After the Thunder lost in the Finals to the Miami Heat, but before the 2012 NBA draft, rumors began to circulate. Those rumors involved James Harden and the possibility that the Thunder might be interested in moving up in the draft (they later drafted Perry Jones III wit the 28th overall pick) to grab Florida guard Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards were a potential partner in the play. The mere rumor sent shockwaves through the Thunder fan-base. The idea that the Thunder, coming off of a remarkable playoff run and a Finals appearance would be even willing to entertain the notion of trading away their key cog and NBA 6th Man of the Year Harden threatened to unwind everything that the Thunder had been building. Beal was an excellent prospect, but for a team with championship goals, a downgrade from Harden to an unproven rookie was a lot to handle.
The Washington Post reports today that the rumors had some truth behind them, and that after the draft the Thunder inquired again about a Harden-for-Beal trade. Who killed the deal?
The Washington Wizards turned down a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder for James Harden this summer because team owner Ted Leonsis was unwilling to commit to what would have been a roughly $80 million, five-year contract for the high-scoring player, according to multiple people with knowledge of the proposed deal.
The Wizards would have sent rookie guard Bradley Beal and second-year forward Chris Singleton to the Thunder in return for Harden, winner of the NBA's sixth-man award with Oklahoma City last season, according to these individuals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the proposal.
The seriousness of the deal can only be speculated on at this point, because as Royce Young at Daily Thunder reported, the timing is a bit suspicious:
There's one small issue with this report, and it's the timeline of events. The Thunder may very well have been gauging interest throughout the league over the summer about Harden, but from what I've been told by those close to the situation, the Thunder really never decided on moving Harden until negotiations collapsed the week he was dealt. With the Oct. 31 deadline looming for an extension drawing near and it evident that the Thunder weren't going to come to terms with Harden, OKC started the process of moving him.
This is likely the piece of information that we will never know, and the only ones who truly know are the Thunder owners and management in the inner war room that make these kinds of decisions. Was the interest with the Wizards a serious one? Did the Thunder really hold off on dealing Harden until the last moment? Mike Prada of Bullets Forever offers this argument:
If one is to believe Lee's report, the Wizards never took the deal seriously because of financial concerns. There's potentially something to that. Remember that Leonsis told us in our community Q&A that the Wizards have "no intentions" to go over the luxury tax. However, technically, had the trade somehow gone through, the Wizards would have been salary-neutral this season, then slated to pay about $67 million to nine players once you account for the difference between Harden's first-year maximum salary and the salaries of Beal and Singleton. The luxury tax would have been somewhere over $70 million. It would have been a very tight squeeze, and that figure doesn't include the money owed to Andray Blatche after the amnesty clause was used, but technically, the Wizards could have offloaded some pieces and figured out a way to get under the tax.
Prada argues that the Wizards could have potentially avoided the luxury tax even with adding Harden into the mix at a max deal, although that could have placed them in a difficult spot when it comes time to decide how they are going to handle John Wall's extension next year.
As the saying goes, sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make. At the risk of looking at this lost scenario under too critical eyes, what could have been?
If Harden had gone to the Wizards, I could see a scenario playing out that could become a net loss for all sides. The Wizards are in desperate need of a new cultural identity. They have some talented pieces in guys like Wall and Beal, but thus far they have not been able to reverse the apathetic culture that has held the franchise for the better part of the past 10 years. Could Harden have helped solve that? To be sure, Harden was part of the Durant-Westbrook ethos that now permeates a driven and cohesive locker room and Harden credits that experience in allowing him to build himself in such a way as to be able to have success on the court. The outstanding question is, could he transfer that culture to another franchise that did not have the same work ethic?
I want to tread lightly here because I first and foremost love everything that Harden is about. He's a great player, teammate, winner, and he is a good fit for Houston. That said, I don't know if he's the kind of player and person who can take hold of a team's culture. Harden fit in perfectly in the Thunder culture because he shared the same mindset as Durant and Westbrook - that there was a necessary work product and dedication that was necessary to reverse a franchise's fortunes. However, the mindset was already present, planted and cultivated by Presti, Durant, and Westbrook. Harden simply had to be who he already was. In another environment though? In an environment where losing, poor locker room culture, and me-first thinking dominate? I don't know if Harden has that quality that can redirect an entire franchise. To be fair to him, very few NBA players do. Off the top of my head, I would say that the group is very small: Durant and Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul have it. I would argue that not even LeBron James does, or at least he hasn't up until last year. When a player has it, he can alter an entire franchise's cultural direction. When a good player doesn't have it, the culture changes him. As a fan of Harden, I am afraid that the Wizards' culture would have changed him, not the other way around.
What of the Thunder? Had the trade gone through they would have gotten a nice shooting guard that could have blossomed into a quality player 2-3 years down the road. Maybe. There's also no way they would be in contention this season because Beal likely would have barely played and the drop-off in bench play would have been considerable.
For the trade that did happen between the Thunder and Rockets, it is turning into the best possible for both. The Thunder got the kind of player in return that they absolutely had to have - an efficient ready-made scorer in Kevin Martin who can play well without the ball, doesn't take bad shots, and is looking to have a great season at the end of his current contract in the hopes of landing another one. OKC also got future draft picks, which I believe they are stockpiling as they wait for a young quality big man to come through the draft. They have two promising rookies in PJIII and Jeremy Lamb, whom OKC will continue to develop with an eye for the future, either to replace Martin or to have as future trade pieces in order to land that big man.
Meanwhile, the Rockets got a player in Harden who easily stepped into a Rockets culture that is already working to reflect the Thunder's model. Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Sam Presti are mutual admirers of each other's work, so it was not a stretch to think that the Rockets culture was already prepared for Harden to come in and take the next step in his personal development, which will likely end up as an All-Star selection.
For the Wizards, we could even argue that they're better off as well, because with Harden they might have ended up with a nice player signed at a max deal but who was not capable of changing things around by himself, which means that Washington would have still been playing for lottery picks and not a playoff spot.
To reiterate, sometimes the best deals are the ones that don't happen. If Leonsis nixed this trade, then I think the Rockets, Thunder, and even his own franchise should be thankful.