid fan base. OKC had both, and then they traded their #3 guy, because they couldn't close a gap of $7 million dollars over four years. That's all it was.
Harden was going to get a max deal from someone, there was never a debate on that. So, he was asking OKC for four years and $60 million. They offered four years and $53 million. He said no, because OKC wouldn't include a trade kicker, which would spare him the stress of other players who have signed below market value, then used as trade bait later on. Harden assumed the negotiations would continue, but they didn't.
OKC has tried to claim that they couldn't afford to pay that much after signing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka to long-term deals, but that's doesn't seem to be true. The Thunder are in the middle of the pack as the 15th most valuable team in the NBA according to Forbes, but word has it that the team made as much as $35 million in profit last year, and that number is on the rise as the team gets more and more popular around the country. Especially with the Internet, teams don't need to have a big local market, they just need to have marketable stars.
So, the Thunder traded Harden because they didn't want to cut into their profits that much, not because they couldn't afford it. And that felt like a betrayal. It had always seemed like the Thunder understood the formula. You need the two superstars, the would-be superstar willing to take a lesser role, and the specialists. The Thunder had the superstars in Durant and Westbrook, Harden as the would-be, then Ibaka as the energy/blocker, Perk as the Dwight Howard insurance, Maynor as the 2nd team general, Thabo as the wing defensive specialist, and Collison as the glue guy.
That's the way it works. One superstar can get you to the playoffs, two gets can get you as far as the Finals, if you're lucky, but you need that would-be guy to be a true championship contender. Sometimes the would-be guy is a rotating position, but sometimes he's a part of the dynasty. The Celtics in the 60s had Sam Jones, the Celtics in the 80s had Dennis Johnson, the Lakers in the 80s had James Worthy, the 90s Bulls had Toni Kukoc, the Spurs have Manu Ginobli, the Heat have Chris Bosh, and the Thunder had James Harden.
The would-be guy can be The Man on a team, but often, he just isn't wired in a way where that is the best option, as we saw with Chris Bosh in Toronto. Just because you have the talent doesn't mean you want the responsibility. Or, in Harden's case, it could also be that you understand the best way to be successful may be to be that #3 guy. That's why Harden famously wrote an e-mail to Sam Presti before his draft explaining that he wanted to be that guy on the Thunder. That's why I really connected with The Beard - he knew the best place for him, and he made it happen. Harden was the impetus for my very first NBA t-shirt purchase.
That's why I thought that the Thunder understood how it all worked, and would be challenging for championships in the years to come. It may have cost more with the new CBA rules, but the Thunder were looking at a very good chance at another Finals appearance this year, and we were looking at a potential Heat/Thunder rivalry blooming like the Celtics/Lakers.
Here's a thought: How much in revenue are the Thunder giving up with this trade, with the loss in ticket sales, concessions, merch, etc. from a run to the Finals each of the next four years? Sure, it's not a guarantee, but the other Western conference contenders weren't set up nearly as well. Kobe can't last forever, and neither can Steve Nash for the Lakers. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli are also on their ways out for the Spurs. The Nuggets don't have the superstar necessary for a real title run. The Clippers still haven't locked up Chris Paul, Vinny Del Negro is a bad coach, and Donald Sterling can never be trusted. Barring a major move, the Thunder looked to have a good path to the Finals.
Admittedly, the Thunder still have that path deep into the playoffs, but neither Kevin Martin nor Jeremy Lamb is going to be the leader of the 2nd team, and the guy to fill the holes when Durant and Westbrook need help. The team will still be very good, but they traded away the potential for greatness. And, it certainly doesn't help to see James Harden start his Rockets career with 37 points, 12 assists, 6 boards, and 4 steals (sure, it was against the Pistons, but still very impressive.)
I knew this was a possibility, but I never really expected it to happen, and now I have to re-calibrate how I think about the Thunder franchise.