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Keeping Harden was the plan, but Sam Presti and the Thunder had Plan B

By Royce Young | NBA writer
When it came down to keeping Harden, Sam Presti had a contingency plan. (US Presswire)

OKLAHOMA CITY -- All along, the Thunder wanted to keep James Harden.

Desperately.

But in the end, there was no common ground to be found, no mutual agreement that provided Harden with what he wanted and the Thunder with what they wanted.

And thereby, Sam Presti's hand was forced. In the best interest of the organization, the beard had to be trimmed.

“We also understood that once it became a reality that there wasn't going to be a way for us to find way to keep him, we had to start thinking about what was next and what was in the best interest of this franchise both in the short and long term,” Presti said at a press conference Sunday. “Quite honestly the value in a trade was greater based on the fact the Rockets could offer him the contract he was seeking. By doing it when we did it, I believe it will allow the Rockets to secure him and James will get the contract he was seeking and because of that, we were able to capitalize on the trade and probably get a little more than if we would've waited.”

The question many were left asking is why now? Why breaking up a team with championship aspirations, a roster that appeared to be built to contend seriously again? Why not play out the year and revisit later?

The answer is simple: leverage.

As Presti said, you wait and you might get burned. Play out the season with the dream of a title and you're rolling the dice. What if there's a substantial injury that derails everything? What if someone underperforms in the postseason? What if the Lakers really are that good? For an organization so based in meticulous movements with everything analyzed and calculated to the core, it wasn't the high percentage move. The Thunder are based in risk management and gambling on Harden for one season wasn't wise.

The Thunder did try though. They brought their dollar amount up to a reported $55.5 million, only $4.5 million shy of the max offer they could give Harden. It just wasn't everything Harden wanted. So in the end, he had a choice: More guaranteed money somewhere else, or less but the opportunity to compete for titles with his friends in OKC. In the end, it was his choice to leave.

“We wanted to give it every opportunity and I feel like we did,” Presti said. “We were also very transparent throughout the process and when we had to make that decision we made yet another effort to stave that off and when that wasn't possible we had to move forward and turn the page."

The question begs though, if the Thunder were willing to come so far, why not go a little further? They were already dipping their toes into luxury tax territory already, so why not dish out a bit more to keep Harden? The answer is twofold:

1) Because while $4.5 million may not sound like much, start multiplying that against the new punitive tax. It quickly turns into $10 million because of the escalating penalty. So you're talking about taking Harden from a four-year, $60-million player to essentiall a four-year, $90-million player.

2) The Thunder have a very specific culture built. It's one all about team and oneness. There's no individuals, there's only the greater good of the whole. Russell Westbrook did some bending when he waived the opportunity to get a "Rose Rule" max extension, thereby giving up roughly $15 million over the life of his deal. Serge Ibaka potentially gave up money by signing an extension now rather than waiting for restricted free agency. Nick Collison structured his deal so as to help OKC down the line.

But Harden wanted it all. There was no flexing, no bending, no sacrificing. Harden knew how to say all those words, but behind closed doors it was a whole other story. That's his perogative and his right, but he was saying one thing and doing another. And that doesn't fit the core values and principles of the Thunder culture. Harden was looking at himself and his wishes, rather than pitching in for the benefit of the team.

“Any time you make a decision of this magnitude, there are a myriad of factors,” Presti said. “I can understand on the surface probably some ways to look at it. But at the end of the day, it's really several different things. I think the term ‘sacrifice' gets thrown around maybe too loosely and certainly over the last three or four months it's picked up quite a bit of steam.

“But at the end of the day as I said before, we've done a lot of deals and found a way to make it work for a lot of different people here,” he continued. “It's a combination, a mutual interest, a give and take, finding a common ground, but sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes there's just not a solution. It's a difficult thing when you come to that reality that there may not be a solution to this."

Presti and the Thunder laid the option out clearly to Harden and his representation. After the Thunder's final preseason game in Wichita against the Mavericks, it was made known: Take the deal or we will explore trade options. Once Harden and his agent drew their line, Presti had no choice but to start looking. And when the final offer was rejected once more, Daryl Morey's phone rang.

"We were very transparent with James that if this is not acceptable then we were going to have to move towards making the best decision for the franchise given the fact that it was becoming a reality that more than likely he'd be signing elsewhere at the end of the season,” Presti said. “Once that reality was met, as we have in the past, this organization turned the page. We started to focus on what was in the best interest of the program and focus on capitalizing on an opportunity to help us both in the short term and also continue to strengthen the future of the Thunder organization and building this program in a sustainable fashion.”

The Thunder philosophy has always been fairly straightforward. Build a roster that can grow, mature and develop together, thereby fixing a model for sustained success. Presti has repeated the franchise's slogan: The challenge of sustaining success is a lot tougher than achieving success.

"What we will do is continue to operate as a team on the core principles and values we established in 2008 and make our decisions based on those with the franchise first in mind and we're confident in that process," Presti said.

What the Thunder are left with is a very good roster, still built for the long-term. They have Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka. All locked up for multiple years. They add Kevin Martin, a wonderfully efficient scorer who doesn't replace Harden stylistically, but in terms of raw production, is pretty darn close. They add future financial flexibility as Martin is on a big expiring deal. They add Jeremy Lamb, an intriguing young wing prospect who in the Thunder's developmental system, could flourish. And they add the all-important draft picks. Three of them, in fact. Two first rounders and an early second rounder, with one potentially being a lottery selection.

“One of the things in sports in general that sometimes is tricky is that when there are changes, sometimes we get fixated on trying to replicate things. I think we'll be different. I think we'll look a little different," Presti said. "But I don't know that I would anticipate, I think we've got to let it play itself out a little bit."

Point is, don't cry for the Thunder. They're going to be all right.

“I thought about the fact that we're adding two quality players coming in to a group of guys that are really invested to what we're trying to do here and take a lot of pride in playing for the Thunder,” Presti said. “We've been through this. There will be an assimilation process. But I really do feel good about the foundation we have in terms of adding new people and new players to the system we have in place.”

The Thunder basically had an ultimatum with Harden. Cave to the pressures of a player trying to play the star card and bulldoze his way to a big contract, or stick to their guns and live by their own principle.

And in the end, Presti chose the whole.

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