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Monaco: Harden moves one season too soon (Oct. 29)

Mike Monaco | Monday, October 29, 2012

Pack up the razors and the shaving cream, because the Beard is going to Houston.

While everyone on campus was watching a certain football game Saturday night, news broke that another Sooner State squad, the Oklahoma City Thunder, had traded reigning Sixth Man of the Year and recent Olympian James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The return for OKC? Guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-rounder.

My initial reaction? The same as Kevin Durant’s: “Wow.” While Durant was succinct with his tweet just before midnight, let’s look a little closer at the deal:

Big Three Breakup

Think back to June, when the Thunder were three games away from winning an NBA title. It looked as if we could have a dynasty in Oklahoma to challenge the vaunted Big Three in Miami. Harden, Durant and Russell Westbrook were young, talented and still improving. And most importantly, they loved playing together.

But the Thunder needed to decide by Halloween on whether they would give Harden a contract extension before the season. Oklahoma City already had hefty contracts signed with Durant and Westbrook, as well as the amnesty-worthy Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. If it wanted to pay Harden, it was going to have to go over the luxury tax threshold while paying Harden a maximum-level contract, something the small-market Thunder clearly did not want to do.

So, the Thunder made the best out of a bad situation, right? In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast. Oklahoma City could have played out the whole season and made another run at a championship and then faced a similar decision in the offseason. They could have signed him then or worked out a sign-and-trade. No matter what the Thunder decided, they would have had (at least) another season with Harden.

And having another season with the playmaking southpaw is certainly better than the new alternative. Kevin Martin can score with the best of the two-guards in the league and Jeremy Lamb is oozing with potential, especially as a lockdown defender. But no one can replace Harden and his facial hair in the short run.

In the long run, the Thunder will have two first-round picks – one that will likely be a lottery pick and one that is top-20 protected – to add more young talent to the nucleus that now includes Lamb, Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, Ibaka and what’s left of the Big Three.

In the end, it came down to money, and Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti took a hit in the short run to maintain cap flexibility while solidly positioning the franchise for years to come.

Houston finds a stud

They tried to get Pau Gasol. They tried to get Dwight Howard. And now GM Daryl Morey finally gets something resembling a superstar in James Harden.

Houston had assets; it just didn’t have guys to carry the team in a league where superstars win. Plain and simple. With young talent everywhere and draft picks galore, the Rockets finally compiled its ample arcade tickets and bought the big prize behind the counter.

While Harden might not be a superstar capable of carrying a team solely by himself, he is a player worthy of a max contract. With Harden on the floor last season, Oklahoma City outscored its opponents by more than nine points per 48 minutes. When he was on the bench, the Thunder were just 1.4 points better.

And let’s think about what the Rockets now have. The top dogs will be Jeremy Lin and Harden, to go along with an endless crop of young talent such as Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson, Royce White, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik. Heck, they could parlay some of that potential into another proven commodity.

Oh, and don’t forget about their cap flexibility. The Rockets still have max cap room for next summer.

The Rockets (finally) made a blockbuster trade that will certainly help, while the Thunder got an acceptable return for someone that likely was going to be traded at some point.

My only question: Why now?

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.