Offseason In Review: Oklahoma City Thunder

November 9 2012 at 4:16pm CST By Luke Adams

Throughout the month of November, Hoops Rumors will look back at each team's offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Trades and Claims

Draft Picks

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

If you're wondering why we waited until the regular season was underway to begin our Offseason In Review series, let the Oklahoma City Thunder serve as Exhibit A. Had we recapped the Thunder's offseason even a week before opening night, we would've missed the move that easily overshadowed the rest of their summer transactions put together: the trade that sent James Harden to the Rockets.

For all of the talk and speculation about Harden vs. Serge Ibaka that preceded the team's decision, I didn't actually believe the Thunder would have to choose one or the other. It seemed more likely that Oklahoma City would lock up both players, perhaps to slight discounts, and find a way to make it work long-term financially. And it may have played out that way had Harden elected to accept the team's final extension offer, rumored to be worth about $54MM over four years. But when Harden didn't take that offer, the team didn't hesitate in flipping him to Houston.

And the more I look at the Thunder's options, the less I mind their decision to move Harden when they did. After all, here were a few of Oklahoma City's choices, if the club had determined the Sixth Man of the Year wasn't signing for less than the max:

  • Sign Harden to a max-salary extension and move forward with the current roster: This may have been the ideal choice for the players and management, but if ownership wasn't willing to foot the exorbitant tax bill it would've created, it wasn't really a viable option.
  • Sign Harden to a max-salary extension and amnesty Kendrick Perkins next summer to reduce the tax bill: The Thunder would still have been over the tax threshold, and would still be on the hook for Perkins' salary. The overall savings would've been minimal, and not having Perkins on the team would've hurt the frontcourt, especially against players like Dwight Howard.
  • Trade Harden at the deadline: If the team knew it had to deal Harden, making that move before the season started was the best time to do it. The Thunder might easily have lost leverage by February, and any players they acquired at that point would've had less time to adjust to the OKC system before the postseason rolled around.
  • Signed Harden to the max either last month or next summer and traded him before the end of the 2013/14 season: Was this a viable option? Sure. The Rockets or plenty of other teams would've been interested in acquiring Harden even if he was locked in at a maximum-salary price. But would it have helped the Thunder's tax problem? If Harden was earning a salary around $14MM in 2013/14, trading him would likely mean taking back nearly that much salary in return, which would still put Oklahoma City way over the tax line.

We don't know the ins and outs of the financial situation facing Thunder ownership, so we can't say definitively whether it was in the franchise's best interests to move Harden. But if we assume that paying Harden a maximum salary simply wasn't viable for the Thunder, GM Sam Presti chose the right time to strike. And it's hard to argue that Oklahoma City didn't get great value — Kevin Martin isn't Harden, but he's an excellent scorer to having come off the bench.

The real coup for the Thunder, however, involved all the future assets they landed in the deal. The way Oklahoma City originally built a championship contender was by drafting well and gathering assets, whether that meant draft picks or players on rookie deals. Having drafted Perry Jones III and acquired Jeremy Lamb to go along with multiple first-round picks, the Thunder are ensuring their success will be sustainable for years to come. With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Ibaka locked up, the Thunder can surround those stars with cheap, controllable players that will develop over the next several years.

The Thunder's 2012/13 title chances undoubtedly took a hit when they sent Harden to Houston. And for that reason, it's fair to say that the club took a step back with its offseason moves. But this team isn't the Knicks or Lakers, a veteran-heavy squad whose title window could be closing within a year or two. The Thunder still have two of the league's most dynamic scorers and one of the NBA's best interior defenders, all under the age of 25. Throw in rookies like Lamb and Jones, and the flexibility to add even more young prospects to the core over the next couple years, and this is a team that can contend for a championship for years to come, with or without Harden.

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