The Oklahoma City Thunder have done what few people were predicting at this point. Instead of waiting for offers or at least getting through the year with the same core that took them so close to an NBA title last year, Sam Presti and the front office staff of the Thunder traded James Harden on Saturday night to the Houston Rockets in a multi-player deal that should raise eyebrows around the league for some time.
The deal is built around Harden, and it's not a trade the Thunder obviously wanted to make. However they were forced to find maximum value for Harden as an asset given that the team and player were at an impasse.
"Contract extension talks between the Thunder and Harden broke down, and Thunder general manger Sam Presti moved quickly to trade the guard," writes Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. "Harden rejected a four-year offer that would have paid him a base salary of $53 million to $54 million, league sources said. That offer would have pushed OKC's payroll to $95 million, and Thunder officials weren't willing to go any higher."
There's no doubt that Presti knew exactly what he could get from around the league if talks came to this unfortunate standstill, and the general manager did not hesitate to pull the trigger. As great as Harden is, Presti is always thinking about the long-term value of his in-play assets within the bigger picture. Keeping Harden this year may or may not bring an NBA title, but if there's nothing after that, then Harden had to go in Presti's estimation.
Still the breakdown in contract talks shows that the team wanted to keep Harden. This is not a case of a team not valuing the player it had in house. The Thunder wanted Harden. Harden likely wanted the Thunder to a great degree. But the economic realities of what the Thunder could pay Harden given other commitments versus what the Olympian could make in the open market was just too great of a gap to close.