The NBA's new and harsh rules for teams that hoard players with large contracts, designed to knock the wind out of large-market franchises, claimed a small dynamo instead.
Rather than swallow hard and absorb another maximum-deal contract, the Thunder sent James Harden on his way, and in the process maybe sent themselves reeling, rather than rolling toward a second straight NBA Finals appearance.
There is celebrating today in L.A. and San Antonio, and perhaps Denver as well. The Lakers, Spurs and Nuggets realize the Thunder's foundation was just rocked, if not damaged, and recovery may take more than a season. This is the trade that could re-shape the top of the West.
Almost everyone knew the Thunder was in a financial bind with the Sixth Man of the Year. They'd already tied up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to max deals. Then they gave Serge Ibaka, one of the best defenders in basketball, a $50 million contract. That was a mistake if they seriously intended on keeping Harden. That meant Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and center Kendrick Perkins were making between $8 million and $18 million a season.
When Harden demanded a max contract by Wednesday, the deadline for contract extensions, Oklahoma City became a victim of its own success and the labor deal, which is designed to punish teams with large payrolls. Most of the gluttony is traditionally in L.A. and New York and Chicago, but suddenly here comes OKC, the small-market team with the big-market roster. And problem.
"We wanted to sign James to an extension," Thunder GM Sam Presti told reporters early Sunday morning, moments after the trade was hastily announced, "but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved."
Harden can make as much as $76 million in Houston, which was nearly $20 million more than the Thunder reportedly offered. The Rockets immediately said they planned to offer him the max and pair him in the backcourt with another guard they stole, former Knicks headline-maker Jeremy Lin, a restricted free agent last summer. The Rockets pried Lin away by making the final year of his deal worth $14 million, which was too rich even for the Knicks.
The Thunder could've kept Harden and waited until next summer when he became a restricted free agent and matched any offer. But another team certainly would've structured a contract similar to what Houston did for Lin, and that would've driven a stake right through OKC's salary cap.
Basically, the Thunder had no desire to pay a dollar-for-dollar tax, which could've cost them an extra $20 million a year. That would've surely meant hiking ticket prices substantially in OKC and running the risk of turning off a fan base, because unlike the Lakers, who signed a billion-dollar TV deal this year to help meet their hefty payroll, OKC lacks the outside revenue sources of big markets.
In the basketball sense, the Thunder probably won't lose much. They still have Durant and Westbrook, who are among the best at their positions, and now get Kevin Martin, who averaged 17 points on 41 percent shooting last season. But Martin played much of his career with so-so teams in Sacramento, never dealing with the win-now urgency he'll see in OKC. Plus, nobody knows how well he'll work with Durant and Westbrook. All three need the ball to thrive.
Oklahoma City had great chemistry between its Big Three, because Durant, Westbrook and Harden all brought different skill sets and roles. The Thunder played a tight series against the Heat in the Finals, losing partly because Harden shot less than 30 percent and wasn't much of a factor.
The Rockets don't care about that. The chance to pair Harden with Lin in the same backcourt was too tantalizing, and so they gladly gave up Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. For the Rockets, their intent was clear: They wanted potential stars, now they have two.
If Harden and Lin develop an instant bond, then there's a good chance Harden will average 20-25 points a night and Lin will be among the league's assists leaders. The Rockets are lacking in quality size and depth on the front line, but they'll worry about that next season. Right now, Lin and Harden are both approaching their mid-20s and their prime.
The big winner was the labor deal the owner and players inked last winter, after a lockout that shrank the season to 66 games. While the Thunder did make a trade they wish they hadn't, the Rockets benefitted and now have the chance to build a winner in the near future. They'll have room under the cap to sign another A-list free agent even after giving Harden the max.
"James is the foundational, franchise-type player we have been seeking the past few seasons," said Rockets GM Daryl Morey.
Until we see him in this new role, away from his fellow All-Stars and Olympians, we can't be so sure Harden is a franchise player. He will be paid like one, though. And he'll see the ball enough to score like one.
Meanwhile, his old team is paying the rather steep price for stockpiling one too many stars. Oklahoma City just shaved off Harden, and who knew the Thunder would ever lose that beard?