In professional sports, it's often about the money. And at the end of the day, the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have the money for guard James Harden.
So late Saturday, the Thunder, who lost to the Miami Heat in five games in last season's NBA Finals, traded Harden to the Houston Rockets for guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. The Rockets received center Cole Aldrich, guard Daequan Cook and forward Lazar Hayward.
Harden, the 2011-12 sixth man of the year and a London Olympics gold medalist with Team USA, and the Thunder had been involved in talks about an extension, but the two sides could not find common ground. Instead of risk losing Harden as a restricted free agent after the 2012-13 season, the Thunder decided to make sure they got something in return.
"While I never like having to send out quality players like Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, this trade gives us a chance to make an immediate impact on the future of our franchise moving forward," Rockets owner Leslie Alexander said in a statement. "James Harden was part of Team USA's gold medal team at the London Olympics and is one of the most skilled shooting guards in the NBA. James, along with the mix of young players we already have in place such as (guard) Jeremy Lin, (forward) Chandler Parsons and (center) Omer Asik give us a very solid group of young, talented players who will form the core of our team."
The deal cuts to the heart of the plight of small- and mid-market teams such as the Thunder. Can they return all of their top players? Are they willing to have a payroll that surpasses the luxury tax and are they willing to pay the tax when they go over? The Thunder have more than $200 million tied up in salary for forward Kevin Durant, guard Russell Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka through 2016-17.
Just before midnight ET, Durant tweeted, "Wow."
Larry Bird stepped down as president of the Indiana Pacers in part because he wasn't sure how much he would be able to spend on the Pacers' roster. Thunder general manager Sam Presti found himself in a situation where ownership was only willing to spend so much on an extension for Harden. And when Harden didn't like the offer, the Thunder made a move.
"We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers," Presti said in a statement. "We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin's caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team."
The word "sustainable" is key to Presti's lexicon. He wants to make sure the Thunder have a team not only for the present, but for the future, too. Martin and Lamb address the present and future. Martin is an efficient scoring threat, and while he is not the all-around threat that Harden is, he gives the Thunder more scoring. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a firm believer in advanced statistics, loved Martin's game. Presti, who also appreciates advanced stats, obviously saw something in Martin's game.
"Oh my gosh!!!!!!! Feels like a damn dream!" Martin told USA TODAY Sports in a text message.
Martin is in the final year of his contract, and it could turn out to be a perfect situation for Martin and the Thunder after this season. Martin is with a title-contending team, and the Thunder likely believe they can re-sign him for a value.
Lamb is a rookie, the No. 12 pick in the June draft by the Rockets. At 6-5, the Thunder project him a potential starting shooting guard in the future.
The Rockets have a long chased an All-Star, and Morey finally got one. For much of last season, the Rockets were engaged in talks for big men â?? either Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. Morey is unafraid to make trades or take risks, and it's not a surprise the Rockets jumped into the mix for Harden.
Harden gives the Rockets an all-around guard â?? a playmaker, scorer and defender â?? to pair with Lin, the former Knicks point guard the Rockets went after in free agency. Since Harden is a restricted free agent after this season, the Rockets can match an offer from any other team and retain Harden. The Rockets went after Lin and Osik in free agency, and with just $35 million on the books for 2013-14, Houston is in good position to re-sign Harden.
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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