West Side: Deal will change outlook
Thunder's ill-timed trade will affect cherished chemistry, open door for Lakers
J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side.
J.A. is in L.A., a la the West Side. And Israel is down in Miami, home of the NBA champs, representing the East Side.
For a guy who isn't considered a franchise player, James Harden's departure sure did alter the perception of the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise.
The continuity is gone and, like a throw-in included to make the salaries match, so is the innocent charm that permeated this team.
The James Harden trade didn't change much, says Israel Gutierrez. OKC is still a contender; Houston is not. East Side »
Continuity was a key advantage the Thunder had over the Los Angeles Lakers (the other advantage is youth). I place a premium on experience in the NBA, particularly shared experience, which is why I had the Thunder beating the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, then beating the Miami Heat to win it all in an NBA Finals rematch.
That changed Saturday when the Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets. That's the value I put on stability, on the known versus the unknown. With Harden, the Thunder reached the Finals, losing to the Heat in a deceptively quick five games. The Thunder were on the verge. That much we knew. The Thunder beat Miami in Game 1, and in the next three games, they were only 19 combined points away from sweeping the Heat. (If you don't think that's relevant, consider this: The Heat were seven points away from sweeping the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals.)
Now we wonder how Thunder coach Scott Brooks will utilize his new pieces, or how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will react to losing their buddy. And the Thunder must address the same questions we ask about the Lakers: How long will it take to adjust to the new pieces, and how will it work out?
If you give the Thunder credit for being close in their first three Finals losses to the Heat, you must keep in mind that the Lakers lost Games 2 and 4 of their second-round series against OKC by a total of four points. You don't think Steve Nash and Dwight Howard could make up that difference, and the Lakers couldn't find a way to win one more game from there?
If there are new variables in play, then I'll revert to the most basic issue: Which roster would I rather have for this season? In that case, it's the Lakers. But if the Lakers win the West and the Heat come out of the East, the Lakers will be up against the defending champions, a team making its third consecutive trip to the Finals. Once again, the edge goes to the team that's been there. This time, it's advantage, Miami Heat.
So that's the ripple effect of the Harden trade.
You could argue that the Harden trade didn't represent a change at all, that it's consistent with Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti's philosophy that the future is more important than the present. That vision has worked so far.
But the NBA doesn't give out rings based on potential. At some point it's time to cash in the future for current success. Everything pointed to now as that junction. At the very least, the Thunder could have agreed to a contract closer to Harden's terms, then traded him down the road after giving this group one last try and before the salaries hamper the Thunder's spreadsheet.
If the players go too long without a return on their sacrifice, you can't expect them to keep buying into this concept of the greater good. Durant made the long-term commitment; Westbrook and Serge Ibaka didn't seek the maximum dollars available to them. The organization owes them the best chance at a championship, not a strict adherence to the bottom line.
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The camaraderie on the Thunder has been charming. One member of the organization referred to them as "a college team kicking ass in the NBA." I liked to call them Carver High, after the squad in the "White Shadow" TV show.
No more collegial atmosphere. No more Carver High. After this move, the Thunder are strictly business.
And what of the fans? The Thunder enjoy a bond with the community that is unmatched in the NBA, and no player enjoyed a greater connection with that vocal crowd than Harden. You could see it with all the beards strapped onto fans wearing No. 13 jerseys. You could hear it in the roar whenever he checked into the game.
Love doesn't go far or last long in the NBA. Four years after the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, the fans have learned that lesson in the starkest way.
Things are different with the Thunder, changed in a way that surpasses the impact you would expect from the loss of a player who wasn't even in the starting lineup.