In 2012, the NBA’s soon-to-be juggernaut fell apart when the Oklahoma City Thunder broke up its young and talented core. Following the 2012 NBA Finals, in which the Miami Heat defeated the Thunder in five games, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
Beside the obvious results of Harden turning into a superstar and the Thunder never returning to the NBA Finals, the real issue in the move lies in the financial motivation of Presti and the Thunder, who used profit as rationale for taking a pass on a generational talent they had developed within their organization.
Harden had just come off of winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award but remained a third option behind fellow future MVPs Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. After the season, the Thunder was met with a league deadline of signing Harden to a contract extension or letting him become a restricted free agent following the 2012-13 season.
With the two sides unable to reach an agreement on an extension, Oklahoma City opted to trade its potential superstar guard rather than wait to renegotiate in restricted free agency after the season. Presti took a hot deal and shipped Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and one second-round draft pick.
The Thunder offered Harden $55.5 million over four years, $4.5 million less than the max deal he wanted under what were then the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. Presti stayed firm in not giving him a max contract, as Durant and Westbrook both took pay cuts to stay with the team.
If the Thunder had given Harden his desired extension, which would have taken effect in the 2013-14 season, it would have had a salary total of $78 million, roughly $20 million over the cap. This increase would have placed the team into the luxury tax with a total bill close to $105 million, something the team was unwilling to stomach at the time. Comparatively, however, OKC’s Western Conference opponent the Los Angeles Lakers paid $29 million, and in the East, the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets picked up a luxury tax tab around $13 million to maintain their star-studded rosters.
To keep three homegrown stars together who had great chemistry, had just won the Western Conference and could have surely brought home a title to Oklahoma City, Presi and the Thunder should have been willing to pay the $105 million price tag.
Unfortunately for OKC, the organization was not willing to pay.
Five years later, Oklahoma City found itself in a similar position when Paul George became a free agent following his first season with the Thunder alongside Westbrook in 2017-18. OKC knew it wanted to remain in contention for the top spot in the West, so it signed George to a four-year $137 million max contract. This deal immediately meant the Thunder would be in line to pay a new league record in luxury tax. After cutting players and stretching contracts, the tax bill still stood at a league-high $61.3 million, a total the front office signed off on to maintain its core of George, Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson.
OKC may have been willing to go into the tax for George and not Harden because George was a proven superstar at that point while, back in 2012, Harden was only a budding star who seemed superfluous given the presence of Durant and Westbrook.
From a team standpoint, however, Harden was a key player. In 2012, the Thunder had just made the NBA Finals, defeating a mighty San Antonio Spurs squad that finished the regular season tied for the best record in the league. After its dominant run in the 2011-12 season, it seemed that OKC had plenty of deep playoff runs left if the team hung together. Surely, a move to put the team slightly in the luxury tax could pay off if the team wanted to return the NBA Finals.
Following the 2018 playoffs, however, in which George and Westbrook’s squad lost in the first round, the front office could not look at the team in the same hopeful way many saw the 2012 squad. The latter team, headlined by two stars but an average supporting cast, was not one that had proven to make deep playoff runs nor be a legitimate title contender, yet it continued to build success. Conversely, the 2018-19 team led by Westbrook and George was expected to do well but fell short.
Spending lavishly on that 2017-18 team rather than spending strategically on a team on the rise in 2012 does not make good business sense. Presti and his ownership group should take more heat for setting the stage for a future “30 for 30” ESPN feature on George and Westbrook rather than for an array of trophies for Oklahoma City.