Thunder’s bold move sends Harden to Houston

Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti couldn’t wait. The new NBA collective bargaining agreement wouldn’t let him.

In a bold move that several franchises shied away from in recent years, Presti traded away an Olympian who potentially might have been the most coveted free agent on the market next summer. Presti dealt James Harden, along with center Cole Aldrich and forwards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward, to the Houston Rockets for guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-rounder.

Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, was an integral part of the Thunder’s run to the Western Conference title and the NBA Finals last season. The 23-year-old former third overall pick was seen as part of Oklahoma City’s long-term program alongside All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the rapidly-improving Serge Ibaka.

Instead, Harden begins his fourth season with arguably one of the worst teams in the West. The decision to move the bearded guard comes down to finances and the financial health of Oklahoma City in years to come.

Harden and the Thunder had come to a stalemate with a Wednesday deadline looming on a contract extension. Harden’s camp was pushing for a four-year maximum deal worth $60 million, according to reports. Oklahoma City was said to be offering a deal in the $52 million range.

Instead of continuing to negotiate, Presti pulled the trigger that Cleveland and Toronto couldn’t two summers ago. Rather than potentially let Harden walk, as LeBron James and Chris Bosh essentially did in 2010, Oklahoma City opted for value now.

“We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers,” Presti said in a statement released by the team.

“We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin’s caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team. We appreciate James, Cole, Daequan and Lazar’s contributions to the Thunder organization and this community and wish them the best in the future.”

The new CBA harshly penalizes teams above the luxury tax threshold in years to come. The Los Angeles Lakers have already admitted to being strapped cap-wise down the line with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Super teams are going to feel the new CBA crunch soon enough.

Presti has long preached the ideal of building a sustainable economic and competitive model in OKC based on intelligent drafting, trades and signings. The Harden deal illustrates as much in a bold move on the eve of the NBA season.

While moving such an important piece might not seem prudent from a basketball standpoint with the season opening Thursday at San Antonio, Presti is looking ahead and making sure the Thunder remain in position to compete for another West title.

As a GM, he’s done a nearly flawless job turning the lottery team he had in Seattle into a bona-fide contender. And this isn’t Presti’s first blockbuster. He’s already moved Ray Allen, Jeff Green and now Harden. (Green was once thought to be as big a part of the Thunder’s future as Durant and Westbrook.)

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks is going to have to do some juggling with the rotation and inside the locker room. Losing a nearly 17-point scorer who won gold in London with Durant and Westbrook is not ideal at the end of preseason. Brooks is a company man who does understand the bigger picture and will be able to adapt.

And bringing in Martin should help lessen the blow. The ninth-year veteran shooting guard has averaged 18.4 points for his career, and is entering the last year of his contract at $12.9 million. Martin is in for a one-year audition with one of the league’s best teams, plus he should get plenty of open looks playing with his new All-Star teammates.

As for Houston, general manager Daryl Morey has a season to persuade Harden about teaming with Jeremy Lin for years to come. The Rockets have a starting job and, more importantly, money to spend.

If that’s not enough to entice Harden to stay, he can reach the open market and open up the bidding. If Chris Paul and Howard decide to stay in Los Angeles, with the Clippers and Lakers, respectively, Harden could be next summer’s top prize.

The money is going to be there. It just won’t come from Oklahoma City. Presti made sure of that.

Follow Art Garcia on Twitter: @ArtGarcia92