CHICAGO – The Houston Rockets are going to make the playoffs, and without trading for James Harden there basically was no chance they would. The Oklahoma City Thunder still are among the top five contenders for the NBA championship, but not likely as strong a contender as they were the day before they traded Harden.
So you would say win Houston/lose Oklahoma City on the preseason trade, thus far, even with the Rudy Gay trade to Memphis last week the biggest trade of the NBA season.
But there are some other buts and ifs and maybes here and a transaction that may take a few more years to play out. Much like the way Memphis was celebrated on draft night in 2008 for “stealing” O.J. Mayo from the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.
We are an instant analysis and gratification world in this Twitter/Facebook era of the latest poll and trend. We want to know it now, what it means and then get on to something else. Hummingbirds appear to have longer attention spans than humans these days.
I believe the Thunder would have been the overwhelming favorites to win the NBA title this season if they had kept Harden. They are not now, and lately have fallen behind the San Antonio Spurs in the standings and appear to have some internal issues with the capricious Russell Westbrook, who actually left the arena floor during a game last week because he was so upset a teammate was out of position on a scoring play for him.
In the short term, the Harden trade is mostly bad for the Thunder and Harden.
Yes, Harden got his big contract, though it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have gotten it anyway. The Thunder bid up to about $55 million for four years.
Harden wanted the maximum $60 million. It seems ludicrous to break up over $5 million, though I have a personal rule as long as I still use coupons and check the prices that I never tell anyone they should have spent an extra $5 million.
Call me peculiar.
And Harden got to be the star, the go-to guy, an All-Star this season in the Western Conference along with former teammates Kevin Durant and Westbrook and off the bench. And personal fame is nice.
But Harden has zero chance of winning a championship, certainly this season and who knows if ever as Jeremy Lin isn’t a top 15 point guard in the NBA.
The Rockets still have salary cap room this summer. So it’s too soon to write them off. But they are not serious contenders now, and don’t the players always say it’s about winning?
But maybe not always the No. 1 priority.
For the team as well.
The NBA economics are changing and after this season luxury tax penalties will become in multiples. Which is why smaller U.S. markets like Oklahoma City and Memphis have started unloading high-salaried players. It’s a new day.
Can you ask an owner to lose millions of dollars to satisfy your sporting pleasure?
It doesn’t appear the owners are asking your permission, anyway.
So what the Thunder did is take a gamble, perhaps like Harden, who had been the sixth man with the Thunder. But really more than that as Harden finished games and gave the Thunder the ability to bench Westbrook when he was losing emotional control.
Or even if he wasn’t, to put Westbrook at shooting guard off the ball given Harden probably is a better playmaker and facilitator than Westbrook, who is in name the Thunder point guard.
With that threesome, it was difficult to see anyone beating them in the West. Even before the Lakers have imploded.
And with Serge Ibaka most figured this was the Thunder’s time over Miami, which has no big man.
But in a sense Ibaka forced the deal. Not exactly Ibaka. But Oklahoma City decided it could pay three guys. It paid Ibaka. It offered Harden near maximum. He was insulted, even though had he agreed to the four-year deal it’s almost certain he would have gotten that fifth year eventually that he got now from the Rockets (A total of about $80 million). So the total difference in the end wouldn’t have been that much. But it obviously was more than money for Harden.
Kevin Martin, acquired from Houston, is a reasonably good short-term fix for the Thunder. But while Martin is a good shooter, he has little else to his game and nowhere near the playmaking versatility and offensive penetration of Harden. But the Thunder in the long run could be better.
They acquired in the deal a lottery pick from the last draft, shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. They will likely get Toronto’s lottery pick this year and will have a low first-round pick from Dallas and a high second from losing Charlotte, which is like a low first.
Draft picks become more valuable as the luxury penalties increase, so the Thunder will have the chance to add to their young nucleus core of Durant and Westbrook.
But it’s an if.
The Rockets became credible with the trade. It was a coup for them after futilely chasing a “star” player for several years. They now have one. They sacrificed several seasons in storing up draft picks. But you have to say it worked.
Though it’s unclear whether they will ever be ultimately good enough to win a title. At this point it would seem they will not be. But they finally can get in the conversation.
The Thunder solidified themselves for the future, assuming their drafting continues strong, and there’s no reason not to believe it will. But in the short term they are a loser, because while they can win it’s much less certain than it was.
Could they have waited until after the season to have made the same or similar deal?
Many believe they could have. But that was a risk they were unwilling to take.
It reminds me a bit of the Phoenix Suns’ Joe Johnson trade before the 2005-06 season when they also were about $5 million apart.
Phoenix got Boris Diaw and still averaged about 60 wins the next three seasons. But it didn’t win the title, and many believe it could have with Johnson, a better scorer and defender.
So what is a title worth, if also not being guaranteed?
Harden won’t get to play for a championship this season, and he certainly would in Oklahoma City as the runaway favorite.
For now, the Thunder and Harden are losers and the Rockets winners. But this trade would be better evaluated, like most trades, in three years.
So hang in there and have some dessert.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”