My friend from ASU informed me about the trade before there was any news on Google. His first tweet, “nooooo not harden,” was directly followed by a message to me, “harden.” As soon as I read it, I wondered, “Is this guy really that torn about Harden rejecting Oklahoma City’s extension offer?” But then I considered whether he had declared intent to become a free agent or suffered a freak season-ending injury.
Before I could think of any other inaccurate possibilities, my friend messaged me again: “harden traded to rockets!” As my eyes ran over those four words, my first thought was, “Well this makes sense.” After all, Houston’s GM notoriously loves advanced statistics, and James Harden has enjoyed a considerable rise in stock as his name has floated near the top of those secondary categories, which examine efficiency, facial hair volume, and other highly valued criteria. It also fit in the sense that Morey has recently developed an affinity for overpaying players.
Yet, as for many people, I struggled to understand the Thunder’s decision-making. Why did they take back two shooting guards – one who scores, but does little else to help a team win; the other a rookie – and draft picks for a player who many people view as a fringe All-Star. Aren’t they gearing up to take over the league? How did they not acquire a king’s ransom for one of their best players, at a time where they seemingly had almost no pressure to make a move? Is this Oklahoma City essentially giving the Lakers the keys to the Western Conference? Most importantly, I wondered, were the future tax penalties that daunting to the Thunder brass that they felt that they could not possibly hold on to Harden?
As these questions floated around less comprehensibly in my mind, I thought about it more. I played the trade over in my mind and it went like this: Morey wanted Harden, Presti asked for Lamb in return, Morey told Presti that he had to take Martin’s last contract year. Presti proceeded to add Aldrich, Cook and Hayward to make the numbers work.
While this is probably completely wrong, my main takeaway was that this is a new step for Presti as the Oklahoma City GM. The team’s core, for better or worse, has pretty much realized its potential. Durant can improve on defense, Westbrook can work on his decision-making, and Ibaka can develop a post game. There are small places for improvement, but what we saw last season is probably close to what we would have seen this season. Which is not a bad thing, by any means. The Thunder could have won the NBA Finals last year, but they were primed to contend for the next 3-4 years, at least.
Presti’s decision to move Harden was primarily based on money, sure, but I have to believe that he also wanted to strive for more with this team. This trade nets them a good scorer in Kevin Martin, but Jeremy Lamb is the piece that matters most for Presti.
Lamb is a typical Thunder guy: he won a national championship with Kemba Walker and Co. at UConn as a freshman in 2011, later in the year he emerged as a leader for Team USA in the U19s World Championships in Latvia, and has succeeded in both roles of go-to guy and secondary scorer.While he will only play sparingly in the Thunder rotation this season, behind both Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha in the shooting guard pecking order, Lamb is in a perfect learning environment.
Presti’s decision to shuffle the deck also reveals his faith in the team’s other core players to keep the ship steady and continue moving in the right direction.
With Cole Aldrich on his way to Houston, fellow former Huskie and assumed draft bust Hasheem Thabeet is now the team’s backup center. The main effect of this offseason of slight adjustments, ended by a rather substantial roster shake-up, lies in the bench: while last season’s second unit was manned by rookie Reggie Jackson, James Harden, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Nazr Mohammed, this year’s bench will have, in addition to Jackson and Collison, the recovering Eric Maynor, Martin/Sefolosha, Lamb, Perry Jones III, and Hasheem Thabeet.
If you’re a Thunder fan (as are most people), you likely oppose the Harden deal and think that it will set back the team this season, which it likely will. Martin is likely as good a scorer as the man he will directly replace, but does not have nearly the same playmaking capabilities as Harden. He will also likely be a one-year rental.
This trade may be what does effectively give the Lakers the slight upper hand in the battle to return to the NBA Finals, but it will also end up having enormous long-term benefits for the Thunder. Apart from the obvious financial aspect, the Thunder acquire a potential-laden player who has the potential and opportunity to grow and improve in their competitive system alongside fellow talented rookie Perry Jones III.
It may not seem like it now, but with the Thunder adding yet another very young player with tremendous upside, they might end up as the winners of this trade as soon as two seasons from now. While Harden prepares to make max money for a leading role that he has never experienced, Lamb will be growing and preparing for his own expanded role within the OKC system. If the young Thunder players develop in any way like Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka have over the past several seasons, nothing will stop Oklahoma from winning a couple of championships before Presti has to worry about contracts again.