Tuesday is opening night of the NBA's regular season, but there's already been a trade that's shocked the basketball landscape. Late Saturday evening, the Oklahoma City Thunder dealt reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets, along with reserves Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward for a package that included veteran scorer Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick.
Immediately, the trade was buzzing throughout the league, with everyone from fans and the media to league executives -- one told CSNChicago.com via text message, "OKC made out" -- chiming in. It was no secret that Harden sought a max-level contract from the Thunder and while it was reported that he turned down offers from the franchise leading up to the trade, almost nobody expected him to be swapped, at least not before the February trade deadline.
Harden and the All-Star duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, gold medalists in London all, were viewed as a triumvirate for the future, a close-knit group that would somehow remain together, despite Oklahoma City committing an eight-figure contract extension to fellow youngster Serge Ibaka, the league's top shot-blocker last season, over the summer. If anything, maybe Harden would depart next summer as a restricted free agent, but most observers, if not all, believed general manager Sam Presti would keep the squad's core intact for another attempted run at the NBA Finals and, potentially, a title.
Instead, the bold decision-maker -- who can forget his surprise move of dealing forward Jeff Green, another close friend of the young bunch, as well as a childhood buddy of Durant's, to the Celtics for center Kendrick Perkins, who himself was rumored to be an amnesty candidate next summer in order to afford Harden -- made a prudent and savvy choice. While Harden's peers were shocked by the trade, they understand better than perhaps anybody the nature of the business.
"I was happy for him. It's rough. It's the business part of the NBA. I know he didn't really want to leave that team, but he's got a new home in Houston. That's the business side of basketball," Taj Gibson, who's in the same boat as Harden as a fourth-year player seeking an extension prior to Wednesday's deadline, said.
Gibson, whose representative, Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein, is reportedly 8 million apart from the Bulls' front office over the course of a four-year deal according to the Chicago Tribune, has known Harden, a college rival since the pair's AAU days in California. Like Harden, who wasn't eager to talk about his ongoing negotiations when in town for the Bulls' preseason game against the Thunder last week, Gibson prefers to focus on basketball and not contract talks.
"I hope so. I'm just getting tired of getting asked questions about it, people worrying about it. I just want to get back to playing basketball and focus on the season, and helping this team win games," he said. "I'm just focused on the Sacramento Kings, looking forward to getting things rolling the right way and just focused on a good season."
Bulls backup center Nazr Mohammed, a former Thunder player, was a bit more conflicted about the deal, given his ties to Oklahoma City, but in the end, was supportive of Harden.
"James is a friend of mine, so it's sad not to see him in Oklahoma City, but this is a business. People want to think about loyalty, and franchises having loyalty to players and players having loyalty to franchises. It doesn't exist. It's a business," he explained. "The business has to do what best for them and the player has to do what's best for them. You hope that both of them are on the same page and you come together for what's best for both, but it is what it is.
"I'm sad to see him not with those guys because I love those guys. I wanted to see those guys together for a long time, but I'm with James, too, as far as him trying to do what's best for him and his family, and I never question what a guy is trying to do for him and his family," he continued. "The last thing is we all hear about might have been offered and what might have been turned down; we don't know. No one really knows but James and Sam, the people in that room because we're not there. We can speculate all we want, but we don't know -- until Sam says, 'We offered him this,' and James says, 'I wanted this' -- it's all speculation.
"Playing for the Thunder was a lot of fun. When you get a group of 22 and 23-year-olds who understand the league and play hard, and sacrifice on the court, like brothers off the court, hang out with each other, it's a great experience and I know James is going to miss it. I know they're going to miss James, but it's part of the business. It's not the last time we're going to see it."
Mohammed also dismissed the notion of all NBA players seeking to play in major markets.
"You guys give us a little bit too much credit. The superstars, they're probably thinking more so about markets and 'Where can I kind of get my name out there?' But most of us other guys, we just want to go out there, make as much as we can for our family and get a chance to play. Sometimes, most of us guys think about playing more than the money sometimes, so no one's thinking about big markets and small markets. I've had success in both. San Antonio is unbelievable; it's a small market. I played in New York. It's a big market, and I enjoyed it and played well there, so we just want to go with the right situation and make as much as we can, and be happy."
Regardless, Harden is now in Houston -- not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but clearly a much bigger metropolitan area than Oklahoma City -- and instead of playing for a contender, he now joins an equally-young rebuilding effort that also includes former Bulls center Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, last season's phenom.
Harden last carried a team's offensive burden as a college star at Arizona State, but by some accounts, he was uncomfortable with the idea of doing that in the NBA -- some believe his success has more to do with facing off with overmatched second units and then benefiting from the defensive attention Durant and Westbrook receive -- and now, likely soon to be armed with a max contract from the Rockets, who have been pursuing a superstar since Yao Ming's retirement, he'll be every opponent's primary focus in a fan-favorite backcourt.
For Oklahoma City, as beloved as Harden was within the organization, the notion that they might be better off in the future exists, immediate chemistry aside. Martin is a proven scorer, who was clearly frustrated with Houston's rebuilding efforts, and if he can buy into Harden's old sixth-man role -- former Bull Thabo Sefolosha will likely remain the Thunder's starting shooting guard -- it could pay major dividends for both the organization and player.
Of course, Martin is on an expiring deal, so that doesn't hurt Oklahoma City financially; if things work out this season, don't be surprised to see Oklahoma City attempt to retain him, albeit for less than he's currently making. Lamb, on the other hand, jibes with the organization's ongoing youth movement and while he isn't Harden -- actually, Lamb is far more athletic and maybe a better pure shooter -- the former University of Connecticut star has tremendous upside, not to mention a rookie contract.
Lamb and the three draft picks -- Houston's, which will probably be a lottery pick; Toronto's via the Rockets, which is top-three protected and should have Thunder fans rooting for the Raptors to miss the playoffs, but not be completely awful; Charlotte's second-round selection, the equivalent of a late first-round pick, as the Bobcats will again likely be among the NBA's worst teams -- are major assets for the future for an already young team that happens to be a title contender, both before the trade and after it. Lamb supposedly suffers from the same issue as fellow Thunder rookie Perry Jones III--extremely talented players who are thought to lack great motors -- but that's an issue that should be cured by playing alongside workaholics like Durant and Westbrook.
In fact, Jones' training-camp progress, according to a source, is a small reason the Thunder was willing to trade Harden and with Presti's track record, that shouldn't be discounted. In the new NBA, in the aftermath of the collective-bargaining agreement that ended the lockout, teams have to be creative in order to build long-term winners, whether in major markets or smaller ones, and so far, Oklahoma City, an organization that takes calculated, if unpopular risks, appears to be the model franchise.