Just a couple of seasons ago the Oklahoma City Thunder made the NBA finals, and – with a core of players including Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, all 23 years old or younger – they were poised to be a contender for years to come. Now they're in danger of going back to the draft lottery. When things go well for teams, people tend to ignore their mistakes – for example, Adam Morrison was signed by the Lakers when they won a title! But when things go poorly for teams, that's when fingers get pointed. The Thunder traded Harden away for basically nothing, and this season he's an MVP favorite. It's easy to go back in time and say "they should have taken him over Westbrook." Heck, even I've done that. However, if we dig into history, we should realize that that's the wrong narrative. In the end, fans of the Sonics/Thunder should be even madder.
It might be a surprise to see me come to Westbrook's defense. The reality is that we shouldn't get mad at players for taking the money. And by proxy, we shouldn't be mad at them for taking the shots, because that's what gets them paid. I do think Russell Westbrook is overrated and overpaid. Of course, the same could easily be said of Michael Jordan during the Bulls' last few Finals runs. The thing is, Westbrook often comes up in a debate he has no place in – Westbrook vs. Harden
Hell, I'm even guilty of this. It's hard not to be. On January 19th, 2012 the Thunder decided to give a max deal to Russell Westbrook. Thanks to their brilliant decision to move the team to Oklahoma City, they were out of money. That meant that they were unlikely to resign James Harden to a large extension that he would obviously demand. So, on October 27th, 2012, the Thunder traded away James Harden for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and some draft picks.
These two actions seem so obviously connected. Both Westbrook and Harden were nearing the end of their rookie deals. The Thunder sided with Westbrook and Harden was ousted. It was another Kobe vs. Shaq, right?
The Real "Feud"
Not so fast! You see, the Thunder's hands being tied in regards to money had started much earlier. In 2011, the Thunder decided to make a move to push themselves into contention. They traded Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder had been looking for a top big to help them compete. They'd almost pulled the trigger on a deal for Tyson Chandler in 2009. This second attempt seemed perfect; Perkins had been a useful part of the 2008 Boston team that won it all, and his performance had been good. Perkins had a 0.163 WP48 in 2008. Not star level, but certainly valuable, especially because the Thunder were weak at his position.
Except for one major hiccup. On February 24th, 2011, when the Thunder acquired Perkins, the Celtics had played 56 games. Perkins had only suited up for twelve of them. Additionally, in those games, he hadn't played particularly well. Perkins had a 0.90 WP48 for the Celtics in 2010-2011, well below his number from previous seasons when the Celtics had been a force. We often talk about how hard it is to judge injuries. The Thunder had already gotten cold feet over a talented big with injury problems. So what was their response with Perkins?
Before Perkins ever suited up for a game, the Thunder decided to offer him a four-year, $32 million deal that would pay him between seven and nine million dollars a season. Let's stress, this was before they'd:
- Extended Westbrook.
- Extended Ibaka.
- Extended Harden.
- BEFORE HE EVER PLAYED A GAME FOR THEM!
The Thunder were able to get Ibaka to sign for a discount. Of course, they gave Westbrook the max, because scorers get paid. But when they got to Harden, they were "cash strapped." A reminder, the Thunder's ownership made a willing decision to move the team from Seattle, the 15th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. to Oklahoma City, the 42nd largest metropolitan area. There is no using the "small market card" for them. The Thunder decided the wise move was to trade Harden – "while he had value" – for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and some picks. One of the picks has turned into Steven Adams. The Thunder let Martin walk after 2014, making it clear they just needed him for salaries to match. As such, the Thunder ended up with Perkins, Lamb, and Adams in 2014 instead of James Harden.
Let's do a quick bit of math. In 2014, if the Thunder didn't have Perkins, Lamb, Adams, or Derek Fisher (who would have been pointless with Harden on the roster), they'd have had enough to keep Harden at the pay he got from Houston ($13.7 million) and be right near the luxury cap.
In the above scenario (no Perkins, Lamb, Adams, or Fisher, but still keeping Harden) the Thunder would have been at $70.8 million in contracts. Instead, in 2013 the Thunder were at....$67.8 million. Now, the Thunder would have hit the luxury cap, which would have meant they needed to match the half a million over the cap they were. In essence, the Thunder "saved' four million dollars in 2013 by not re-signing Harden. This was at the cost of not having him for the whole 2013 season, the last year of his rookie deal.
The Thunder front office is often credited with being smart and savvy. However, this seems ludicrous to me. The Thunder had a strong core of talented players in 2010. Of course, the Thunder made sure to get Durant signed to a max deal. That left Ibaka, Westbrook, and Harden. But before wrapping up the rest of their stars, the Thunder blindly gave a decent center a pile of money before he had shown he could return to his previous form. This put them in the bad position of having to choose between stars. And even here, they panicked: instead of keeping Harden for the 2013 season and giving it another go, they shipped him out early for some overrated draft picks. And don't give me anything about how good Adams is! If the Thunder didn't have Perkins, they wouldn't need Adams! Westbrook vs. Harden is symbolic of the problems the Oklahoma City front office has. However, we shouldn't rewrite history. It was never about Harden vs. Westbrook. It was a poorly run NBA team spending their future flexibility on an injured center while ignoring the core of amazingly talented young players in front of them.