How the Thunder Chose Doodle Jump Over James Harden

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As most of you know, James Harden is now a Houston Rocket. Houston traded Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks (two first rounders) for Harden, his beard, and some spare parts. The circumstances that led to this move were over a year in the making. Harden is one of the rarest commodities in the NBA: an elite talent on the rookie pay scale. As negotiated during last year’s lockout, Harden could negotiate a pay raise before October 30th or he would become a restricted free agent after this season.

Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder met to discuss his pay raise, landed about $5 million apart, and ultimately this led to Harden’s departure. Sam Presti, the General Manager of the Thunder, summed the situation up this way:

“We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers,” Presti said in a statement. “We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin’s caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team.”

We fans are now left to discuss the fallout. Most of the reactions fall into one of two categories:

Harden should have taken $5 million less to stay with Oklahoma City

This is the viewpoint that makes the least sense. While Harden seemed to be a part of a team with lots of genuine chamraderie and a very real chance at winning multiple titles, $5 million is a ton of money. In professional sports, this equals respect. The Thunder had already given large raises to Kevin Durant (duh), Russell Westbrook (duh), and Serge Ibaka (well…), so it’s understandable for Harden to want the same. Harden is every bit as accomplished and important as the other players mentioned. Why should he take less?

To drive the point home, I will list five things I’d do or give up for $5 million:

  1. A chance at an NBA title
  2. Cartwheel through Times Square naked
  3. Attend a KKK meeting
  4. Vote for Mitt Romney
  5. Wrestle a bear…not a grizzly bear though

The point is, Harden should not be chided for wanting to get his. He has 12-15 years to make almost every dollar he can make for the rest of his life. There is little upside in selling himself short.

The Thunder should have Cut. The. Check. Pay Harden the max allowable.

Here are a few indisputable facts:

  • The Thunder are one of the “small market” teams that the league sought to protect last year, a partial reason for the lockout.
  • The Thunder made over $20 million in profit last season.
  • The Thunder have two of the five best players in the league, both of which are under 25 years old.
  • The Thunder’s owner, Clay Bennet, is a billionaire.

When you add these up, it’s clear to me that the Thunder should have offered Harden the max amount allowable under league rules. Doing so would have a steep price, but the OKC is one of a few small market teams in a position to operate like the “big guys:” the teams who spend above the salary cap, pay the luxury tax penalties, and still make money.

Locking up Harden along with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka would take up around $60 million of the salary cap. Fielding a team around them would take them to roughly $20-25 million, with $10-15 million being above the luxury tax threshold. That would equal a bill of $12.5 million extra in taxes given the new threshold system the NBA implemented to penalize big spenders. A lot of money, to be sure, but not an astronomical figure. The Thunder could pay it, still make money, and compete for titles. This is the core that took them to the NBA Finals this year.

The NBA is a business. It’s a lot more fun than, say, manufacturing seatbelts, but team owners should be in it to make money. The Thunder are a money-making team, though. And the notion that lowballing James Harden is the only way to be sustainable is an overstatement. This trade didn’t have to happen. Kevin Durant sums it up best:

Yup.

Which side do you fall on, SBM Sports fans? Does OKC have a mission to maximize profit, even at the expense of fielding the best team possible? Should Harden have taken less to stay?

Let me know where you stand in the comments below!

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  • Adonis

    I think OKC make the right long-term move.

    I don't wake up in the morning as a NBA free agent & say "Damn, I want to live in OKC".

    NYC, MIA, LA, Dallas, Chicago, ATL all. day. long. So, OKC needs to pick well in the draft until they win a few titles.

    Also, the Beard didn't do well in the finals, Westbrook & Durant did. You can't stop those guys no matter who you put in front of them. But you can severely limit Harden.

    The Rockets will regret giving him a max deal.

  • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

    I agree with the trade and actually feel like its Houston that gave up too much. Time will tell.

  • The Real AD

    Its not about whether they could afford it. The tax penalties would leave them without any roster flexibility going forward. You'd basically use your entire salary cap to pay 5 guys and fill out your roster with minimum salary guys. I don't think that is the best option long term and apparently neither does Sam Presti. I think OKC takes a step back this season but has the tools in place to be better long-term. They have to guys on rookie salaries who at this time last year were 1st team pre-season All-Americans. So you know they have the talent. Kevin Martin has an expiring contract so even if he doesn't fit offensively he represents an asset moving forward.

    What it comes down to OKC decided its a bad idea that pay max money to 3 guys with overlapping skill sets. The other 2 guys won't allow them to maximize the talents of Harden. He's one of the best P&R players in NBA. Unfortunately he's not the primary ballhandler on his team and playing all 3 together makes them a liability defensively. If this was last season an option would be to amnesty Perkins because he can't help you beat Miami. The problem know is that with the Lakers size you won't get to Miami if you don't have Perkins.

  • parksideq

    OKC management should have given Harden the money and kept him. While in the short term a max deal would eat into their coffers, in the long run keeping the band together not only would likely keep the money rolling in with gate receipts (not to mention that last year's Thunder was just a fun team to watch on TV), but the solid guarantee of deep playoff runs with this group means that they'd be drowning in that sweet postseason cash for years to come. OKC would have had enough ROI to justify paying the luxury tax and keeping Harden for a few more years.

    If OKC is so concerned with bottom line, why can't Harden? His business may be playing ball and hawking a litany of Gillette facial hair care products, but he's entitled to getting as much value as possible just as much as OKC wants to rake in money. And call it a hunch, but I'll always be skeptical of an ownership group that had enough money to buy out the Sonics and move them halfway across the country with an operating profit for the past 5 years crying pauper now.

    This is my east coast bias showing, but the Thunder is literally the only game in town in the entire state of Oklahoma, are people really going to stop attending their games anytime soon? If anything, making deep playoff runs now locks in the fan base even more, and keeps all the other revenue streams (jersey sales, etc) healthy. Threatening their contender status (considering that the Lakers starship now has its phasers aimed at the entire West and reset from stun to kill) may save the Thunder management some cash now, but it might be myopic later even if everyone involved in the trade got something they want (granted, OKC got its flexibility/cap space, Houston got a hella marketable playmaker, Harden got his money so I guess in a sense it all worked out, but still).

  • jdoubleu

    I look at OKC in the same vein as I do San Antonio. They've continued to re-up the 3 contracts of their 3 star players with top dollars. They've done relatively well building through free agency/trades. They've always managed to have a good roster of role players, who on any other roster likely wouldn't get the time of day. Granted that success is more credited to Pop than the players themselves, but still.

    With OKC, this trade only happened because they jumped the gun on that Perkins deal. I haven't read the CBA agreement in awhile, but he should've been eligible for amnesty right? He's definitely not worth the $9 mil and some change he's locked up for. And had they gotten rid of his contract, they would've been able to give Harden the max and only pay $5-7 million in penalties. Thunder also gave up Cole Aldrich, who had some great defensive plays in the postseason. So essentially their front court is weaker because all they got from Houston is offense.

  • Larry

    For starters, if I'm not mistaken, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all left some money on the table for the betterment of the team, and it was assumed that Harden would follow suit. Going into the negotiations, allegedly, it was communicated to Harden that he would be asked to follow the same example of his teammates…take a little less to keep the core intact…or they would look into trading him. Apparently, Harden called their bluff and well….

    It's about as win/win as you can get considering the circumstances. OKC could offer him only 4 years due to the fact they used their max 5 year extenstion on Russell Westbrook already. Houston hasn't used that so they can offer him, I believe, 5-year and $78 mil. Every indication is that Houston will offer and Harden will sign. Compare that to the 4 year, $55 mil offer OKC gave him…that's a difference of about $25 mill in guaranteed money ,homie.

    • Larry

      What OKC got back is someone that can fill Harden's production and assets to build for the future and stay competitive. Martin was a 23.5ppg scorer just a couple years ago. He led the nation in scoring when he was in college (or was near the top). He can put the ball in the hole, that much can't be disputed. Harden is a better playmaker and can score in more ways, in my opinion, but we're really splitting hairs here.

      The alternative was to do nothing, let Harden go into Free Agency next year as a restricted free agent…have some team sign him to a max offer sheet that if OKC didn't want to match they come away with nothing. zilch…nada. Or if they do match then they're right back in the same scenario they were in a week ago, lol. Dah well…OKC fans thought they couldn't survive w/o Jeff Green…I'm sure once they start winning Harden will be an afterthought, too.

    • Adonis

      Compare that to the 4 year, $55 mil offer OKC gave him…that's a difference of about $25 mill in guaranteed money ,homie.

      Larry, I am not mad at Harden, and although I am talented, I doubt I will have a contract negotiation being 25 sittin' 25 mil.

      I will have a stadium full of seats, but I'd rather be in OKC competing for titles, than rebuilding with Houston. I am wondering if Houston can even get the look of a Lakers, Knicks or Miami on TV.

      Now, if Houston turns into some super team in a few years, but I predict Harden will regret this.decision.

      • Larry

        Nah, I doubt it…I'm sure he would have loved to stay in OKC, but the amount of money you can make in your prime, if one decideds to maxmize that potential then it's never a bad decision. The Jason Kidd's, Gary Payton's and whomever else you want to name that took a late career pay cut after making max money still won championships, or contended for one again before their career is over.

        OKC isn't guaranteed to win a championship next year or within the next 5 years….Harden IS guaranteed to make $25 million more in Houston, however. *shrugs*

        • Adonis

          @Larry

          And also, he could rip his knee up this year, and be like Greg Oden & Allan Houston (Honorable Mention: Amare Stoudemire) (ROFLMAO).

          Shout out to Oden who made Portland cut the check, and then disclosed he had a knee injury

        • Larry

          Exactly, all the more reason to maximize the amount of money you can get. Thank you for adding to my point. I knew you'd see it my way, lol.

  • Adonis

    Now, if Houston turns into some super team in a few years, I will have a stadium full of seats.*

  • Dr. J

    First, you have to be careful assuming that Harden actually wants to be in Houston. In my opinion, OKC negotiated with his agent and not him directly and when they got frustrated they just shipped his ass.

    I think both teams did alright for themselves. This trade makes perfect sense when you get the same level of production from Martin or Lamb that you did from Harden for peanuts. OKC also got mad picks with this trade. Houston got a big piece to their puzzle to go with Lin and Asik, they'll be okay. They probably won't win 35 games this year, but that's not a bad squad. Houston can afford to splurge a little too, they're going to clean up now that they have Lin and that Asian American market on trill.

    • Queenbinthestreets..

      LMAO First Yao…now Lin. HOU should be the poster child team for employing Asian American hoopers.

  • The Real AD

    For the record Durant and Westbrook didn't leave a dime on the table. They got all they could as is their right to do. The comparisons with SA of years past is irrelevant in this discussion in that there is a completely different collective bargaining agreement in place that is far more punitive to teams in the luxury tax. Keep in mind this is an offseason where the Knicks who know nothing of fiscal responsibility let a player go for financial reasons. And the reference to their best 3 guys doesn't apply here. OKC basically choose the bigs. They rather pay Ibaka and Perkins whom they can't replace than Harden who's best skill overlaps with the teams best 2 players.

    • Larry

      "For the record Durant and Westbrook didn't leave a dime on the table. They got all they could as is their right to do."

      You're indeed correct. I was mistaken in my earlier comment. Thanks for clearing that up.