It didn’t take long to see how Oklahoma City would judge an ex-player who left town for more money. In New York, he’d be branded a traitor. In Cleveland, maybe they would’ve burned his jersey. In another small-market town just like OKC, perhaps someone would’ve thrown a dollar bill on the court in mock protest.
On Wednesday night in OKC, James Harden was cheered. Loudly. Lovingly. Longingly, too, although nobody put a stopwatch to it, because it wasn’t necessary. Point made. Not only was Harden a popular player in his short time with the Thunder, OKC once again showed that it has the classiest fans in the NBA. Put those two together and it’s easy to understand what happened when Harden made his first OKC appearance in a Rockets uniform.
“They wouldn’t boo,” Harden said. “They’re not like that.”
The verdict on the Big Trade will take longer to figure out, however. That may disappoint many in a microwaved sports society, where we’ve become conditioned to determine – right now! – a winner and a loser, who got screwed, who made off like a bandit, etc. No, you can’t put a stopwatch to that, either. More like a calendar.
There were too many moving parts, economic issues, future ramifications and personal reputations swirling all at once when Harden was shipped to the Rockets for a plate of side dishes. It might take two, three years to sort out, because there are still a few more dominos to fall from the trade before general managers Daryl Morey and Sam Presti can truly say they made their teams better or worse. Nobody likes to be put on hold, but that’s exactly the state of this trade right now. It’s sort of like standing in line at the DMV, without the stress and short tempers.
Here’s the verdict at the first stage of the deal: Harden has worked well for the Rockets, who nonetheless don’t have a shiny record to show for it. He’s doing what everyone expected: scoring, in bunches. The Rockets are getting what they wanted for their $80 million, just not many victories. Yet, anyway.
The Thunder? Well, OKC has now won 11 of 13, and really hasn’t missed a beat without Harden, but of course nobody’s paying much attention. It’s late November. That’s not what this team is about.
If OKC wins the NBA title, then the Harden trade didn’t hurt it. That’s not to say it helped, either, because maybe the Thunder would’ve won had they kept him. But the notion of OKC weakening its chances of winning in June, which was a fairly popular suspicion when the deal went down, would die instantly should it win a title.
Anything less than a championship, however, invites almost as many scenarios as zeros in Harden’s new contract. Let’s examine the possibilities, first from OKC’s end.
Kevin Martin. He was the best “known” part of the deal because, unlike the first-round picks and other players the Thunder received, only Martin has a track record. He strung together a handful of fine offensive seasons in Sacramento and also in Houston, except he’s probably the only 18-point career scorer you never heard of. See, Martin, until now, played only for losers. He’s never been in a big game in his life. Right now he’s adapting well, averaging 16 points and appearing very comfortable being the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, even more than Harden. Martin has a quirky-looking jumper, but it works, and he also gets to the free throw line.
However, his future is less of a sure thing than Harden’s. Nobody knows how he’ll respond to the heat of May and June. And Martin becomes a free agent next summer. He’s not guaranteed to return, although he’s already made his big money and could give the Thunder a discount in exchange for the honor of being Durant’s teammate.
Jeremy Lamb and a pair of first-rounders. Here’s the mystery part of the deal, and where it could swing either way for OKC. Lamb is only a rookie. He isn’t in the rotation and won’t be this season. He’s a down-the-road guy who could be insurance if Martin signs elsewhere. Lamb had a pro game coming out of UConn, but needs polish. Of the pair of first-rounders, one is a likely lottery pick via Toronto, but again, who knows what that’ll fetch? That’s why we’ll be talking about this trade years from now.
Harden. Forget Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich; Those spare parts won’t ultimately make or break the deal for the Rockets. It’s all about Harden and his ability to be a franchise player. No one else matters. Roughly one month into the trade, Harden is a top-five NBA scorer and a more productive lead singer for the Rockets than Martin was. Once you factor in the addition of Jeremy Lin, you can see why Harden was so irresistible for the Rockets, who’ll still have money to spend next summer even after signing Lin and giving Harden the max.
If Harden is repping the Rockets in February when Houston hosts the All-Star Game, then mission accomplished for Houston. Even if he doesn’t, Harden is only 23 and just touching his prime.
Summary: The Thunder weren’t going to get any immediate benefits from the trade aside from Martin, nor did they need any. They have Durant and Westbrook. That’s good enough to go deep into the playoffs. So it’s up to Presti to use the other parts -- Lamb and the picks -- as leverage for the future. The idea is to stockpile assets to keep or trade, and Presti, in this regard, got as much as he could for the best sixth man in basketball.
“Right now, we’ve moved on past it,” said Durant. “We were happy to see him, glad to see him doing well in Houston.”
Those who want a winner and a loser, pronto, must settle for Thunder 120, Rockets 98. Everything else to be determined.