TORONTO - Follow the money.
As is usually the case, Saturday night’s stunning blockbuster James Harden trade was all about economics.
Harden wanted more money and Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett didn’t want to pay the cost to field a championship calibre club for years to come.
As a result, the Thunder’s path to a title has become far more difficult – perhaps too difficult, given how important Harden was to the club. And Harden will now be making huge money as the main guy on a mediocre club. Elite defenders will be trying to shut him down, instead of focussing on Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
Things have changed in the Western Conference. Considerably.
It all could have been different. The league’s feel-good team (unless you were a fan of the Seattle Supersonics) could have kept its main cogs together either by signing Harden before inexplicably giving Serge Ibaka a contract extension in August, or by removing Kendrick Perkins’ hefty contract from the books either via trade (perhaps with Eric Maynor as the bait) or by the amnesty provision.
Instead, Bennett decided he didn’t want to pay the cost, even though the city gave him a sweetheart deal when he moved the Thunder from Seattle and even though he’s raking in a nice profit.
The new collective bargaining agreement is having an impact.
Since Westbrook got the five-year max extension, that option wasn’t available to Harden in OKC. Minnesota likely will lose Kevin Love one day because the Wolves decided to save the five-year max spot for Ricky Rubio.
Still, by all accounts, Harden would have signed a four-year max deal, but the Thunder wouldn’t offer the full amount because, under this new, more restrictive CBA, the luxury tax has become extremely punitive.
Instead of sucking it up to win a title or three, Bennett agreed to get rid of Harden.
Houston happily scooped him up, just as the Rockets happily grabbed Jeremy Lin in free agency after the mega-rich New York Knicks decided they wanted to avoid the beefed up luxury tax as well.
Other teams have shed stars either through trade or free agency for similar reasons.
So, why blame the Thunder for doing the same thing?
Simple. Harden’s younger and better than the other guys who have been cast adrift. The team was a legitimate title contender with Harden and took a major step back. Picks late in the lottery, Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin aren’t going to replace what Harden provided.
It’s fine to avoid the tax if you aren’t very good. But breaking up this core is cheating the fans.
This move didn’t need to happen. Don’t believe the cries that OKC is too small a market to afford Durant, Westbrook and Harden. It could have worked. It just would have been expensive.
And money, not wins, still trumps all in professional sports.