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James Harden, the Rockets trade, and what the Thunder lost

James Harden torched the Thunder Wednesday night, and with the NBA Trade Deadline here, it gives us a nice excuse to look back at the biggest deal of the season so far.

Scott Halleran

It was way too perfect. With the entire NBA whispering about rumors before a quiet trade deadline, James Harden went out and reminded everyone that the biggest, craziest move this year happened four months ago.

It's been easy to forget about the Harden trade this year because Oklahoma City's been great enough without him to quiet the critics, and because Harden's been generally great, but not enough to turn the Rockets into anything like a real contender. Example: Before his explosion last night (46 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 7-8 threes), Harden was 9-33 in two previous games against OKC in games the Rockets lost by 30 and 22, respectively. So this isn't about one game as a metaphor for a seismic shift or anything like that. OKC will be in the title conversation for the next five years, and Houston's still a wild card.

On the other hand ... Three losses come to mind when I think about OKC:

  • @ Golden State, 1/23 -- The Thunder went back and forth with Golden State the entire night, and for most of the final five minutes it was a one-possession game. Except that while Golden State hit from everywhere in those final minutes, OKC was reduced to throwing it to Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook and letting them go one-on-one. Not to get one bucket, but for basically five minutes straight at the end of the fourth quarter. OKC lost by 5.
  • Miami, 2/14 -- The Thunder were destroyed at home here, and if you're reading this article you probably watched. But the ass-kicking only lasted three quarters. By the fourth, the Thunder abandoned Kendrick Perkins, went small with Kevin Durant playing the 4, and suddenly they had enough firepower to play the Heat even and (almost) make things interesting in a 20-point game that looked over at halftime.
  • @ Houston, 2/20 -- OK, we promised not to focus too much on this game. But Sam Presti couldn't have been having much fun watching Harden's explosion -- hitting from deep, slashing for layups, making plays -- all while the Thunder gave away a 10-point lead in the final five minutes.

Lessons from those three losses:

1. The Thunder have crunch time issues again. OKC's superstars are good enough to blow away just about anyone in the league and make crunch time irrelevant. But when games actually get close like in Golden State and every possession matters, everything falls on Durant and Westbrook's shoulders. This would be okay if they could play off each other, but so far that hasn't happened. One of them gets the ball 20 or 30 feet from the basket and they go one-on-one from there. This is not promising. Especially for the playoffs, when games get close every night.

2. Kendrick Perkins is taking up space. Playing Perk too much may have cost OKC a chance in the Finals last year, and the Valentine's Day Heat game was mostly proof that the Perk problem hasn't gone away. Against OKC's biggest rival, Kendrick Perkins is counter-productive. If you took away Perk as an option for Scotty Brooks, how much deadlier could OKC be? Especially with someone like Harden opening haunting the defense. Instead:

3. James Harden will haunt the Thunder until they win a title. Last year, Harden was the linchpin between Durant and Westbrook that made the Thunder a fucking nightmare in crunch time. As he evolved into a weapon, OKC became unstoppable. When he struggled in the Finals, so did OKC. Then he was traded this year, partly because the Thunder were afraid to cut cap space elsewhere (like, say, amnestying Kendrick Perkins), and all the problems the Thunder had before Harden's emergence are looming as we look ahead to the playoffs.

No. 1 and No. 2 helped create No. 3.

Credit the Lakers here, because the Dwight Howard trade may have helped convince OKC they needed Perk to have a chance in the West. Or blame Thunder management because they weren't willing to shell out another $6 million to Harden. Or blame everyone for not waiting nine months to revisit things. Or remember that OKC probably gets Toronto's lottery pick this year, and it may be too early to judge all this. Either way, here we are.

This article writes itself after Wednesday. But you could write it every day, and between now and June you'll probably read all this 500 times. Because it's all true, and it will never stop being incredible that one of the best four teams in basketball traded maybe the best shooting guard in the NBA so they could keep Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka instead.

As Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry wrote after Wednesday's Rockets game, "It’s convenient to say it’s only one loss for the Thunder and just one win for the Rockets. But it’s really not. The reality is it’s not about today. What we witnessed Harden do here was a cold-blooded reminder of what could have been in OKC. Nothing has ever drilled that home quite like the show Harden just strung together."

The goal for most teams at the deadline is to get equal value and build for the future. Smart teams take the longview, etc. But then there are always a few contenders we grade differently. If teams have a title shot and get closer to winning, that's all that matters. If a team puts itself further away, isn't that all that matters?

The Thunder got close to equal value for Harden, and there were luxury tax concerns involved in the OKC situation, so it's complicated. But the money's too convenient an excuse. They had plenty of time to make other cost-cutting moves, and the absolute worst case scenario was paying the luxury tax and forfeiting profits for a few years (while the team appreciates in value at a rate that probably dwarfs the losses).

Sure, if the Thunder see Houston in the playoffs they should destroy the Rockets. Harden or no Harden, OKC has too much firepower. But the story could change against the Spurs, Clippers, or Heat later in the spring, when games get tighter and OKC's crunch time offense becomes more of an issue. That's when guys like Perkins and Ibaka add nothing, and James Harden sort of solved everything.

That's when we'll think back to games like Wednesday night and drive ourselves insane imagining the Thunder with this murderous version of Harden next to KD and Russ.

Anyway, it's the season for "trade grades" and everyone handicapping contenders. So in the spirit of the day, let's just say this: The Thunder may still be title contenders this year, but if losing Harden keeps them from actually winning a title over the next few years, how can OKC's grade for the biggest trade of the year be anything but an F?

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