OKLAHOMA CITY — The first big dose of small-market reality has hit the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before the Thunder even played its first real game following a trip to the NBA Finals, the franchise parted ways with Sixth Man of the Year James Harden in a weekend trade with the Houston Rockets, fracturing the team’s core and substantially changing the second unit.
“We made several efforts to try to make this work,” general manager Sam Presti said at a news conference Sunday.
“I think there’s a point in every negotiation where you start to realize where things are lining up, and at that point you have to play the hand that you’re dealt. I feel like as an organization, we’ve made some tough decisions. This one was right up there with them.”
Presti said the Thunder made what was supposed to be a final offer on Friday, then approached him one last time before pulling off the trade Saturday night — making sure that Harden realized he could be dealt if he didn’t accept.
But Harden, who developed into one of the league’s most dynamic shooting guards after being the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft, still wanted more.
He was traded to the Rockets from Oklahoma City late Saturday. The Thunder acquired guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick in the surprising deal. Oklahoma City also sent center Cole Aldrich and forwards Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston.
“It happened so fast, it happened very fast,” Harden said. “But this is the position I’m in now. Just have to make the best out of it. I’m with Houston now. I just have to come in here and play hard and win games.”
Oklahoma City already had All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook plus NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka signed to long-term, eight-figure deals and — even with an arena upgraded by taxpayer funds that’s sold out for every game — wasn’t willing to offer him a maximum contract.
Presti said the Thunder made an “extraordinary effort” to keep Harden and side-stepped whether the team tried to low-ball Harden.
“That’s for other people to determine, I suppose, and ultimately we’ll live with that. We understand what we were able to do, and what we did, and the significance and the importance it made, especially considering the commitments that it would have taken our payroll to,” Presti said. “Our ownership group was absolutely behind that effort.”
Harden said Sunday he expects to sign a long-term deal with Houston before the regular season starts this week. He was saying the same thing about Oklahoma City when training camp began.
Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all took marginally less than they could have demanded on the open market to stay in Oklahoma City but Presti suggested “the term sacrifice gets thrown around maybe too loosely.” He said the Thunder didn’t begrudge Harden for rejecting their offers.
“We’re not going to judge anybody. We’re not going to put anything on anybody,” Presti said. “We’re going to do the best thing for the franchise.”
Harden was a first-round pick by Oklahoma City out of Arizona State in 2009. He started only seven games in three seasons, but he became an indispensable reserve. Last season, he averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the regular season.
He’ll also have to adjust to a starting role in Houston, joining Jeremy Lin in the backcourt.
“He’s always been an efficient, easy player to play with,” Lin said. “The way he plays, the style he plays is very in tune with what we’re trying to do.”