You are James Harden. You might just be the best 2-guard in the league after Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. That’s something to think about – at the age of 22, you’re anointed as heir to the two greatest shooting guards the NBA has seen not named Michael Jordan. They tell you that you can be a superstar. They tell you that you can lead a team, build something, become the face of a franchise; they tell you that could be the man.
A basketball team, the right basketball team, is a family. When you spend so much time with 14 other guys, all your hopes and efforts invested in a collective endeavor, a bond forms. Sometimes the bond is just right – championship worthy. As a student of the game, you know such a bond is special – it comes rarely, that is, if it comes at all. You eat with them, you drink with them, you win and lose with them. They are family. And to be what you can truly be, you must leave them. They might just be your best shot at a championship. But you’ll never grow out of their shadows. Three’s a crowd, haven’t you heard? It’s KD’s and Westbrook’s team. And you know it, you’ve know it ever since Sam Presti refused to trade Westbrook for a better fit in the system (turned down Rajon Rondo, the rumor wire has it).
Ten million dollars is a lot of money. You’re going to be earning 50 million at least over the next four years, but 10 million is nothing to scoff at. There’s no long-term career waiting for you. Many ball players end up bankrupt fifteen, twenty years after retirement, up to their necks in debt. Or worse, fate could take your abilities away. You know that because that’s every athlete’s worst nightmare. You saw what happened to Brandon Roy and you know how quickly a dream can turn into dust. You can have it all, the money, respect and a superstar role in a big city where all banners scream your name. You’ll probably make the playoffs too. Hey, it’s not like Jordan got his rings at 22, right? You’ve got plenty of time. All you have to do is walk away from family.
You are OKC Thunder GM Sam Presti. For four years, you worked hard at creating a family driven by a strong team ethic of togetherness and hard work. You taught them to have each other’s backs. There were seasons of losing and more losing; through all of it, you preached patience, continuity and ‘family’. You didn’t make any hasty trades, any short-sighted moves. OKC’s time is finally at hand. Only, through some CBA skullduggery, it turns out you can’t re-sign the team you carefully put together. You had a choice to make, the same choice most teams have to make year in, year out at the NBA draft. Talent or best fit? You know how special Harden is. You also know that Ibaka is a skilled, versatile, defensive-minded big man in a league where those come at a premium. Harden might be special, Kobe-special even, but you’ve already got Durant. It’s possible, through the slightest of windows, to hold on to both of them. You sign Ibaka and hope Harden signs for a discount out of consideration for the family you’ve built. It’s emotional blackmail, but hey, what other options do you have? Your owner’s mandate is clear: stay out of the luxury tax and continue to contend. This is the best and most efficient way.
You are OKC Thunder owner Clayton Bennett. According to Forbes, the Thunder have the fifth best operating income in the league at roughly 25 million dollars. Only the Knicks (duh), Bulls, Cavs and Heat do better. You’ve got a great, efficient organization that makes sound financial choices with the long-term in mind. You’ve also built, through careful, meticulous drafting and signings, a special team with three superstars. About 25 other teams in the league didn’t see it that way. They saw certain teams monopolizing the market of good players instead of seeing their own organizational failings. They got together and ganged up on you and every other special team during an imbecilic stand-off they called the Lockout. Suddenly, you found that you’d have to pay maybe thirty million in luxury tax if you re-sign Harden for the maximum come 2013, over and above your operating costs. You shake your head and look at the books. How can I afford that in punitive taxes alone, you ask? You look across to L.A, California, where the Thunder’s biggest rivals have assembled a team that might pay 100 million in taxes by 2014. How, you ask? And then you see that the Lakers have a TV deal for 200 million dollars/year against your pathetic 20 million/year deal. You shake your head and send a memo to Presti saying: Hey, I don’t care what the Lakers do, you’re not offering James the max. You sigh in your office and look out into Chesapeake Energy Arena, remembering the decibel levels and energy in June, when the family was 3 wins away from OKC’s first NBA championship. You sigh.
You are the Los Angeles Lakers. You are now several steps closer to the NBA championship. Not far away, an NBA team that decimated you in playoff competition is on the verge of losing a vital cog, and nobody can quite understand how or why.