Barring unforeseen catastrophic circumstances, the participants of the NBA Finals appeared to be virtually set in stone for the indefinite future.
With two teams with the majority of their players in their prime years, the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed ready to assume a championship rivalry the likes of which we haven’t witnessed since the days of Magic and Bird.
At least that was the case until a few days ago.
In a sad-but-true stunner for Thunder fans, Sam Presti sent Sixth Man of the Year James Harden packing. He’s now in Houston – along with flash-in-the-pan Jeremy Lin – with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin coming to OKC. The Thunder also cleared the deal with two first-round picks in the 2013 NBA Draft, as well as a second-rounder.
All of it sounds reasonably. But this deal was clearly one of unequal proportions.
Many will point the finger squarely at Harden, label him as greedy, and credit Oklahoma City for moving on. But that would be an easy way out.
Players usually get the benefit of the doubt for overpricing themselves, as they should. The truth is that these athletes have a very small window in which they have to maximize the financial windfall that their talents can generate. Is Harden worth the $13 million annual contract offered by the Thunder that he turned down? Absolutely not. And we can understand the financial ramifications of Presti not wanting this situation to hold the organization hostage throughout the season.
Take Kevin Martin for example. Is he worth the $12.5 million that he’s due to make this season? This is an expensive contract when you consider that he is not an A-list player, and that he’s not bringing victories to any roster that he is on. But this is the norm, not the exception, if an organization wishes to make a serious splash in the postseason.
Comparatively speaking, imagine the Thunder without Harden last season. Let’s just assume that they would have managed to get through the regular season with an identical record to the one that they posted, along with the same seeding for the playoffs. We’ll be generous and concede series wins against the Mavericks and the Lakers. In hindsight, this in indeed generous considering Harden’s huge contributions in the Thunder’s closeout win against Dallas…but we’ll go with it. However, any way you slice it, there’s no way that the Thunder would have made it past the San Antonio Spurs without the super-sub’s big shot makes in the 4th quarter. No Harden, no NBA Finals last season. Period.
Furthermore, Harden’s skill set made him the perfect fit for OKC. The former Sun Devil is not a point guard, but has creative, playmaking abilities which the Thunder craved. It’s no secret that the player listed as Oklahoma City’s point guard, Russell Westbrook, is a two-guard in disguise. With Harden gone, we’re interested in seeing how the Thunder will adjust its rotation to prevent Westbrook from playing the majority of his minutes as a facilitator rather than an attacker. Harden worked the high pick-and-roll with ease, and traditionally ended it by making the proper decision – whether it was a dish to an open shooter, a dump off to the roll man, or a drive to the bucket.
These are pieces of information that the franchise need to ponder. Instead of trying to stay one step ahead of, what they perceived was, a player requesting an unjust level of compensation, they should have been weighing the importance of Harden to the Thunder’s championship aspirations. Kevin Durant’s Twitter update after learning the news sums it up best. Frankly speaking they were one of three teams that would at least have some sort of shot at dethroning the Miami Heat.
Now, that shot, along with one of the players who has taken some of the most important ones, has been sent down South for the winter.