Six months ago, I asked myself what would I do if I were in the shoes of the Thunder, given the unique challenges they would face going forward. Here’s what I came up with: I’d pay Serge Ibaka then deal James Harden for draft picks, with the goal of picking up one of the elite 6’11+ front-court prospects (Perry Jones III) and one of the top shooting guards (Jeremy Lamb) in the 2012 draft class.
Point being, if you look at the decisions Sam Presti and Co. have made over the last 6 years, what happened on Saturday night shouldn’t be all that surprising. Most NBA teams view the draft as a game of chance; the Thunder operate under the assumption that they have a way of counting cards. Since dealing Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2007, Presti has made every decision with the goal of amassing high draft picks in mind. Trading Harden, while painful, was the next logical step in that process.
In the short run, the move will hurt Oklahoma City. Harden was their best playmaker, one of the rare shooting guards with the ability to run an offense and create good shots for his teammates. Last season, he had a better assist-to-turnover ratio than either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. His ability to distribute the ball allowed the Thunder to play a lot of defensive specialists while playing him off the bench gave them a huge edge against opponent’s second units.
However, after giving Westbrook and Durant max deals, Oklahoma City had a dilemma. As a small market franchise without the benefit of a massive local TV deal, they decided they couldn’t afford to pay hefty luxury tax penalties, especially the punitive ones put in place in the newest CBA. Harden and Serge Ibaka would both be restricted free agents in the summer of 2013, and they could only afford to pay one.
The Lakers, a franchise that just signed a 20-year $3 billion deal, would have paid both without blinking. More budget-conscious franchises, mindful of the difficulty of drafting All-Star caliber players, would have found a middle ground: amnestying Kendrick Perkins, paying both and fitting minimum-salary players around their four stars. The Thunder, confident in their ability to evaluate amateur talent, decided they could just find the next James Harden in the draft and the spin the whole process forward.
Jeremy Lamb, the centerpiece of their deal with the Rockets, slipped under the radar after his UConn team disintegrated last season amidst a blizzard of off-court scandals that sent legendary coach Jim Calhoun into retirement. The inability of the soft-spoken Lamb to hold his young team together disappointed many observers, but on the court, he’s still the same player whose emergence in the NCAA Tournament brought the Huskies a national title in 2011.
At 6’5 180 with a 6’11 wingspan, he’s a freakishly long player who can defend multiple positions and shoot over the top of nearly any perimeter defender. Combine that with an excellent handle and a pure stroke (a career 48/35/81 shooter at UConn) and you’ve got a scoring machine, dangerous both on and off-the-ball, who also provides a lot of value on the defensive end of the floor. Lamb may never be the playmaker Harden is, but I thought he was a slightly better prospect than Bradley Beal, and, at the least, he’ll eventually give the Thunder another 15+ point scorer off their bench.
In the short term, the acquisition of Kevin Martin will allow them to ease Lamb into the role, without the burden of replacing a widely beloved star as a rookie. And while Martin, in the last year of his contract, is only a short-term fix, he’ll be rejuvenated in Oklahoma City. It will be easy to hide his poor defense with so many athletes around him, while his outside shooting (career 37% three-point shooter) and ability to draw fouls (6.6 a game career average) will help them replace a lot of what Harden did.
Martin will draw most of the headlines, but Lamb’s development will eventually determine whether this trade, from the Thunder’s perspective, was successful. The other players they gave up -- Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward -- were bit players. The other draft picks they received -- a No. 1 from Toronto reverse lottery protected in 2013 and a No. 1 from Dallas Top 20 protected until 2017 -- may never turn into particularly valuable assets.
Suffice to say, there are very few NBA teams who would willingly deal an established 23-year-old for a raw 20-year-old who played the same position. At the same time, before the Thunder, there were very few teams with the courage to embrace losing 60+ games for multiple years in a row in order make three consecutive Top 5 picks. As numerous studies of “tanking” have shown, having high draft picks is one thing, knowing what to do with them is something else entirely.
Oklahoma City, however, trusts the model they use to draft players. Looking at their track record over the last six years, it’s hard to blame them: Durant at No. 2, Jeff Green at No. 5, Westbrook at No. 4, Ibaka at No. 24, Harden at No. 3, Byron Mullens at No. 24, Aldrich at No. 11, Reggie Jackson at No. 24, Perry Jones III at No. 28. Even their “misses” -- Green, Aldrich and Mullens -- all still have a chance to be interesting players in the NBA.
When a franchise makes the NBA Finals, it typically moves into a “win-now” mode, prioritizing veterans and dealing away first-round picks to clear cap space. That’s what the Heat did, trading the No. 27 overall pick for future considerations and bringing in a 39-year-old (Ray Allen) and a 32-year-old (Rashard Lewis) to augment their core. The Thunder, instead, did the opposite. The summer after their first trip to the Finals, their two biggest acquisitions, Lamb and Jones, just finished their sophomore years of college.
Playing in a small market with no real history of basketball tradition, Oklahoma City is trying to walk a thin line. They want to build a perennial championship contender around Durant without paying the luxury tax, which means, over the next decade, replenishing their talent pool without paying exorbitant sums in free agency or trades for veteran players. With a 26-year-old Dwight Howard and a 27-year old LeBron James both playing on great teams, the Thunder can’t afford to be complacent if they want to keep Durant around long-term.
That’s what the Harden deal is really about: doing enough to remain a contender not just in 2013, but in 2015 and 2018 too. It’s a daring move that may be too clever by half, but so is nearly everything else they’ve done over the last six years.