The Thunder won 60 games, an Oklahoma City franchise record, and the Grizzlies won 56, also a franchise record. Good times all around. Both tore through the season, ripping off winning streaks in a tough conference, generating buzz, raising hopes and easily reaching the playoffs. Then they pushed past the first round and now find themselves in the big-boy West semifinals, locked in a stare-down and a potential showdown.
That's how they arrived here, but we're leaving out one very important part of the journey.
Oklahoma City and Memphis made it this far after pulling off two major trades, maybe the biggest of the season, and they each surrendered the best player involved in those respective trades. No James Harden for OKC all season, and for the last four months, no Rudy Gay for the Grizzlies. Maybe they weren't exactly the heart and soul of their teams, but they were at least the liver. Two big scorers and important pieces in the rotation, both gone, mainly because these small market teams tugged on their pockets and cried poverty.
And yet it didn't hurt OKC and Memphis one bit on the floor, at least during the regular season. There was no blood, no limp, not even a noticeable hiccup. You can't argue with the cold hard facts, with OKC getting the best record in the West, with the Grizzlies winning 14 of 15 soon after the Gay trade (the lone loss coming against Miami during the Big Streak) and with the seamless way they flowed. Hey, OKC's offense actually improved from 109 points to 112 without Harden, and also its defense, from being ranked 10th to fourth. The Grizzlies shifted their emphasis to an interior front line that's among the most vicious double-double machines in basketball.
But the playoffs are another animal. It's the ultimate proving ground and will tell whether those decisions, made for non-basketball reasons, were sound or sinister, in hindsight. And hey, isn't it a neat coincidence that the Grizzlies and Thunder happen to be playing each other? Of course. How perfect, then.
Remember, neither team received equal value for Harden and Gay. They got 70 cents, tops, on the dollar. Those players were dumped because OKC and Memphis saw the potential for financial doom in the near future, given the salary cap and luxury tax issues lurking like dark and stormy clouds. That's fine. That's business. And that's not the issue. The question is whether Memphis and OKC jumped the gun. It's whether they would've been better served by holding onto Harden and Gay until this summer and therefore improving their chances of going deeper in the playoffs and, you know, maybe even winning a championship.
When this series is over, and it might be a close one, seeing how OKC squeezed out Game 1 by a bucket, that question will bug the loser. Was either Memphis or OKC a player away from winning? You can see it looming, ready to poke one of these teams right in the eye. It's coming. And it will be somewhat legit.
Harden was approaching free agency while Gay simply carried a hernia-causing $19 million salary, far beyond his worth, a pretty good player making more than LeBron James. Memphis and OKC were unwilling to gamble and delay trading them until summer, fearing a shrunken market size for Harden and Gay. They jumped at their best deal and chose to live with the results, which have been fine. Up to now, anyway.
Here's an examination at where they stand in this series and beyond, post-trade:
When new ownership assumed control of the franchise, cutting payroll became the priority. That was an alarming message to Grizzlies fans who wondered if Robert Pera was as committed as Michael Heisley, the previous owner who shelled out fat, long-term contracts to Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Gay. The Grizzlies made the internal decision to trim one of them. They chose to drop the streaky shooter and keep their size advantage intact.
Well, Randolph was an All-Star and Gasol the Defensive Player of the Year. Not bad.
By dumping Gay right before the deadline essentially for Tayshaun Prince, a defensive specialist who's aging like week-old bread, the Grizzlies lost someone who could stretch the floor and score. Gay certainly wasn't the most reliable scorer. He was maddening at times. Sometimes he needed 20 shots to get 15 points. But the defense had to respect him. And he was an option in a tight finish and could create his own shot. Memphis now has no such player other than point guard Mike Conley, who's supposed to facilitate, not score. This was damaging in the final few possessions of Game 1 against OKC, when the ball found Prince (a poor outside shooter) and Quincy Pondexter. Neither wanted to be in that situation. They looked uncomfortable, nervous, unsure. And OKC wisely packed in its defense, making it harder for Memphis to feed Gasol and Randolph for easy shots.
Would someone have taken Gay this summer? Hard to say, but sometimes, circumstances change. The Celtics are debating whether to start over. The Rockets have money and could afford Gay. Or maybe Toronto, where Gay landed, would've been willing to wait.
By pulling the trigger right away, Memphis destroyed that option, and now we're left to wonder if the Grizzlies' chances of winning the West died as well.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, Harden wanted a max contract, and that would've forced owner Clay Bennett to write massive checks to Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the NBA taxman. Which wasn't going to happen. So OKC felt it had to take action immediately rather than later.
They did have options. A year ago, the Celtics wanted Westbrook for Rajon Rondo, straight up, partly because Rondo was making life hell for Doc Rivers. How about a Big Three of Rondo, who makes only $11 million, plus Durant and Harden? A pure point guard who thinks pass-first, and two guys who averaged over 25 a game this season? Sounds terrific, right? Instead, OKC settled on a Big Two plus Kevin Martin.
Martin had a solid season and gave OKC dependable points off the bench, much like Harden did. He was in the running for the Sixth Man award. But Martin is a one-dimensional shooter while Harden, as he showed in a breakout season for the Rockets, offers more: rebounding, passing and the ability to isolate and go one-on-one in crunch time.
It's not fair to use hindsight and say OKC was wrong to make the Harden trade in light of Westbrook suffering a knee injury two games into the playoffs. Who knew that would happen back in October, when Harden was dealt? And yet, by keeping Harden until summertime, OKC would've given itself insurance and protection from such a thing.
But now: Durant is the Thunder's only dependable scorer and the only player other teams fears in late moments. They're leaving Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha and others open because those players aren't comfortable playing the hero. They've never been in that spot before. The ball always went to Durant and Westbrook and Harden.
There certainly would've been a market for Harden this summer. With Chris Paul and Dwight Howard expected to stay in LA and make $30 million more than they could anywhere else, there's no franchise-type player available in free agency or trades. Someone would've offered Harden an extension and left it to OKC to match or not. OKC could've matched and bit the luxury tax bullet until finding a home for Kendrick Perkins, or maybe just amnestied him. One way or another, keeping Harden wouldn't be a total financial disaster if the proper moves were made this summer.
As it is, Martin becomes an unrestricted free agent but wants to return, and likely will, with a steep drop from his $12 million salary. OKC got a few extra goodies in the deal but those young players are hardly any guarantee. Basically, they gave up a guy who made the All-Star team. Those are the players you try to keep, not deliver to someone else.
Right now, there's no firm verdict on those trades. The Grizzlies and Thunder are very much alive and if the breaks fall their way, could wind up in the NBA Finals. But the verdict is fast approaching. A few weeks from now, one of those teams will be at home, wondering what the hell just happened. They'll have plenty of time to reflect on what went right. And, just maybe, a trade that went wrong.