8 min read

Chin Up: Moving on from James Harden

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As Sam Presti sat in his office late Saturday night, piecing together the final details of a trade that would send James Harden to Houston, he looked out his window and saw Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook on the practice court putting in work with the coaching staff.

And he knew it was all going to be all right.

“I thought about the fact that we’re adding two quality players coming in to a group of guys that are really invested to what we’re trying to do here and take a lot of pride in playing for the Thunder,” Presti said. “We’ve been through this. There will be an assimilation process. But I really do feel good about the foundation we have in terms of adding new people and new players to the system we have in place.”

It’s true. While it really feels like doom and gloom there is a certain unrecognized reality here: The Thunder are still very, very good. They still have Kevin Durant. Still have Russell Westbrook. Still have Serge Ibaka. Still have Hasheem Thabe–, still have some other players. And they bring in a player in Kevin Martin who at his best, is maybe unmatched in the league in terms of offensive efficiency.

The Thunder are still good. The Thunder are still good. The Thunder are still good.

Still, there’s a strange feel to all this and that same thing seemed to come through during Presti’s press conference. While he naturally maintained his business-like, matter-of-fact approach, it was obvious that this is a disappointing day. The Thunder desperately wanted to retain Harden. Presti mentioned it early on, but Harden was the first pick for the Thunder franchise in Oklahoma City. He’s every bit of a player they had in mind in building a long-term sustainable roster that could grow together.

And they were forced to trade him for an expiring contract, an unproven prospect and some picks.

The question a lot of us are asking is why now? Why not wait and see what this season had in store? With a clear contending roster in place, why take such a gamble with it and potentially upset the chemistry of the roster and damage the chances to win a title? Presti explained his thinking:

“We also understood that once it became a reality that there wasn’t going to be a way for us to find way to keep him, we had to start thinking about what was next and what was in the best interest of this franchise both in the short and long term,” he said. “Quite honestly the value in a trade was greater based on the fact the Rockets could offer him the contract he was seeking. By doing it when we did it, I believe it will allow the Rockets to secure him and James will get the contract he was seeking and because of that, we were able to capitalize on the trade and probably get a little more than if we would’ve waited.”

As things tend to do when Sam Presti rationalized and explains it, it makes sense. Wait and let the season play out and you’re handcuffed into paying Harden a max deal. And if that option was completely off the table for Harden, then there was no point in waiting. The return on investment would be virtually completely wiped out and OKC would be left holding their hat in their hand.

But there is something strange about being so close to the figure — a reported $4.5 million short — and not being able to close the deal. To which makes one wonder: Was this about more than dollars and cents? Was this about maintaining the Thunder culture, upholding the principles and values this organization prides itself on? With other players like Westbrook and Ibaka and Nick Collison making adjustments and flexing a bit on their deals and Harden standing firm in his demand for max dollars, could Presti and the Thunder not justify going against the identity of the team? If everyone else was willing to pitch in and be part of the greater good, what made Harden so special that he didn’t have to?

“Any time you make a decision of this magnitude, there are a myriad of factors,” Presti said. “I can understand on the surface probably some ways to look at it. But at the end of the day, it’s really several different things. I think the term ‘sacrifice’ gets thrown around maybe too loosely and certainly over the last three or four months it’s picked up quite a bit of steam.

“But at the end of the day as I said before, we’ve done a lot of deals and found a way to make it work for a lot of different people here,” he continued. “It’s a combination, a mutual interest, a give and take, finding a common ground, but sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes there’s just not a solution. It’s a difficult thing when you come to that reality that there may not be a solution to this.

“The challenges of sustaining success are a lot more stringent than those of achieving success. And we’re not immune to that. What we will do is continue to operate as a team on the core principles and values we established in 2008 and make our decisions based on those with the franchise first in mind and we’re confident in that process.”

It feels wrong to part with Harden. Just doesn’t feel right. It’s different than trading Jeff Green. There was a clear gap on the roster then and the Thunder were working to fill a hole. This, this downgrading for the sake of good business. I understand looking out for the franchise, but winning is what matters and if this impacts that negatively, then it’s going to be hard to justify it.

I mean, this is James Harden. He had cemented himself as every bit as important as Durant, Westbrook or Rumble. He was the Thunder. When you thought about OKC, Harden was part of that immediate image. And now he’s gone. Parting ways with someone that vital to the foundation of your roster isn’t easy and you can be sure Presti and the Thunder didn’t take this lightly. It wasn’t decision made without emotion. It hurt them too.

“I don’t think it’s ever easy when you have to make that phone call to any player. My conversation yesterday with Andy Rautins wasn’t easy,” Presti said. “As I’ve said before, players are people first. Especially players that play for this organization, that’s how we think of them. We’re not going to judge anybody. We’re not going to put anything on anybody. We’re going the best thing for the franchise, and as in most cases the players are going to do the best thing for them. You hope those things overlap. We’ve been very fortunate that they have overlapped in a lot of cases.”

When it came down to it, there was no common ground with Harden. The words he spoke of brotherhood and sacrifice were just that — words. He did what he thought was best and you can’t blame him for it. And the Thunder did likewise.

“We wanted to give it every opportunity and I feel like we did,” Presti said. “We were also very transparent throughout the process and when we had to make that decision we made yet another effort to stave that off and when that wasn’t possible we had to move forward and turn the page.

“It wasn’t easy to let any of the guys go. Because as I said before, once you’re a member of the Thunder, you’re in.”

Right until you aren’t. But it’s a two-way street and in the end, the Thunder and Harden were driving in two different directions. As Presti said, time to turn the page.

A few other notes and quotes:

  • Oh yeah, the Thunder don’t have a backup center anymore. So is it Hasheem Thabeet then? “We like Hasheem,” Presti said. “We think he’s somebody that can continue to make strides in our program. We’ll certainly look at everything. But we also have some versatility with our bigs in that Nick has played center for us at times, Serge has played center for us at times and of course Perk, who mans that position on a full-time basis. But Scott has also played various different lineups which gives us flexibility in terms of that position. So we’ll look at everything, but Hasheem has definitely intrigued the coaching staff and their excited about him and the development he’s made since he’s been with us.”
  • On if the Thunder might not be done dealing: “The draft choices are very valuable to us as a franchise because of the fact we’ve primarily built our team through the draft. And we feel like again, that’s going to be an important factor to building depth on the roster, given the significance of the new CBA and the stringent nature of the rules moving forward.”
  • On Jeremy Lamb: “One of the things that really intrigues us with him is he has great length, he is a very smooth athlete that’s getting a lot done although it doesn’t look [that way]. It’s just easy for him, the way it looks. He’s giving you maximal effort, but he’s very graceful.”
  • Presti said Lamb is a “work in progress.”
  • On Eric Maynor and how moving Harden impacts him and his contract situation: “We’ve had positive dialogue with Eric. He’s a guy that means a lot to this ballclub. We value him. He’s continually gaining more and more confidence coming back from the injury and looks fantastic. Whether or not we’ll ultimately do anything with him in terms of an extension is a reflection of his wanting to be here or our wanting to keep him in the program. It may just be better for us to see how things develop for the season, for him, I think he has to see that as well … I do think he really appreciates being with this organization and that goes a long way here.”
  • Presti said he intended to “let the dust settle” before moving on with what to do with the two open roster spots.
  • Presti on the change in personnel: “One of the things in sports in general that sometimes is tricky is that when there are changes, sometimes we get fixated on trying to replicate things. I think we’ll be different. I think we’ll look a little different. But I don’t know that I would anticipate, I think we’ve got to let it play itself out a little bit.”
  • Presti made a pretty good point about others stepping up: “I think Kevin Martin is a guy that is very versatile in terms of not necessarily needing the ball all the time to create plays. I think that as it is with any team when there are changes, other people emerge. And I’m looking forward to seeing the development of the other pieces of our roster. You have to think back and reflect that James really came into his own when we made significant changes to our roster with Jeff [Green]. Same can be said for Serge. I’m excited to see how our group responds.”
  • Presti pretty much laid it all out as to how it went down. “The culmination of the decision to ultimately move in another direction — we got to a point where we were very transparent, very direct as we are with all of our negotiations with our players as to the fact we had reached a point where we needed to make a decision. We made a final proposal on Friday morning that was unacceptable. We then came back prior to beginning to execute trade initiations with another proposal … We were very transparent with James that if this is not acceptable then we were going to have to move towards making the best decision for the franchise given the fact that it was becoming a reality that more than likely he’d be signing elsewhere at the end of the season,” he continued. “Once that reality was met, as we have in the past, this organization turned the page. We started to focus on what was in the best interest of the program and focus on capitalizing on an opportunity to help us both in the short term and also continue to strengthen the future of the Thunder organization and building this program in a sustainable fashion.”
  • Presti on the new CBA impacting things: “With this particular transaction we’re addressing some needs and we’re also positioning ourselves moving forward with some flexibility. We’re making decisions based on the realities we face and also the realities of the new CBA.”