The Oklahoma City Thunder were at the mercy of their opponent. They were in a tight spot and at the mercy of their opponent, and I’m not talking about the other night when they were eliminated by the Memphis Grizzlies. The opponent in this case was Rob Pelinka. Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Pelinka wanted the max contract for Harden at $60 million over four years. The Thunder GM Sam Presti was only willing to go as far as $54 million to avoid paying the luxury tax. This was after, of course, Pelinka turned down $52 million deal before. Presti had to do something.
So he gambled. In the Houston Rockets, he found a team desperate for the services of James Harden. Rockets GM Daryl Morey wanted James badly enough to pay the extension, and then some. The Rockets paid Harden $80 million over 5 years. In exchange for Harden (as well as Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Haywood) Oklahoma City received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, 2 first round picks, and a second round pick.
It was a two way gamble. Rockets bet that James Harden was an elite player that could finally garner them post season success and the Thunder gambled that they could replace Harden and keep enough firepower to return them to the Finals. They were almost right.
Russell Westbrook’s torn meniscus in game 2 against the Rockets in the first round, made sure the Thunder’s plan backfired. Without Westbrook or Harden from the year before, the undermanned Thunder lost in the second round to the Memphis Grizzlies in just 5 games. Kevin Martin didn’t provide the firepower that Harden once did and without Westbrook, Durant was forced to carry the load of a team that had no punch. For instance Kendrick Perkins posted a -0.7 player efficiency rating the worst of a player in the playoffs with at least 200 minutes played, in league history.
Oklahoma City’s first year without James Harden ends in a failure almost directly related to not having Harden on the roster. That’s not to say that the Thunder are in long term danger without him. If Jeremy Lamb develops into the player the Thunder front office thinks he can be they hope to regain some scoring power there, as well as adding to it with the draft picks acquired in the trade. While Kevin Martin as a Harden replacement was initially a flop the Thunder still have pieces to work with.
They’re just going to have to wait a bit.