By sending away a max-seeking James Harden, the Thunder have set up the franchise for long-term success at the cost of their odds to win it all in 2013. This is life in a small NBA market.
In critiquing the Oklahoma City Thunder's groundshaking James Harden trade, a lot of people are forgetting two key words in all of this: Oklahoma City. The Thunder are not in a market that produces the revenue that can support a $100 million payroll and while team owner Clay Bennett is loaded, he's not Paul Allen loaded. Bennett knew it would be like this when he moved the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City and Thunder GM Sam Presti knew it would be like this when it became apparent that all four of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka were studs.
This isn't New York, where you can raise ticket prices (already among the highest in the league) 50 percent after making the playoffs for the first time in a decade (and getting swept right out). This isn't Los Angeles, where you can have the highest payroll in the league and still cover it with only your local TV deal and still have scratch left over. This is Oklahoma City, the smallest market in the NBA. You've got to be sane when it comes to payroll. Giving Harden a max deal to go with the max deals inked by Durant and Russ and the eight-figure deal Ibaka just signed won't work unless Bennett is ready to bleed hard for years.
He's not, which is probably for the best. Keeping Harden and Ibaka just wasn't sustainable. Presti had already signed Ibaka, and at a discount. Harden wasn't taking a discount. This had to be done.
The cost of sustainability is that OKC is now an underdog in the Western Conference. Us few holdouts who picked the Thunder to stay above the Lakers are grimacing; predictions are going to change. A Heat-Thunder rematch got damaged when Orlando said yes to the Lakers, and it got damaged even more when OKC said yes to the Rockets. There's no getting around that. Kevin Martin is a good scorer who needs relatively few shots to get off, Jeremy Lamb could be a surprise and Eric Maynor will ably replace some of Harden's reserve playmaking ability, all of that is true. But losing Harden still hurts OKC's ability to win the 2013 championship. There is no doubt.
But in this league, when you work in a small market, you can't afford to focus on just this season. The very health of the franchise relies on sustainable success. It's amazing how everyone falls all over themselves to credit the San Antonio Spurs for putting together more than a decade of elite play ... and immediately criticizes the Thunder for taking the long view. This is a Spursian move. No, San Antonio never had to trade Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan. But the franchise's braintrust has made exceedingly difficult decisions repeatedly, and always with the long view in mind. Having three stars who get along and the best coach in the league has helped, too. But sustainability is the key. The Thunder made a really difficult, painful decision now to ensure that they have the opportunity to make good decisions over the next 10 years as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka enter their primes.
Martin isn't going to be as good as Harden this year, and Lamb will not likely ever be as good as Harden. But the gap between Harden and Martin now, Lamb later is far less than the gap between Westbrook and a point guard the team could get for him, or Ibaka and a big man the Thunder could get for him. Harden as a player type is actually replaceable; you just aren't going to find a guy in that player type as good as him. You don't find Westbrook types and Ibaka types sitting around.
Beyond that, don't ignore that Lamb is just beginning a rookie-scale contract - which means four years on the cheap, no matter how good he becomes - and that the Thunder pulled two 2013 first-round picks from Houston. The Mavericks' pick is protected in the top 20 through 2017. It could be flipped to the future or spent on a Perry Jones III type dice roll (note: the Thunder have Perry Jones on their roster). The other pick is from Toronto, via the Kyle Lowry trade. It's protected in the top three and from No. 15-30 in 2013. That means that unless the Raptors land a top-3 pick or make the playoffs, the Thunder will get it. Consensus seems to predict that pick anywhere from No. 7 to No. 12. That's a darned good asset. If used in 2013 instead of being flipped forward, the player picked will begin a four-year rookie scale deal in 2013-14. It'll carry the Thunder through 2016-17. At less than $5 million per season. No matter how good he becomes. And based on Presti's draft record, I'm betting on the player being pretty good.
This is what small market sustainability looks like. The Spurs' R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich (and a former assistant GM named Sam Presti) paid their stars well, maintained a little flexibility around the edges and took advantage of the best contracts in the NBA: rookie deals. And the Spurs have 15 straight playoff berths, 50 wins in every season since the 1998 lockout, four titles in 14 years and a league-best .706 winning percentage over the past decade. They're doing something right, and it seems like a damned fine example to follow.
Not all superteams can be viewed in the same prism. Oklahoma City will never get the TV deals that the Lakers can pull. Oklahoma City can never charge the ticket prices the Heat or Knicks do. Oklahoma City does not have a team owner who can lose money for a decade like the Mavericks or Celtics. All Oklahoma City can do is ensure the team can be profitable for as long as Kevin Durant can play. And that means that Oklahoma City needs to make sure it can be successful for as long as possible. It's about more than tomorrow for small market teams in the NBA. It has to be. It just has to be.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.