James Harden, the Thunder, and the end of something awesome

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The James Harden trade rocked the NBA out of nowhere Saturday night, and while we pick up the pieces, only one thing is certain: the Thunder's future just got a lot more complicated.

Here's the thing: you could make a good argument that the Oklahoma City Thunder lost the 2012 NBA Finals the same way the Miami Heat lost the 2011 Finals. After one game, they both looked like the better team, and it wasn't close. And then ... they weren't as mentally tough, and everything broke down.

In 2012, nobody personified the OKC collapse better than James Harden. After Game 4, I was in the Thunder locker room while a crowd of 30 or 40 reporters surrounded Harden's locker to get answers from the most disappointing player in the series.

He got dressed, put on deodorant, pulled on his backpack, and the entire time it was dead silent. Even when he turned to face us, reporters whispered their questions to him, he whispered back, and the silence sort of hung in the air. There was nothing to say.

He shot 2-10 that night, including the saddest fastbreak of all time -- a play that prompted a friend to text message me saying it looked like Harden had his talent stolen by the MonStars. There was no better way to put it. He was a mess, and I remember that excruciating scene in the locker room as clearly as the Heat's locker room celebration two nights later.

Later that night -- trying to rationalize it -- I thought maybe this was how teams grew. Maybe the Finals really are a whole 'nother level of pressure, and sometimes it takes a learning experience before guys like Harden, Durant and Russell Westbrook can REALLY click on that kind of stage. Maybe that's what happened with LeBron and Bosh and the Heat in 2011, and maybe it would make the Thunder stronger the same way it changed Miami.

Now we'll never know. The Thunder traded Harden Saturday night, and it's the end of an era in OKC. Not the end of OKC as a contender, but the end of a special flavor of awesome that the Thunder brought to the NBA the past few years. Let's call it the Pizza Rolls era.

The Pizza Rolls era is now dead, and "What if the Thunder never traded James Harden?" becomes a question that we're all stuck with forever.

Star-divide

Background: almost as soon as the ink was dry on the new CBA, writers began wondering whether the Thunder could possibly afford to keep Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Harden. Ibaka signed his deal last spring, and that left Harden, the superstar sixth man who would undoubtedly command a max deal to become someone's No. 1 if he ever hit the open market. To pay him max money, the Thunder would have to pay luxury tax penalties. This is where the new CBA comes into play.

Tom Haberstroh crunched the numbers over at ESPN (insider), and came to the following conclusion:

Re-signing Harden to a max extension, then, would come at a debilitating cost. ... Harden salary: $13 million. Resulting tax: $28 million. It'd be like getting one Harden for the price of two.

They'd also be committing massive salary to four players (Harden, Westbrook, KD, Ibaka), leaving their hands tied filling out the rest of the roster. So when Harden refused a reported $54 million extension -- instead of the $60 million he wanted all along -- OKC GM Sam Presti pulled the trigger on the trade, sending Harden, Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward to the Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks, and a second rounder.

On the surface, this all makes perfect sense for OKC. It's brilliant for three reasons:

  1. They chose Ibaka. Harden's a great offensive player in a great offense, but Ibaka is a superstar defensive player in a defense that desperately needs a cornerstone for the next decade. They have him signed for the next four years at $43 million, making him one of the most affordable young stars in the NBA. Harden may well turn into a superstar unleashed on his own, but last season felt like it was close to his ceiling with OKC. With Ibaka, he's still got room to get much better on both ends, all while providing a crucial piece of the defensive foundation next to Westbrook and Durant's insanely effective offense. Harden may be "better," but Ibaka was always more valuable. That's why they signed him first.
  2. The possibilities are limitless. With the exception of Anthony Davis and maybe Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb's got as much physical talent as anyone who was drafted last June. Put him in a winning situation without the pressure to carry an offense, and there's a decent chance you're getting a bargain on a two-guard who can lock down on defense and chip in with a decent amount of scoring on the other end. Kevin Martin may be the official replacement for Harden, but he's also on an expiring contract, meaning he could be traded (along with the first round picks Houston provided) or let go after this year, allowing OKC to build with Lamb and whoever they draft. For a team trying to avoid luxury tax hell, the flexibility here helps, especially if Lamb or one of their draft picks turns into a star they can count on in the rotation next to Durant and Westbrook and the rest.
  3. Winning creates chemistry. Anyone worried about what the Harden trade does to this team's psyche need look no further than the Jeff Green trade two years ago to understand why that's insane. The Thunder were crushed then -- Green was KD's best friend on the team -- but they got over it, and quickly got back to being the best young team in basketball. Chemistry begets winning only insofar as it's important that a team has a good foundation of leaders who trust each other. OKC has that with or without Harden (KD, Russ, Perk, Nick Collison). Otherwise, if a team's winning, hard feelings fade fast, and everyone finds a way to enjoy the ride.

Having said all that, this was such a stupid trade.

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Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Thunder were willing to pay Harden $54 million over the next four years, they may as well have pushed it to $60. It's hard to believe a $60 million deal was going to cripple them or complicate things any more than a $54 million deal would have. The only way to explain it is that the Thunder figured they didn't need Harden as a part of the core, never intended to offer him the max and were assuming he'd balk at the lower deal, allowing them to retain more flexibility.

That's where the logic falls flat. For OKC's management and anyone else praising this deal, it's like they remember the Heat series, and completely forget about the Spurs series. Or the Mavericks. Or the Lakers. Or the entire regular season, when Harden emerging as a dominant threat changed the entire complexion of the OKC offense and took a young, erratic team and turned them into something murderous.

Jeremy Lamb may be great eventually, but he's never going to initiate the offense the Harden did. Same with Kevin Martin. Eric Maynor can run a pick-and-roll, but he won't get to the rim as easily, and his jumper's not a threat to scare defenses into playing him tight. It just won't happen. The Thunder will still be good because Kevin Durant is just that great, and Westbrook is, too. But the idea that OKC only needs to replace Harden's scoring to make this a net-zero completely overlooks how the Thunder success happened last year.

People loved Harden because of his beard and because he made the Thunder look like the most fun team in the NBA. This is where some of the "chemistry" outcry originates, and it's stupid.

On the other hand ... in a tangible way, Harden helped the Thunder's chemistry on the court. Next to two young superstars who couldn't always do it by themselves, Harden eased everyone's burden. He found Durant for wide-open looks, he freed up Westbrook to become the deadly slasher that he was probably meant to be all along, and in the fourth quarter, running Harden off a pick-and-roll with Durant waiting nearby was as deadly a closing routine as anything in the NBA last year. For a team that's always struggled to get easy buckets, Harden made life a lot easier.

Harden on his own, as a single superstar, is still pretty much a wild card, so you can understand why a GM would be reluctant to pay him superstar money. You could argue Durant and Westbrook made James Harden look a lot more valuable than he really is.

But the thing is, Harden's emergence last year made the Thunder better than they'd ever been. That's something you can't really argue.

Or here's another way to think about Harden's value: When he came up huge against the Spurs, the Thunder looked like the best team on earth. When he struggled all series against the Heat, OKC just wasn't quite good enough. It's not a coincidence that the one series where Harden didn't show up was the same series where Durant couldn't get open looks and the world decided to wage war on Westbrook. It was like 2010 all over again.

Star-divide

The easy cliche here would be to say that this trade was more about business than basketball, and that it's all part of the Thunder growing up. But that's not true. That trade happened two years ago when Jeff Green went to Boston, and it's time to stop talking about the Thunder like some doe-eyed team of 10th graders.

What happened in the Finals wasn't a learning experience that happens to young teams, it's a learning experience that happens to great teams. The Washington Wizards aren't going to learn anything from the 2013 Finals.

And no, trading Harden doesn't mean OKC just forfeited the next 10 titles. Durant's probably good enough to win OKC at least one regardless, and Presti's creative enough to surround him with a winning supporting cast one way or another.

But last year's OKC team was special. Between Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and even the OKC fans, it was basketball nirvana on an almost-nightly basis, and the only question was who would steal the show and leave you laughing at how ridiculously awesome the whole thing was. OKC was the team everyone couldn't NOT love.

And while everyone gets nostalgic and starts citing the "basketball is a business" cliche, it's important to remember that they weren't just insanely fun together, they were fucking unstoppable together. That's what really made them great -- the thrill of watching guys who made the NBA so much fun but were also just better than anyone else.

Even if it meant getting rid of someone like Kendrick Perkins to clear cap space, or superstars taking paycuts on their next deal, or Clay Bennett and the other owners finding creative ways to pay for it, there's no telling what they would've done together over the next five or 10 years.

So if you want to say the Thunder chose long-term flexibility over a short term shot at a title, that's fine. Just don't overlook the second part of that sentence. If basketball is a business, there's a good chance this was a bad business decision. Because what happens if KD and co. aren't good enough to win it all in the next few years? Doesn't OKC end up spending to compete with the best, and eventually paying the luxury tax because of somebody else? And it may not work. There are no guarantees at finding a core that clicks on the court the way last year's did.

Nothing was guaranteed with Harden, either. But they were closer last year than anyone remembers, and they weren't about to take a step back. Instead, now ... OKC takes a step back. There's a whole world of pressure on Russell Westbrook again, Kevin Martin becomes a sad one-year rental, and even an MVP year from KD probably won't mean a return to the Finals.

From there, who knows what happens. But today and tomorrow and all week, while everyone argues about OKC's future and how Harden will look in Houston, it's hard not to quietly ignore it all and imagine how great it would have been to have a team of characters awesome enough to be called the Pizza Roll Dynasty, and dominant enough to live up to the second part of the name.

"What if the Thunder never traded James Harden?"

It's already driving me insane.

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