For months, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey called on Oklahoma City's Sam Presti, probing him with a simple question: Want to discuss a deal for James Harden yet? Over and over, the response had been an unwavering no. The Thunder wanted to sign Harden to a contract extension, hold together their young core and try to win championships for years and years.
Finally, there had come a call within the past several days to Morey: Presti wanted to seriously discuss the framework of a trade, because if Harden wouldn't take the Thunder's final offer, this promised to be the next step. From owner Clay Bennett to Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver, a decision had been made: James Harden had played his final game for the Thunder.
After turning down a $52 million extension several days ago, Harden's agent, Rob Pelinka, flew from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City on Friday for a final sit-down with Presti. He wanted a max contract of four years, $60 million for his client, and had come to Oklahoma City to push management as far as it would go on an offer.
Before sitting down a final time with Pelinka, Presti became more serious in his discussions with Morey. Houston wanted Harden badly, believed he would evolve into a transcendent franchise star for a championship-caliber team and planned to award him a five-year maximum contract worth nearly $80 million. So, Presti laid out what he wanted for Harden and the original price was steep: Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lamb and three first-round picks, including Houston's own in 2013.
Across 72 hours and culminating on Friday night, the deal became this: Martin, Lamb and two first-round picks, including a guaranteed plumb lottery pick via Toronto. Before Presti sat down with Pelinka on Saturday morning to make his final offer of $54 million over four years, the Rockets were made to understand: If Harden turns it down, your long-awaited star is on his way to Texas.
In those finals hours on Saturday, the NBA made clear to Oklahoma City and Houston: Under no circumstances could Morey and Pelinka discuss a potential contract extension. Nevertheless, it was understood Morey would never let Wednesday's deadline pass without giving Harden the five-year max extension that wasn't available in Oklahoma City.
All along, Pelinka and Harden understood: From the Rockets, to the Phoenix Suns, to the Dallas Mavericks, there was a maximum contract offer awaiting him in free agency. Harden's market value wouldn't be dictated on the fact the Thunder planned to pay him as the franchise's third-best player. Less money and a sixth-man role – after a summer with Team USA at the Olympics, this was an impossible sell on Harden.
The impact on the Thunder locker room won't have the dark fallout some fear. When word reached Russell Westbrook late on Friday, he was disappointed Harden was gone – loved him as person, a teammate – but he wasn't devastated over the deal. Privately, Westbrook loved how Presti had strengthened the back of the Thunder roster with two rookies, Perry Jones and Lamb. He always admired how Martin had scored on the Thunder.
Center Kendrick Perkins also had privately told people he believed a trade was inevitable, too. To a man, none of the key Thunder players were surprised this happened, and none are conceding championship aspirations. In some ways, they can all breathe out now: This is the team, and now they go forward.
If nothing else, Westbrook and Kevin Durant have long learned to trust the judgment of Presti and Weaver. When the Thunder couldn't get an extension done with Jeff Green, they turned him into a piece the franchise desperately needed: Perkins. Everyone in the organization privately knew this, too: Harden wouldn't have thrived with the uncertainty and questions that would come with him unsigned past Wednesday, with him headed to the Feb. 21 trade deadline and, ultimately, restricted free agency on July 1.
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Harden struggled in the NBA Finals, tried too hard and slowly, surely unraveled over the course of the series. When the rest of the Thunder were celebrating a Game 1 victory over Miami in the locker room, Harden could be heard grumbling over too few shots (five), and too few minutes (22).
Veterans Derek Fisher and Perkins laid into Harden, telling him essentially: We just won an NBA Finals game and the last thing in the world that ought to worry you are your individual statistics. Harden apologized, but it was clear his mindset wasn't right. He never found his way back into a proper rhythm in the Finals.
This isn't an indictment of Harden. He cares deeply, but it is hard to be 23 years old and needing to prove yourself worthy of the salary that will come with stardom. There's a popular argument that Harden isn't worth max money, because he played so poorly in the Finals. He was magnificent for the Thunder a year ago, regular season through the Western Conference finals victory over San Antonio. If he ever gets there again, he'll probably play better.
The Rockets don't need Harden to play well in the Finals this year, or next, because they won't be there. They'll now feature an offense around Harden and believe he'll blossom into an annual All-Star, an all-league player.
Oklahoma City's front office was melancholy on Saturday night. They had drafted this core, developed it and hoped they could keep it together for years and years. Ownership might have gone further with its final offer of $54 million, but Presti drew the line on how much he was willing to invest into Harden and ended the talks there. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement delivers devastating luxury-tax penalties to teams over the cap – $1.50 for every dollar over the tax threshold – and Presti simply couldn't justify the cost. This wouldn't go until Wednesday night's deadline, Presti informed Pelinka. That's the final offer, and his next call would be to Houston to tell Morey: Let's reach out to the league office and get a trade call to make this official.
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In the end, Presti would secure a player to score off his bench this year (Martin), a gifted prospect for the future (Lamb) and a lottery pick that could give the Thunder a chance to draft another elite talent. Giving the Thunder another protected first-round pick from Dallas was more than Houston wanted to do, but the Rockets weren't willing to let Presti get on the phone and find a better deal. Morey believes Jeremy Lin and Harden will be stars in the NBA, and he's gambling his own – and his franchise's – future on it.
From Sam Presti to Daryl Morey to James Harden, everyone ran his share of risk in this scenario and it all tumbled into motion in these final, frenzied 48 hours. This is the kind of deal that changes careers, changes franchises, and everyone breathed out on Saturday and understood: No turning back now.
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