Sam Presti’s reluctance to pay James Harden could pave the way back to the Finals for the Lakers

Last night, the entire NBA world was shocked – although, that seems to be happening more and more these days; see Fourth of July, 2012 – as James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets

Although everyone was surprised by the seemingly sudden move by the Thunder, Adrian Wojnarowski noted that the Rockets had been calling Oklahoma City for months, trying to prize Harden away from them. It seems Houston knew that the Thunder didn’t want to give Harden a max contract, and for that reason they were persistent in their pursuit of the bearded 23-year-old shooting guard.

Saturday night, that persistence paid off and Harden was shipped out of town after rejecting OKC’s final offer of about $54 million over four years. Harden felt he was a max contract player – and the market indicated that he was after fellow guard Eric Gordon signed a four year, $58 million deal in during the summer.

However, Sam Presti wasn’t willing to play ball. Harden wanted a max deal and Presti wasn’t going to give him one, even if it was just a matter of a few more million dollars.

Yahoo! Sports reported that OKC’s ownership might’ve been willing to negotiate further and put up more dollars, but Presti decided to make a move, and a bold one at that.

Yes, the Thunder would’ve been deeper into the luxury tax. Yes, they would have had a hell of a lot of their salary committed to four players – Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden – but that’s an extremely good (and young) Big Four. Right now, those four guys are all under 24 and are getting better every season. You can fill in the other spots with minimum contracts, just like the Lakers have done.

And you can’t pull the “small market card” either. If you’re a Thunder fan, be disappointed that your owner didn’t order Presti to give Harden what he wants. Clay Bennet – the owner of the team – is a multimillionaire. The Thunder make nearly $25 million in profit every year. And they can’t afford to spare an extra few million to keep a contending team together?

Want to free up some dollars? Why not use your amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins in the summer? He has nearly $20 million left on his deal after this season. 

And don’t say they want to keep Perk to “stop” Dwight Howard: a) D12 has dominated match-ups between the two over the past few seasons – he dropped 33 on Perkins back in March – and b) why pay so much to keep a guy around to guard Howard in the playoffs when you’re making salary cuts to your roster and losing key pieces anyway? You can’t justify keeping Perkins to try and stop Howard – and therefore compete for a ring – when you send one of the players responsible for your success out of town.

Let’s not forget that this squad was just 3 wins away from a championship four months ago. Simply put, you don’t mess with what the Thunder had going – that’s if you truly care about winning, of course.

The truth is, last night I rejoiced when I heard the news that Harden had been traded, and I’m sure the rest of the Western Conference did too.

I’m not saying that the Thunder are going to suddenly fall into the lower echelon of the league, but the well oiled machine that OKC  built over the past five years just lost one of it’s main components, and that machine is going to splutter at times now and in turn, they’ll lose more games.

Harden kept the attack coming when Westbrook and Durant went to the bench; he’d come in, score the ball, create opportunities for others and play irritating defense. His replacement in Kevin Martin is a one dimensional player: he’s a scorer, although he’s currently coming off his worst scoring season since his second year in the league. I won’t even mention his defense; or lack of.

Martin is mostly a spot-up shooter and that means someone is going to have to create looks for him some of the time. Can Eric Maynor do that? Probably. But he has big shoes to fill and I’m not sure if he can do it as well as Harden could.

The loss of Harden also means that the ball is going to be in Westbrook’s hands more, which is never a good thing. I came across an interesting stat on ESPN earlier today: Harden averaged 29 points per 36 minutes last season when he didn’t share the court with Russell Westbrook.

29 points in 36 minutes? That’s pretty damn efficient. Not only does that stat show you some of what Harden brought off the bench for the Thunder, but it also shows you how much Westbrook limited Harden’s output when he was on the court with him. That doesn’t bode well for Martin. 

To me, the Thunder took on Martin just to shed salary and/or have a decent trade chip near the deadline: K-Mart has a $12.4 million expiring contract.

He’s a good player to have in a trade like this for PR purposes; you can highlight the fact that he’s a 14.2 ppg career scorer and note how he can help fill the void that Harden has left. But the truth is that he will not come close to replacing what Harden did.

Anything they get from Martin is a bonus at this point, then at the season’s end they’ll let his deal expire and clear $12.4 million from their books (again, we’re back to saving money).

Sure, Jeremy Lamb is a nice pick-up, but he’s a piece for the future, not right now. The one lottery pick they received in the deal is going to be valuable, but lottery selections are never a sure thing. Of course, the Thunder have found much success at the draft – they built a contender from it – but making great selections over and over again is a very hard thing to do.

Besides, if the Portland Trail Blazers decided to take Kevin Durant with the first overall pick in 2007, this Oklahoma City franchise would surely be no where near as great as they are now with Greg Oden being their selection.

That’s why I just wouldn’t risk breaking up this contending team for the sake of a few million dollars – sure, they might be a better team down the road, especially with the selection they made in this year’s draft, taking Perry Jones III with the 28th pick – but the truth is that it’s extremely hard to predict how things are going to turn out in the future. Why mess with what you know is working?

When it comes to the Lakers, I think it’s obvious that their path back to the NBA Finals just got a lot easier. Harden was one of the main guys who gave us trouble during the playoffs. He could make things happen on offense and then guard Kobe Bryant on defense.

Now who’s going to guard Kobe? Thabo Sefolosha? If that’s the case, OKC’s offensive production will suffer. If they decide to bring in Martin for an extra scoring punch, Kobe will score on him all day long.

I’m not saying that the Thunder still won’t be a potent team – and you’ve always got to watch out for the “old reliable” Spurs, the reloaded Clippers and the youthful Nuggets – but Harden was a huge thorn in the Lakers’ side and last night that thorn was swiftly removed, thanks to Presti.

If I was a fan of the Thunder, I’d be extremely disappointed in the front office and in Sam Presti’s stubbornness.

But, I’m not, I’m a Lakers fan. And the subtraction of number 13 from Oklahoma City on a Saturday night in late October increases the chances of number 17 coming to Los Angeles in early June.

Written by Ross Pickering

Ross Pickering is the founder of He's here to bring you daily updates on your Los Angeles Lakers, despite living 5,485 miles away from L.A. in England. You can follow him on Twitter: @RossPickering