The Thunder recording the league’s all-time high payroll is an irony. Remember that in 2012, they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets because they didn’t want to spend too much.
At that time, the Thunder had already signed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to long term deals while Harden was nearing the deadline where the Thunder would either extend his contract or allow him to be a restricted free agent the following summer. With tha hanging over their heads in training camp and their allergy to paying the luxury tax as a small market team, the Thunder let go of Harden rather easily.
Letting Harden Go
Although he struggled in their 2012 NBA Finals loss to the Miami Heat, Harden was only 23 years old then and was coming off a season where he won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. The Beard averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists that season, while playing behind Durant and Westbrook in the Thunder lineup. He also joined his high profile teammates playing for the flag in the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team.
Looking back, Harden averaged 25.9 points and 5.8 assists per game in his first season with the Houston Rockets. Had the Thunder kept him, he would have probably have not scored as much points but he most probably would have the same breakout season. And yes, he would most probably have been ready to play alongside Westbrook in the Thunder’s starting backcourt.
Oklahoma City’s final offer to Harden was a four year $55.5M deal. That was just $4.5M less than the max contract he got from the Houston Rockets. A couple of months earlier, the Thunder prioritized re-signing big man Serge Ibaka to a four year deal worth $48M. Ibaka had led the lead in blocks during two consecutive seasons at that time so maybe the Thunder felt that having Durant and Westbrook would be good enough for their offense and that Ibaka, being their defensive anchor meant more than another scorer like Harden.
But the Thunder ended up trading Ibaka and his expiring contract so that they could add salary cap space with Kevin Durant’s free agency looming. The Thunder got Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova in that deal. But as we all know, Durant ended up signing with the Golden State Warriors anyway. Good thing for the Thunder, Oladipo and Sabonis got them Paul George last season.
Avoiding The Luxury Tax
But going back to Harden. At the time of Harden’s extension, the Thunder had center Kendrick Perkins on its payroll at $8.5M. With Perk already beyond his peak at that time ( he was past his peak when he arrived in OKC ), they could have traded him or even waived him using the amnesty clause so they could accommodate the difference Harden was asking for. Or more easily, they could have kept Perkins, paid Harden the additional cash and just paid the luxury tax anyway.
But going above the luxury tax threshold wasn’t in the Thunder’s vocabulary then. Yet losing Harden cost them a super team that was built, not bought. Remember that Durant was absorbed from Seattle while Westbrook was drafted in 2008 and Harden in 2009. Doesn’t this recipe remind you of how the Warriors came up with Curry, Thompson and Green? Success was written all over that trio. The Thunder though didn’t want to pay the price.
But look how the times have changed. With back-up point guard Raymond Felton agreeing to a one-year $2.4M deal earlier this week, the Thunder have breached the $300M in payroll. That includes a mammoth $150M in luxury taxes to be paid at the end of the calendar year.
Russell Westbrook is due to make $35.3M this coming season. Paul George recently agreed to a four year deal worth $137M. Carmelo Anthony opted in to his $27.9M option while Steven Adams is worth $24.5M for 2018-19. Do the math, that’s over $117M in salaries for four starters. Remember that the NBA salary cap for the 2018-19 season is $101.8M and the luxury tax threshold is $123.7M.
The NBA is an arms race and the Thunder know very well that in order for them to compete with the elite teams, they need all the firepower and superstar power they could get-especially since they are playing in the ultra competitive western conference. Remember that one guy by the name of LeBron James has just joined the wild west, meaning this year could even be tougher for the rest of the west. And yeah, DeMarcus Cousins heading to Golden State does not making getting out of the west alive much easier.
After losing their original OK3 in 2012, current Thunder GM Sam Presti pulled the strings on two brilliant deals that brought them two all-stars last season. The move not only gave the Thunder a new Big Three but it also allowed them to sign Russell Westbrook to a long-time deal.
The deal was risky though as Paul George was a flight prospect, as he was linked to the Los Angeles Lakers until the day he announced he was going to re-sign with the Thunder. But Presti took the gamble of taking George without the guarantee of keeping him after the season. Presti’s gambit paid off as George is coming back. But while the Thunder is happy that PG13 is returning, they have mixed feelings about their third all-star.
Carmelo Anthony was more of a liability than an asset during the Thunder’s first round playoff loss to the Jazz. Given that Melo would not earn $27.9M elsewhere, he opted in to his contract. Sure, you can say that the Thunder would be very much happy to overpay their third option knowing that they already have locked in Westbrook and George in long-term deals. Anthony goes off the books at the end of the 2018-19 season anyway.
Theater Of The Absurd
Life is indeed the theater of the absurd. Clay Bennett is now willing to pay his past his prime third option $27.9M just to keep his top two players. Six years ago though, he was unwilling to pay a 23 year old James Harden an additional $4.5M per year to be the third option to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Harden was just recently named as the NBA’s 2018 season MVP, joining Durant and Westbrook in the list of MVP winners.
Imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder starting with Westbrook, Harden and James. Three MVPs in one team. Everybody’s making a big deal out of DeMarcus Cousins’ joining the Golden State Warriors because it gives them five all-star players. But three MVPs in one team? That would have been unprecedented.
You can make a case that Harden wouldn’t have reached MVP status playing alongside Durant and Westbrook. Maybe, but who knows? Even if we set the MVP conversation aside, do we have an NBA team right now who can match the offensive juggernaut of a squad with Durant, Westbrook and Harden? The Warriors come to mind but I don’t even think the Dubs can match that trio offensively.
But all we can do now is imagine. It is what it is. Durant has won two titles with the Warriors. Harden just won his first MVP with the Rockets. And the Thunder? They go back to the drawing board trying to figure out what went wrong last season. Regardless of what you say, they still have a Big Three of Westbrook, George and Anthony. They have a quality big man in Steven Adams. They have added Nerlens Noel in free agency. Let’s just hope they get out of the first round of the playoffs next season. Or else we’re going to keep on looking back at what could have been the best trio in the league today.
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