James Harden was one of the most important offseason players to keep an eye on, and it seems the Thunder decided to part ways with their trademark beard and a key member of OKC’s championship-contending team. Yahoo Sports broke the story, reporting that Harden declined a $55 million extension to stay with the Thunder. At that point, Thunder management immediately decided to ship him to Houston in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and future draft picks. The Rockets will also receive Cole Aldrich, Lazar Haywood and Daequan Cook.
Harden’s success last season off the bench earned him the Sixth Man of the Year Award and his trademark beard made him a fan favorite in Oklahoma City. After playing in the Olympics, Harden expressed interest in re-signing with the Thunder and staying with his “brothers” Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC. These sentiments were echoed by Thunder management as well, but those notions were put in serious doubt when they signed Serge Ibaka for a four-year, $48 million deal, coming dangerously close to luxury tax territory. Once Harden declined their offer, the Thunder immediately pulled the trigger in making a trade with the Rockets. The offered deal is reported as being worth four years and $55 million, compared to the $60 million over four years he will get in Houston.
Apparently the difference was too much for Harden, who will now have an incredibly giant task in front of him in Houston, playing for a Rockets squad that will need a lot of offensive production out of him. Kevin Martin and Houston coach Kevin McHale had clashed a few times last season, making Martin’s departure a healthy breakup for both sides, but the Thunder certainly didn’t get better with this trade. While Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb has a lot of upside, there’s no replacing the team chemistry and sixth man role that James Harden brought to the team, beard or not. He fit in perfectly with Durant and Westbrook off the bench because he didn’t have a lot of pressure on him (until the Finals, where he struggled).
However, the Thunder did the right thing in offering such a back-breaking amount. Harden will be the one held responsible for breaking up such a dynamic trio after they made it to the Finals just last year. This decision is not only questionable, it’s downright senseless. Harden thrived in a sixth man role off the bench, not a starting role where he was expected to do all the heavy lifting on offense. And considering the lackluster season Martin had last year, the Thunder didn’t benefit from this trade either, at least in the short-term. They lost an instrumental part of the team whose presence was appreciated by fans and teammates alike, which hurts OKC’s chances of seriously contending for a title this year.
It’s important to point out however, that the Thunder might have something up their sleeve next year, and their future still looks bright. Harden and Martin’s contracts both expire at the end of this season, meaning they would both be free agents. If they let Martin go, they might have enough cap space to bring in a big piece to join Durant and Westbrook. And since they got two first-round picks and one second-round pick, the Thunder will be able to bring in solid talent in upcoming drafts. But regardless of future plans, Harden breaking up a core that took a team to the Finals last year just seems heartless and foolish right now. He will soon learn it’s better to be a contributing member on a championship team than the big fish in a little pond.