SAN ANTONIO — Yes, he noticed. Sam Presti traded away James Harden, not his newspaper subscription.
So when the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year made a mountain of 37 points and 12 assists in his debut with Houston on Wednesday night, there was no way that the Thunder general manager could convince himself that it was a molehill.
Never mind Tony Parker’s 21-foot rainbow that gave the Spurs a belated and far less significant measure of satisfaction Thursday night. That mountain will only grow larger if Kevin Durant , Russell Westbrook and what’s left of the would-be dynasty doesn’t return to The Finals in June and a championship or two does not find its way to Oklahoma City.
There are those inside the NBA who understand why Presti — as smart and calculating as they come — did what he did. In today’s economic NBA climate with a small market like OKC and the league’s new luxury tax penalties hanging like the sword of Damocles, sometimes a team must take a step back now in order to keep moving forward in the future.
That didn’t mean it hurt any less when Parker lost Westbrook on the game’s last play and stuck the knife in the Thunder in their 86-84 loss opening-night loss.
It was exactly the kind of late-game play that had made Harden a burr under San Antonio’s saddle his first three seasons in the league and the kind of nervy, how-did-he-do-that shot that tossed them to the ground after the Spurs built a 2-0 lead in the 2012 Western Conference finals.
Kevin Martin took Harden’s place on the roster and tossed in 15 points and five assists, but it will take considerably more for him to replace Harden’s zeitgeist in the lineup. For now, he is a beard for The Beard.
“We don’t have him, but we still have enough to win at a high level with all our guys,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks had said at the morning shootaround.
“Some people think we got worse as a team,” said Durant, roughly an hour before tipoff. “But we haven’t played a game yet, so you never know.”
What the Thunder do know is that precious little has changed with their 1-2 punch. Durant became the second-youngest player behind LeBron James to reach the 10,000-point scoring plateau. Westbrook continues to be the basketball equivalent of a downed power line, surging with electricity and potentially deadly.
“I got lost. I’ll take this one,” Westbrook said of his wandering act that allowed Parker to be wide open for his game-winning shot.
Truth is, history will regard this as Presti’s fault if his brilliant mind and future maneuvering for Houston’s draft picks don’t put the Thunder at least back on the doorstep of multiple titles. Those once-naive NBA fans in OKC have stood at the championship threshold and a glimpse inside the throne room only makes them less apt to forgive if they never actually claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Westbrook will always be Westbrook: equally confounding and confusing to opposing defenses … and his own team. He can do things that appear to defy physics, but during the fourth quarter, he didn’t get others involved in the offense or take the Spurs out of their comfort zone.
In short, he isn’t Harden, whom Presti and the Thunder made a surprising No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 draft and ended up a perfect complement to Durant-Westbrook. He was a budding star and a game-changer where other NBA clubs saw a bit of a reach. The OKC brass coached him, nurtured him and turned him into the kind of splendid talent that could demand a maximum five-year, $80 million contract. Then they took a hammer to the best-laid plans and all the talk about the Thunder brotherhood.
What’s not lost is the fact that their first post-Harden game came in San Antonio. It’s where Presti got his start as a front-office prodigy and where the Spurs have managed a small-market budget by juggling the contracts of their three-man core (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker) through the last three of their four championships. Of course, to do that has required individual sacrifices by each of the stars — one Harden wasn’t ultimately willing to make.
The Spurs, too, were missing one from their trio on Thursday night, but Ginobili was only out temporarily due to back spasms.
In OKC, Harden is gone for good. The Thunder have to find a new path to the top or the pain of Presti’s decision will always linger.