NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder

The Championship Sacrifice: A Potential Dynasty Gone Awry

On the 27th October 2012, Oklahoma City traded James Harden to Houston for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and an array of Draft Picks after he spurned multiple attempts to negotiate a contact extension.

Negotiations with Harden began shortly after the Thunder had penned a 22 year old Serge Ibaka to a 4 year $48 million deal. With big bucks already committed to Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka on a long term basis, offering a max deal to Harden would’ve been luxury-tax suicide (or so they thought).

Due to a rapid, and somewhat un expected jump in luxury tax and salary cap levels over the past couple of years, signing Harden to a max deal may have only resulted in luxury tax penalties for 2013-2014, as he had one year remaining on his rookie deal (2012-2013) when traded to Houston.

Thus, talks commenced with a dark cloud of uncertainty suspended above. First, the Thunder offered Harden a four year $52 million deal, which he rejected. Sam Presti’s leverage in negotiations extended to all of $3 million, as he increased his offering to Harden to $55 million. In turn, this deal was also rejected.

Aware that Harden would receive max offers from around the league as a restricted free-agent the following off season, Presti dealt him to Houston.

Harden’s development into one of the league’s most versatile and efficient scorers became apparent in the 2011/2012 season; he posted an incredible 66% true shooting percentage, good for fourth in the league. The player he trailed in this statistical category was one to whom Harden was often compared, and whose example he would have done well to follow during contract negotiations with the Thunder.

For much of his career, Manu Ginobili has played in the shadow of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. A future Hall of Famer in his own right, Manu sacrificed both money and individual stardom on his road to three championships with the Spurs.

In July 2004, Ginobili signed a six year extension with San Antonio, worth around $52 million; the same sum originally offered to Harden by OKC.

With a growing reputation as one of the most potent and creative offensive players in the league, Ginobili could have eventually made more money elsewhere. Sound familiar?

In a league increasingly centred on individual stardom and status, many upcoming talents are unwilling to share the spotlight, and become consumed by the alluring aspiration of being ‘the guy’. Around the negotiating table with the Thunder, Harden wouldn’t settle for anything less than a max contract; after all, Russell Westbrook was signed to such a deal and is arguably an inferior player.

“I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren’t willing to help me,” – James Harden on the role money played in his OKC departure. 

Salary minutiae

At first glance, the five year, $80 million deal which Harden penned with the Rockets is a major upgrade on the $55 million offered to him by Sam Presti and the Thunder. I mean, who can blame Harden for opting to take a $35 million booster along with franchise player status?

Average salary over first 4 years of contract

OKC four year- 55 million offer: $13.9 million

Houston, five year- 80 million deal: $15.2 million

The difference in salary on a season-to-season basis is minuscule (around $1.3 million by our calculations); this makes the whole affair even more mystifying. Why weren’t OKC willing to bump up their offer by just $4.5 million to make it a max deal?

Another question begged by the small gap in Harden’s money-making opportunity between OKC-Houston is  his true motive in rejecting the Thunder’s final $55 million offer.

In the simplest terms, Harden wanted his own chance to shine.

And that is exactly what he has with the Rockets. Coming off a season where Harden established himself as the top shooting guard in the league, and as the leading member of a team with legitimate championship aspirations, it’s impossible to envisage him coming off the bench as he did on OKC.

It is therefore insane to suggest that Harden would have been better off remaining with the Thunder, right?

A missed opportunity for an unprecedented dynasty

Kevin Durant is the MVP and the second best player in the league, Russell Westbrook is a bona-fide superstar whose playoff antics have people wondering whether he’s a Top-5 talent, and Serge Ibaka’s ceiling is untold.

Now add James Harden to the mix. The prospects are scary; four all-stars, three of whom are top 10 players, an unmatched assembly of talent. With those four players on your roster, a potential dynasty is on the horizon.

But it wasn’t to be, as Harden was unwilling to make the championship sacrifice.

The aforementioned four year $52 million contract extension which Manu Ginobili signed with the Spurs in 2004 embodies this sacrifice. He could have eventually made more money elsewhere, he could have been the ball-dominant star elsewhere – but Manu stayed put, excelling in his sixth man role, and winning championships in 2/4 seasons of his new contract.

The list of super role-players and talented stars who graced San Antonio’s roster through those four years is long – but they couldn’t have done it without Manu’s sacrifice of taking a lesser role.

Had Harden made the sacrifice of taking a lesser role and (slightly) less money, the Thunder would’ve had to adopt a much more team oriented style of play. With three players who require the ball in their hands to be maximally effective, their offense would have evolved into a ball-movement centric system, which would have served them well long term, solving many of their present day issues.

It would have worked out.

Championship winning players make tough sacrifices. LeBron took less money to play in Miami, while Wade and Bosh accepted diminished roles. Dirk stuck with the Mavericks through thick and thin. Ginobili, and countless Spurs that preceded and followed bought into a team focused system when they could’ve made more money in bigger roles elsewhere. The list goes on.

Houston were bounced out of the first round by Portland after Lillard’s insane game-winner, while Oklahoma City find themselves on the verge of elimination in the conference finals at the hands of San Antonio. Sacrifice is paying dividends for the Spurs, again.

Harden was unwilling to make the championship sacrifice; dazzled by the allure of a max contract in a new city, a special opportunity went awry.

Sure, OKC are likely to win a title in the near future, and the same may be said for Houston, depending on the quality of their off season acquisitions. But nothing either party accomplishes will come close to the potential that lay in a long term Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka tandem.

We will always be left pondering the question; what could have been?

Editor of Sixth Man Journal. San Antonio Spurs fan who also follows the Bulls. Used to play basketball a little.