With just days left before the start of the NBA season, the reigning Western Conference Champion Oklahoma City Thunder sent swingman James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
Harden -who joined teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on the USA Olympic basketball team that won gold in London this summer- is heading into the final year of his contract and is expected to command a max deal. Teammate and Serge Ibaka -who played on the silver medal winning Spanish squad- was also heading into a contract year, but the team signed him to an extension in August.
There had been a lot of speculation during the playoffs and the offseason as to what direction the Thunder would take with their franchise. Keeping both Harden (reigning Sixth Man of the Year) and Ibaka (reigning Defensive Player of the Year) meant they would challenge for a championship this year for sure and give them the chance to sign both players. Keeping Ibaka meant they were committing to a defensive stopper. Trading Harden means success this season isn’t worth losing a player for nothing.
The flip side of this is that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey just put together quite the back court, pairing Harden with newly signed Jeremy Lin. He also got Cole Aldrich to help up front after amnestying Luis Scola in an effort to free up money for a big name.
The Thunder get:
- Kevin Martin (swingman to replace Harden)
- Jeremy Lamb (rookie two guard who helped UCONN to an NCAA title two years ago)
- Two 2013 first-round picks (more importantly two rookie contracts rather than a big veteran deal)
The Rockets get:
- James Harden
- Cole Aldrich
- Daequan Cook (a serviceable two guard off the bench)
- Lazar Hayward (cap fodder)
The need to get a trade done now was the Wednesday at midnight deadline for contract extensions on the 2009 draft class. If a deal wasn’t done, Harden would have been offerred a max deal by any of a number of teams (Houston was expected to be one of them).
Losing Harden hurts the Thunder a lot and says they are going for a long future. Losing Aldrich also hurt as he was able to give valuable spells to Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Still, he was only their fourth big man. Rookie Perry Jones III (if healthy) will also provide some help up front and can also spell Durant, giving the ability to have both the two and three spots covered by capable bench players.
In an era where you need a “Big Three” to compete for a championship, the Thunder just gave up their biggest shot a title this season.