Where the season begins with a fresh shave
Friday afternoon I sat down to begin writing this preview. I started thinking about the Oklahoma City Thunder's core, and how they would go about keeping it together. I decided I needed to research the Thunder's cap situation and the numbers around a James Harden extension a little further before I could speak intelligently about it. By Saturday night, I was pretty happy I had decided to wait. In the wake of this weekend's blockbuster trade, which sent Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, previewing the Thunder is completely different. Once I get through all 30 NBA teams, I'll also be going back to re-preview the Rockets. But for now, let's talk about the Thunder.
I should start by saying I don't hate the Harden trade. I'm not sure I love it, but I certainly don't hate it. In fact, I kind of like it. I generally don't condone giving away one of the best young players in the game, but looking at the numbers I don't see how Oklahoma City could afford to keep him. Even if the Thunder amnestied Kendrick Perkins, they would have been in a horrendous cap situation going forward. The biggest complaint I've heard is that the Thunder just gave away their title shot. This is the argument I don't understand.
The Thunder fell just short last season, and were set to return essentially the same team again this year. While Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Harden would all surely grow and mature as players, that would have been the primary difference between this year's team and last year's. And last year's team fell short. Stagnation does not win titles in the NBA. The Heat added Ray Allen. The Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The Spurs return as deep as ever, but with Kawhi Leonard in his second season. The Clippers are going to be better than last year. Stagnation doesn't work.
One could argue that stagnation is better than a step backwards, but I don't agree that this trade is a massive step back. Kevin Martin has lost a step, and is coming off a season hampered by injuries. But if you slot Kevin Martin into the role Harden played for the Thunder, I see it as an ideal fit. Martin can hang out and poach threes for 20 minutes a game. And Jeremy Lamb gives the Thunder a really intriguing piece going forward. His slide on draft day seemed excessive, and he looked great in preseason. Put him in a winning system like Oklahoma City, and I love Lamb's potential.
The trade also allows the Thunder to continue their model. The Thunder's success has been built on drafting well, and maintaining flexibility to make moves. The trade nets Oklahoma City two first round draft picks, which Presti can use to acquire even more talent. Kevin Martin also provides flexibility. He's a $14 million expiring contract. That's significant trade bait at the deadline. Or the Thunder can let Martin leave at the end of the year. If Martin leaves and the Thunder amnesty Perkins, the Thunder would have roughly $20 million in cap space next offseason. And that's with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka already locked up long-term. That's incredible.
For this season, I think the trade lowers expectations for the Thunder, but only slightly. I still think the Thunder will be one of the top teams in the West. I still think they could easily emerge out of the Western Conference playoffs. Does anyone remember how well Oklahoma City played even when Harden disappeared in the Finals? Take away Harden and replace him with nothing, this is still an incredibly good team. Take him away and replace him with some sort of Martin/Lamb combination, and this team is still a top contender.
Ultimately, there was no guarantee the Thunder would emerge from the West this season. They still have a legitimate chance to be the top team in the West again. And now they've laid the groundwork to restock for multiple title runs going forward.