I don't think any Oklahoma sports fan will ever forget the night of October 27th, 2012. As the Sooners were slowly losing hope of any comeback against undefeated Notre Dame, it looked like the state was struck with enough bad news for one day. But in the midst of that blowout, those who weren't checking the internet or getting calls from friends were treated to a cut-in informing them that beloved Thunder player James Harden had been traded to the Houston Rockets for some washed up guy named Kevin Martin and a bunch of picks.
This wasn't any normal trade, and arguably, it was the most monumental in Thunder history. James Harden has had buildings and cakes designed around his image. People wore fake beards to games, and the popular mantra "Fear the Beard" could be seen and heard during any given night in Bricktown. By all accounts, Harden had single-handedly saved the Thunder from devastating losses on several occasions, and it was hard to imagine the Thunder without him.
Sure, the Thunder have given a key player away before. Not many were happy about saying sayonara to Jeff Green, but even your grandma could tell you the Thunder were forcing him out of position at power forward. Plus, what we got back in that trade was a proven championship center in Perkins. The results were immediately exciting, and you could tell the Thunder were becoming a more complete team.
But this trade wasn't about basketball. It was about money. James Harden was sent off without warning because he was unwilling to take a pay cut. The Thunder said they couldn't afford to pay him, and those that saw constant sellouts and lucrative TV deals wondered why. And it's not like the Thunder were getting something exciting in return. Kevin Martin was a no-name shooting guard who had spent his career on no-name teams. He had been through recent injuries and taken a recent dip in production. Jeremy Lamb and picks might've seemed enticing, but they weren't going to give immediate tangible results.
Appropriately, Thunder fans were pretty peeved about the deal. But no one really knew where to place their anger. Was it with Clay Bennett for refusing to go over the luxury tax? With Presti, for dealing Harden before his contract was even up? With Brooks, for not starting Harden over Sefolosha? Or was it with Harden himself, who cared more about green than he did about team?
As a result, the season has been a bit rocky. The Thunder have been successful enough, going 11-4 and winning most of their important games. But any time the Thunder or Kevin Martin show even the slightest signs of struggle, fan discussion inevitably careens towards the James Harden question. Could Harden have led us out of this slump? Wouldn't his ball movement have helped out the team? Wasn't his defense better than that? Before you know it, Thunder fans have seemed to completely forget about James Harden as a man and proceeded to deify him.
We could talk about Harden from a basketball perspective all day, but for this article, I'd like to focus on how fans are going to react the first time he shows up at the Peake wearing red.
Do fans have a right to be angry? Sure. Despite the constant warning signs about the contract situation, James Harden spoke nothing but good things about the Thunder. He seemed to indicate that he would retire wearing Thunder blue, and it didn't seem that far off to think that he might take a pay cut for the good of the team. But he let negotiations slow to a crawl, and the Thunder shipped him off while his market value was still sky high. He never outwardly lied to the fan base, but deception might be a proper term to use.
But before we go down that cliff, remember this. Despite the supposed deception, James Harden did one thing right. He didn't keep the fan base waiting. Thought nothing has ever officially been stated, it's almost certain that Harden had to give the go ahead for the deal to go through, because in order for Houston to take the trade, he had to agree to a contract extension with them.
In short, Harden knew what he wanted from the NBA, and he took it when the opportunity presented itself. James Harden wanted to be the top banana on a team. He wanted to play in a large market, like his home town of Los Angeles. He wanted to be featured in commercials and become the face of a franchise. He wanted to play heavy minutes, and always be the team's number one option. And yes, he wanted big piles of money.
Who can blame him? Really? This isn't LeBron James giving up on his team midway through the playoffs and skipping town so he can pal around with some superstars in Miami. This is Harden progressing from being the NBA's sixth man of the year to becoming an NBA All-Star. By all accounts, he helped the Thunder on two spectacular late playoff runs, was never a source of locker room drama, and always gave it his all.
You might wonder about whether Harden really cared about the team ethic that the Thunder had developed. Doesn't he know that he could have been part of a dynasty? Where's the sense in going to Houston? He'll never win a championship there, right?
These are all valid questions, but really, what business is it of yours? James Harden is 23, has the world at his feet, and wanted to seize the day. He left the team when he knew he had reached a point of no return, and he did it in a drama-free way. There's not much more you can ask of a man.
So I, for one, will give a loud cheer when James Harden is introduced as a member of the Houston Rockets tonight. For that matter, I'll give him a loud cheer every time he returns to Oklahoma City. It's the least I can do to show my appreciation for all that he did for the city and the team.
But, as we all know, the second the ball tips off, James Harden becomes the enemy, and he will be treated like any other player in the NBA. Leaving the Thunder has its' consequences, of course.
Do you forgive James Harden for his betrayal? Was the trade even his fault? Let us know in the poll and the comments!