If nothing else, Sam Presti is endearingly sly. The much ballyhooed general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder chose a good time to pull off a controversial and downright jaw-dropping trade on the brink of the NBA season: late on Saturday night during one of the bigger party weekends of the year, Presti dealt shooting guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first round picks. While a good subset of the NBA's critical young fanbase likely had their minds off basketball for a moment, Presti engineered a daring trade seemingly out of thin air. It directly changed the fortunes of one of the league's three true title contenders and sent shock waves around the league. No one saw this coming. How could we?
Earlier in the day, reports surfaced that Harden turned down a lucrative contract extension from the Thunder reported to be worth between $52 and $54 million over four years. Harden wanted the maximum contract he knew he could get on the open market -- four years, $60 million -- and wasn't about to accept a low-ball offer. The Thunder had every opportunity to retain Harden for this season and go for a championship, but Presti chose to take the long-view. With luxury tax penalties set to become much more punitive and Oklahoma City situated as the league's smallest market, Presti believed it was in the franchise's best interest to accept a relatively impressive package from Houston in exchange fom their prized 23-year old guard. Much debate has followed. Of course, there's a lesson in here for our Chicago Bulls.
Some, like SB Nation's Tom Ziller, one of my favorite basketball writers for many years, have praised Presti for his foresight and ability to pull the trigger on such a cunning trade. Ziller called the move "Spursian" and lauded Presti for recognizing the cold realities of NBA economics. Ziller wrote:
But sustainability is the key. The Thunder made a really difficult, painful decision now to ensure that they have the opportunity to make good decisions over the next 10 years as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka enter their primes.
ESPN's Michael Wilbon went as far as to say the Thunder 'had' to make the move Monday on "Pardon the Interruption". Is that true? Hardly.
If Oklahoma City was poised to pay Harden $54 million, then they traded him over little more than $1 million per season. What makes the trade additionally frustrating is the good number of fans blaming Harden for the trade because he wouldn't accept less money. As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus tweeted: "Reminder that the guy making millions is supposed to "sacrifice," not the guys with billions."
It's true: the Thunder chose money over chasing a title. Why not keep Harden this season, sign him to a max extension, and eventually trade him two or three years down the road if and when the tax penalties become overbearing? Better yet, why not exercise the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins, who's set to make nearly $27 million over the next three seasons? Perkins is surely valuable as the interior defensive backbone of the Thunder, but his skill-set is much more easily replaced than that of the NBA's best young shooting guard.
This is a classic example of emotions dictating a decision. Presti and owner Clay Bennett made Harden a very competitive offer to keep together the league's most exciting young team and were offended that the player wanted to squeeze every last penny of out of his worth.
Again: while Martin and Lamb is a solid package that may not diminish the Thunder's title chances too greatly, this was never about anything other than money. This was the epitome of a small market team crying poor. One report had the Thunder as a franchise making $30-35 million in profit last season. Really, Wilbon, this trade *had* to happen?
So: why is this important? Why is this being talked about on a website dedicated to Chicago sports? Because professional basketball fans in Chicago are well-versed with "basketball decisions" not made for basketball reasons. And also because Harden's Class of 2009 peer, Taj Gibson, has the Bulls in the exact same situation.
Gibson is the Bulls' best bench member and a critical cog in their elite defense. When Chicago selected him with the No. 26 overall pick in '09, most plugged-in fans were upset. They saw Gibson as a player old for his class with limited upside. Turns out, we were all wrong. Gibson was ready to contribute from the word go and evolved into an interior menace on defense, an outstanding shotblocker with keen timing and an able rebounder and help-defender. He's important to the Bulls, which is why the franchise wants to retain him before Wednesday's deadline to lockup Class of '09 players to early extensions. If the Bulls and Gibson don't reach an agreement by Wednesday, Gibson will be a restricted free agent next summer.
In a market where Omer Asik draws $8 million per season and Pacers center Roy Hibbert agrees to a max offer sheet, you can bet Gibson will get paid, especially if he has a big year this season. With Carlos Boozer continuing to decline and making himself a very obvious amnesty candidate, Gibson should be the heir to the Bulls' power forward throne. But how much is he really worth?
Gibson, who turned 27 this summer (four years older than Harden, though they were the same draft class), is reportedly asking for $40 million over four years. The Bulls are offering $32 million. So, if one side wants $10 million per season and the other wants $8 million, it makes enough sense to come to a compromise of $9 million per season, yes? It does, but NBA economics rarely work out in sensible ways, especially when the Bulls are involved.
The safe bet is that the Bulls and Gibson will agree to terms before the deadline. It's a lot of guaranteed money for the player to turn down, and the franchise surely doesn't want another storyline about their fiscal impurities hanging over the season like a dark cloud all year long. But after seeing what happened with Harden and the Thunder, where logic was thrown aside in favor of emotion, nothing is for certain. Chicago and Oklahoma City are in different stratospheres in terms of market size and profitability, it's true, but the parallels between the situations are undeniable. With millions at stake and NBA owners almost always putting the bottom line before wins, greed from the men who sign the checks may always win out.