The Thunder retain Enes Kanter, as the ghost of James Harden looms over the team

Ball Don't Lie
Enes Kanter wraps one around. (Getty Images)

EK71415.jpg

Enes Kanter wraps one around. (Getty Images)

You’re still allowed to mock the Oklahoma City Thunder’s ownership group. Just because you’re aware that the team’s 2012 decision to trade James Harden wasn’t strictly a money-saving maneuver, that there were actual basketball merits to the move, you can still lay into them if you want.

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The laffs started up again when Oklahoma City was basically “forced,” depending on who you listen to, to match the four-year, $70 million restricted free agent offer sheet for Enes Kanter. Kanter, an offensive-minded center whom the Thunder dealt for in February, made an agreement with the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, and the Thunder used all three days to let the man dangle before matching.

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As such, the Thunder will now have four players making eight figures a year. Depending on how Kanter’s contract is structured, they could have the highest payroll in the NBA, and they will be paying the luxury tax for the second consecutive season in 2015-16. Yes, the same tax that the team dealt Harden in a successful attempt to avoid prior to 2012-13.

Here’s where the ha-has come in.

James Harden turned down a reported four-year, $54 million offer from OKC in 2012 before forcing the trade to Houston. He might make less than Kanter next season. Harden was turned into Kevin Martin (who was let go for no compensation in 2013) and Jeremy Lamb (who was dealt for, in the end, a trade exception OKC probably won’t use and payroll relief this offseason), and picks that turned into center Steven Adams (who plays the same position as Kanter) and Mitch McGary.

Meanwhile, the Thunder missed the playoffs in 2015 because of significant injuries to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Durant will be a free agent in 2016, when several teams will have an alluring pitch (and enough cap space) to send his way.

He could be the centerpiece of the Lakers’ rebirth, with several young and talented teammates already on hand and the chance to have a say in how the team is built around him. He could take a little less money than the max but possibly play for a championship contender in Miami. He could pair up with John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington, the team closest to his hometown.

Or, he could team up with one of the NBA’s most dynamic young talents, one of its top frontcourt defenders, and a series of younger bruising teammates and make as much money as he possibly can. He can stay in Oklahoma City.

Comparing Harden’s 2012 deal to Kanter’s 2015 offer sheet match is ludicrous. For one, until the NBA announced its most recent national television deal’s terms, most assumed that the salary cap would continue to rise in smaller increments as it always has (with a few exceptions in the NBA’s low years). Whether you personally would not like Enes Kanter in your rotation isn’t the point, Kanter’s yearly rate won’t take as big a chunk out of the team’s payroll, post-2016, as Harden’s would have from 2013-15. As far as the resultant trades, implying that the Thunder basically cashed in an MVP candidate for Enes Kanter, one year of Kevin Martin, and Steven Adams would be off.

There is also the gloom of the repeater tax to consider. The Thunder had four studs in hand following the team’s 2012 NBA Finals’ loss. Picture 2013-14 as a championship season for OKC: had that team stuck together at the going rate, despite Harden’s sixth man status, none were set to make the sort of bargain money that the Golden State Warriors got away with (with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green) in their championship run last season.

That’s championship after championship after championship, at least in hindsight and forgetting that Tim Duncan and LeBron James exist, but also tax after tax after tax. The repeater tax is real, the financial penalties are harsh and to the front office’s credit the basketball side of things hurts as well. Teams are limited in what sort of contracts they can sign hoped-for free agents to, sign-and-trade options are taken away, and squads basically turn top-heavy and unsustainable.

This is what the owners, during the 2011 lockout, wanted. They wanted to destroy any and all versions of the Miami Heat, even before the LeBron-led Heat had won its first championship, and not only did it destroy the Heat by leaving Miami unable to sustain significant depth around its stars, but it destroyed a future “Heat” in Oklahoma City.

The difference for OKC is that their Big Three (and much-missed Four, in Harden) were homegrown. Drafting Durant at the No. 2 spot in 2007 was a no-brainer, but the rest of that core came on risky draft picks. It’s under-reported, lo these many years later, but many observers scratched their heads at the Westbrook and Harden draft selections at the time, wondering if Thunder general manager Sam Presti was reaching. And Serge Ibaka, at 24th overall prior to being stashed overseas for a year, was just a steal.

There are fair criticisms to be made of Presti, however.

The team could have hung on to Harden for 2012-13 as he was still on his rookie contract, made a run at the title, and tested out his mettle in restricted free agency. Kendrick Perkins could have been waived at any time, as Nick Collison was a far superior big man and replacement-level help could have been found at a cheaper cost than Perkins’ $7.8 million for that season.

This isn’t hindsight gifting us basketball IQ, as this was known at the time of the Harden deal. There’s a reason you don’t see many trades like this, not just with future MVP candidates, but with talented young players facing down an extension in general. The system is designed to help teams, now. This isn’t 1997.

The Thunder are moving on, though. They’ll act as the leader out of the gate when it comes to retaining Durant, and though quite a bit can change in 12 months, a lot would have to go wrong in 2015-16 for Kevin to look elsewhere once his contract expires. Hell, if he’s not making waves after the Harden deal and the miserable mess that was 2014-15, how bad would 2015-16 have to be?

(Don’t answer that.)

As for Kanter – you don’t just learn defense. Sometimes you just have it or you don’t, especially with big men. Kanter, at age 23, can make limited improvements on where he stations himself and how to anticipate better, but at best he’ll be the NBA big man version of the strikeout-happy slugger that is just going to assume curveball no matter what because the stupid curveball makes him look bad. Kanter’s best chance is just to guess at a rotation mid or even pre-play and hope that that afternoon’s tutorial will bear fruit in real game action.

You might retch at the idea of a four-year, $70 million man coming off the bench as a situation scorer, but that’s just where the Thunder and Kanter are at right now until he can improve to the ranks of a sub-sub-substandard defensive player. If you think we’re piling on, we’re not. He is that bad, and in this version of the NBA, that stands out.

If Oklahoma City can stay healthy next season, though, this is a title contender. Just as the team has always been, with James Harden or without him.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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