See that photo above? I snapped it during the 2012 Finals, right as Game 5 was winding down in Miami. Here's how I described the moment in my column the following morning.
"Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you're tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series … When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron's brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s ... And then I'll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that's how the NBA works. We'll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride."
Never — not in my wildest dreams — did I imagine Oklahoma City breaking them up. It started to seem possible about a month ago (improbable, but definitely not unrealistic), and when their partnership finally unraveled last weekend, for whatever reason, I ended up sifting through 1,200 pictures on my iPhone before finally finding that photo. I couldn't stop thinking about it. You always hear that sports is a business, something that certainly seemed true during last year's indefensible lockout. But I loved the thought of those three Oklahoma City kids — how they carried themselves as brothers, how they complemented each other on the court, how they kept nailing those same road-to-the-title checkpoints that Jordan's Bulls and Isiah's Pistons crossed off once upon a time. The 2012 Finals swung on a surprisingly small number of plays during the first four games — maybe seven or eight total. Oklahoma City didn't make enough of them. Their three best guys were going to learn from what happened. They were.
And when everyone started playing the blame game after the trade — Harden shouldn't have been so greedy, Oklahoma City should have played it out for one more year, the trade never would have happened if Harden played better in the Finals, Sam Presti didn't get enough back, etc., etc., etc. — I kept thinking about those three guys with their arms around each other. Do you really want to break THAT up? Weren't these guys headed somewhere together? Wasn't that series, and that photo, part of the journey? Wasn't this like canceling a great TV series after one and a half seasons, like if Homeland just stopped right now and we never found out what happened to Brody and Carrie?
Forget about worrying whether Harden is a max player (and by the way, he is — 15 teams would have given it to him), or why Harden didn't play better in the 2012 Finals (um, James Worthy sucked in the 1984 Finals and turned out fine), or if it meant something that Harden didn't just blindly take less than what he's worth (when he had already sacrificed minutes, numbers, and shots to succeed on that team). Oklahoma City significantly hindered their chances of winning a title — not just this year, but every year. And they did it because, after raking in ridiculous amounts of money these past four years (including $30-35 million PROFIT during last year's shortened season), they valued their own bottom line ahead of their title window. A window that included the second-best player in the league, a top-10 player and a top-20 player … all under the age of 25.
That's why every Lakers fan spent the weekend rejoicing and making 2013 Finals plans. This was the one team that scared the living shit out of them — these past two seasons, Oklahoma City was too young, too fast, too relentless, too everything. Even after the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, it's worth noting that (a) Nash can't defend Westbrook unless he's allowed to use a two-by-four, and (b) Kendrick Perkins is overpaid mainly because he's been Howard's Kryptonite these past few seasons, someone with the bizarre ability to frustrate and even neutralize Howard beyond any realm of common sense. After the Thunder traded Harden, every Lakers fan I know e-mailed me. They were overjoyed.
Thank God they traded Harden. He scared the hell out of me. We couldn't stop him from getting to the rim. We can beat them now.
Anytime a trade inspires celebrations from your biggest rival, that's never a good thing … right? That's why I thought Oklahoma City should have rolled the Harden dilemma over to the following summer, waited for someone else's four-year, $60 million restricted offer, matched it, then either traded Serge Ibaka (getting paid like an All-Star when he's not there yet) or amnestied the overpriced Perkins (who simply can't stay healthy). I absolutely loved their top three, especially in this day and age, with low-post scorers going the way of DVDs and bookstores. Durant has already established himself as one of the league's greatest scorers — not just now, but ever — someone who reaches 30 points night after night more creatively than anyone since George Gervin. And Westbrook wreaks havoc athletically, making up for his infamous streakiness with some of the most breathtaking two-way play we've ever seen.
Paired together, you definitely have a contender … but that doesn't mean you're winning a title. Just ask Stockton and Malone, Payton and Kemp, Barkley and K.J., or even West and Baylor way back when. That's why Harden was so important. Within three seasons, the Beard had evolved into a shockingly efficient scorer and a security blanket of sorts — every time Westbrook went into one of his little funks, there was Harden calmly grabbing the steering wheel, running their offense and even occasionally taking over when it mattered. He eviscerated Dallas and the Lakers in consecutive playoff series by repeatedly getting to the rim; all of our advanced data says Harden ranks among the very best at scoring off screens. So Oklahoma City had three elite scorers, with no drop-off throughout the four quarters because of Harden's willingness to come off the bench. That was their single biggest asset.
Quick tangent: Before expansion diluted the league in the 1990s, many of the NBA's greatest teams were built around two signature stars, then a third (and more underrated) high-caliber player who sacrificed numbers while maintaining a memorable level of clutchness. Everyone points to Manu Ginobili as a recent example, but every classic 1980s juggernaut featured that guy, whether it was James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Dennis Johnson, Joe Dumars or Andrew Toney. Going back to Bill Russell's era, the all-time best example was Sam Jones (as I wrote about three weeks ago). Had Harden moved into the aforementioned group while being paid accordingly, he would have embraced it — he's one of the rare modern athletes who doesn't care about being The Man, even writing Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti before the 2009 draft and explaining how well he'd blend with Westbrook and Durant.
But sacrificing minutes, shots and numbers for the betterment of the team AND taking a discount? That's a little ludicrous. This wasn't about $7 million — the difference between Oklahoma City's final offer and the $60 million max offer that Harden's agent requested — as much as Presti respecting Harden's unique plight. The Thunder couldn't offer a five-year extension because Durant and Westbrook had already grabbed their two special five-year slots (as mandated by the new CBA). Meanwhile, half the league's teams would have happily given him a five-year max extension ($78 million), so really, Harden was already taking a discount by not getting a five-year deal.
Also, Harden's offer never included a hard-core assurance that Oklahoma City wouldn't use that "discount" against him by eventually trading that enhanced asset (a franchise player now making less than franchise money)1 for a collection of goodies. Remember when Boston talked Rajon Rondo into accepting a five-year, $55 million "discount" — $16 million less than he would have gotten on the open market the following summer — then dangled him for Chris Paul two years later? So much for "taking one for the team," right? What about Steve Nash signing a two-year, $22 million "discount" extension because Phoenix promised to use that extra cap space to boost a 2010 Western Conference finalist? Remember what happened? They allowed Amar'e Stoudemire to leave, brought in a bunch of Hakim Warricks and Josh Childresses and immediately became a lottery team. But thanks for taking the discount, Steve.
So here's Oklahoma City offering Harden $53 million for four years and refusing to include a trade kicker — in other words, Sorry, we have to keep our options open, just in case. Harden's agent justifiably turned them down. The team played hardball. Harden's agent stood his ground. They threatened to trade him to Houston — which was, in retrospect, their biggest mistake because that meant Harden had a five-year, $78 million offer with no state income tax suddenly waiting for him — and at that point, this was done.2
And here's where the narrative became a little funky. See, we're supposed to feel sorry for Oklahoma City, the tiny small-market team that couldn't afford to keep its three best players. We're supposed to ignore their staggering profits since they hijacked the Sonics from Seattle in 2008 (by my calculations, somewhere north of $75 million, at least). You know what the biggest advantage is for any professional baseball, basketball or hockey team? Selling out your building way ahead of time. When you lock up your season ticket base, luxury suites and sponsorships during the spring before your next regular season, that's 90 percent of the battle — now you have guaranteed income, you don't have to waste resources on a swollen sales staff or various marketing campaigns, and you can bank the interest from that money instead of crossing your fingers and hoping that revenue shows up later. Yeah, Oklahoma City is never getting the television money of the Lakers or Knicks, but so what? You really think their situation is THAT far off from teams like the Celtics or Sixers?3
For Oklahoma City, the Harden trade wasn't about losing money … it was about continuing to make money. Huge, huge difference. The Thunder realized that, as long as two top-12 players (Durant and Westbrook) were under their control, they would keep contending, keep selling out and maintain a certain level of relevancy. And by rebooting with the assets from that Harden trade (Kevin Martin's offense as a one-year stopgap, Jeremy Lamb as a long-term replacement, Toronto's guaranteed lottery pick and the other picks as potential trade chips), they could brainwash their fans on the whole "this is a marathon, not a sprint" spiel.
Here's the problem with that mind-set: When you're this close to winning the title, why screw with it? Why own the franchise at that point? Look at what happened to Phoenix from 2005 through 2010, as the team wasted genuine assets (selling a lottery pick, selling the Rajon Rondo pick, trading two first-rounders to dump Kurt Thomas) and lowballed Joe Johnson out of town, squandering Nash's glorious prime in the process. Guess what? Everyone in Phoenix hates Robert Sarver for it. What Oklahoma City did wasn't as egregious, but in its own little way, it was just as dishonest — a team crying poverty even as it's selling out every night and even though it's been printing money these past few years.
And now, they've tossed away their 2013 title chances unless Durant jumps an entire level like LeBron did last spring (unlikely, since LeBron reached a level that we haven't seen in 20 years) or Ibaka miraculously matures into a game-changing two-way force (a puncher's chance of a possibility that Zach Lowe broke down on Grantland today). After that, who knows what could happen? Title windows have a tendency of slamming shut when you least expect it. Remember when we thought the '86 Celtics were rolling off four or five titles in a row once they added the no. 2 overall pick? Remember when Payton and Kemp played in the '96 Finals and we expected to see them every June? Remember when Kobe and Shaq were destined for an entire decade of titles? Remember when the '77 Blazers were the NBA's next dynasty? Remember when Sampson and Olajuwon seized control of the Western Conference from Magic's Lakers, and it seemed totally far-fetched that they were ever giving it back? You never know.
In the Thunder's case, we only knew that they had three of the 20 best guys in the league, all under 25, all of whom loved playing together. There are no sure things in the NBA, but that previous sentence was about as sure as it gets. Less than 100 hours ago, I thought the Thunder were headed for another Finals and another chance at toppling LeBron and Wade. That's not happening with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Instead, they made a different kind of history: becoming the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only. It's never happened before.
They also walked away from the photo that adorns this column, as well as everything I ever thought sports was about. Other than that, the Harden trade wasn't that big of a deal. You want predictions for the 2012-13 season from me? I have two and two only.
1. Miami is going to beat the Lakers in the Finals.
2. Oklahoma City will rue the day it traded James Harden.