Committed Thunder team remains contender -- even without Harden
Thunder aren't mourning the loss of James Harden; they're thriving without him
Harden wouldn't sacrifice for team, and in his place a new Big Three has arisen
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The takeaway from James Harden's not-so-long-awaited return to Oklahoma City Wednesday was that his former teammates did not appear to be wounded by his departure. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka -- the Thunder's new Big Three -- did not behave as if they were demoralized by Harden's trade to the Rockets. Just the opposite: They were unified and committed to beating their old friend and his new team.
They trapped Harden for three early turnovers and held him to an 0-for-8 first half on his way to 3-for-16 overall. Seven of his shots were blocked.
"We've moved on past it, man,'' Durant said after scoring 37 points in the 120-98 victory. "We're happy to see him, glad he's doing well out there in Houston, but we wanted this win bad.''
The Thunder act as if they're committed to a shared understanding of Harden's surprising trade last month to Houston. They appear to recognize that the team couldn't afford to keep Harden, and that they may yet be able to thrive in his absence.
Had Harden agreed to the Thunder's offer of a four-year extension -- amounting to roughly 95 percent of the money he requested -- then Oklahoma City would have been committed to player costs of more than $95 million next season, based on salaries and the more punitive luxury tax that will go into effect. Westbrook was faced with a similar dilemma during his negotiations last January, and it was his understanding of OKC's financial limitations as a small-market franchise that convinced him to accept an extension for less than the max.
When Westbrook was negotiating his extension, he was on the verge of becoming eligible to receive 30 percent of the salary cap. Under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, he would have been entitled to the same max terms as Durant by way of making the All-NBA team last season for the second time in his career. The upshot was that Westbrook could have demanded that his 30 percent share kick in retroactively. But he chose instead to accept 25 percent of the cap because he wanted to remain with Durant in pursuit of a championship.
For several years there has been speculation that Westbrook would not want to defer to Durant, that he would want a franchise of his own to lead. But when it came to express his ambitions truly -- in terms of money -- he chose to accept less money to play with a Hall of Fame talent. The same kind of decision was made by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who all accepted less than the max in order to squeeze themselves (as well as Udonis Haslem) within Miami's cap in 2010.
Harden was not willing to make that sacrifice, and there is nothing wrong with his choice. He is a 23-year-old emerging star who wanted to find out how good he could be. He was a sixth man for OKC last year who averaged 16.8 points while deferring to Durant and Westbrook. Harden was the best reserve player in the league, but his unwillingness to accept less money to remain with an improving young NBA Finalist spoke to his own ambitions. He wanted to see what he could do with a bigger role. He earned that right and he wanted to see it through.
It's easy to imagine some of his teammates on the U.S. Olympic team counseling Harden last summer to pursue a team of his own. It's just as easy to guess that some of them -- the insatiably cutthroat Kobe Bryant in particular -- wanted to see the breakup of the young OKC trio in order to improve their own chances of winning the championship this year.
The Thunder are chasing the highest stakes in basketball, and they've had no choice but to leave Harden behind. He may never again play with a team as talented as OKC, and if so, he will never win a championship. He has only to glance at the small number of franchises that have won NBA titles to realize how difficult it is for any team to amass and blend the talent necessary to win in June. OKC's roster last season met the minimum standard for talent, but was lacking for championship experience.
The ascension of 6-foot-10 Ibaka gives OKC hope of being able to not only survive Harden's absence but also to make critics of the trade forget about him. Not only is Ibaka a gifted shot-blocker who may contend for Defensive Player of the Year, but he also has improved his shooting from the elbow, averaging 15 points (roughly a half-dozen more per game than last season) while shooting a career-best 59.5 percent. He and Westbrook are 23, Durant is 24, and all three are under contract through 2015-16.
Kevin Martin isn't going to replace Harden's myriad skills, but since arriving from Houston, Martin has given OKC 15.8 points off the bench while converting 48.8 percent of his threes. The Thunder would have been hamstrung financially had they retained Harden, forcing the likely departures of important role players like backup point guard Eric Maynor this summer and starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha in 2014. They'll continue to face difficult budgetary choices over the next few years, but at least now they'll have some flexibility financially as well as three extra draft choices from the Harden trade to help replenish their rotation with cheap young talent.
It's not as if OKC's rivals in the West are unbeatable, either. Memphis has been the best team in the conference, while the Lakers have been in disarray (to be kind). Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are another year older, and the Spurs are coming off a postseason where they lost four straight in the conference finals to the Thunder.
Did the Thunder want to trade Harden? Of course they didn't. Their offer to Harden demonstrated how badly they wanted to keep him -- badly enough to approach $100 million in payroll and taxes next season. His response demonstrated that he wanted more than the Thunder could give him, both in terms of salary as well as control of the ball. Even if Harden had been content with his salary, he probably would not have been satisfied with his complementary role -- his actions demonstrate this.
And so there are no villains here. There is only a talented young star who now must try to make his own way in Houston, and a more talented team that remains in contention for the championship without him.
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