I was supposed to sit down to write an assignment. I’d just put out a smoke and was preparing to knuckle down to right the last 1500 words on Rousseau and inequality after a quick Twitter check this Sunday arvo.

The first thing I see?

“James Harden and his beard on his way to Houston.”

Right, well, so much for getting any work done. For the next hour until my mobile died I was looking up everything I could on the trade. Looks like Harden + filler (Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich) for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks.

An hour later, after I’d calmed down, my reaction was still the same.

OKC made a massive mistake here.

Here’s the thing. If you have a potential championship core, you hold that core together. You pay your most important guys whatever the hell they want to keep them together because the money you make from being the best team in the league (or even one of the best two or three) will pay for several luxury taxes. If they’re willing to take a little less money, great. But when you have two guys who’re making the max, why should the others not get paid what they’re worth?

I thought OKC got this. They gave Westbrook a max deal (which he deserved) and re-signed Ibaka for probably a little more than he was worth, but had he gone on the open market he would have fetched far more. That left just James Harden, the bearded Sixth Man of the Year. Harden’s skillset isn’t one that comes around every day – a multi-faceted offensive guard who can be a spot-up shooter, get his own shot one-on-one, get to the rim and create for others. He was vital to that OKC team not only because of what he can do but because he was willing to do it all coming off the bench and carrying the second unit. Not a lot of guys would be willing to do that.

The only possible reasoning I can see behind this is that Clay Bennett was too cheap to pay for Harden and hid behind the small market/new punitive luxury tax argument. This would make some sense for your average small market team, but OKC don’t have any right to cry poverty for two reasons:
1) Bennett moved the team from a big market to a small one. If you want to do that, fine, but then don’t use your market size to bitch when it’s your own fault you’re there.
2) OKC are one of the most popular teams in the league, and Harden one of the most popular players. His game combined with his beard and unique, slightly spacey personality has made him a cult hero in the NBA. I see more guys wearing Harden jerseys on the courts of Sydney than I do even Durant when it comes to OKC players alone. That guy will make you a lot of money on his own and being part of a championship team will make you even more.

Do I think it kills the Thunder’s chances? Not totally. Kevin Martin isn’t as multi-talented as Harden is – he’s more of a pure spot-up shooter – but he’s still a very good player who’ll get plenty of looks in OKC if he’s willing to play the sixth man role. The greater impact this trade will have is on the team chemistry. Scotty Brooks now has to re-jig the second unit to fit Martin’s skillset (a test for him – as I’ve said I’m not convinced he’s a good coach) and Durant/Westbrook have lost their buddy and have to get used to playing with a new guy. On a bad team this doesn’t mean a lot but on a team like OKC gunning for a title, every little thing matters.

Is it a good move for Harden and the Rockets? Again, I’m not sure. There’s a famous story going around about how he wrote to Sam Presti before the 2009 draft asking OKC to pick him, claiming that he was more interested in being part of a winning team than carrying the load every night like he would have had to on some of the other sides. In Houston he’s going to be the No.1 offensive option every night and defenses will be keying on him. (On another note, Jeremy Lin is probably pretty happy about now). That said, Daryl Morey has been more desperate to land a star player than a guy throwing $100s in a strip club – now he has one. I previously had the Rockets at 23 wins but now I suspect they may be more like 30-35.

In my book, Harden was the third-best player on that Thunder team and therefore the third most important guy. I had always imagined Ibaka would have been the one to get traded because, as good as he is, hyper-athletic forwards who can block shots are easier to find. OKC would have been better served continuing to talk with Harden’s team and, if they hadn’t blinked before the deadline, moving Ibaka once they were able to do so and re-signing Harden then when money wasn’t an issue as much.

If OKC win a title in the next few years, of course this whole article will be moot. But if Kevin Durant comes off contract in 4-5 years and he doesn’t have a ring yet, it may be time to look back and wonder if this is the moment where the Thunder let it slip away.

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