By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
It wasn’t so long ago when the citizens of a certain city in Texas were ready to vote Sam Presti as 2013 Man of the Year for the trade that sent James Harden to Houston.
The wise-cracking line was that if the Rockets eventually won an NBA championship, the OKC general manager would be first in line to get a ring.
And by the way, did he derail the hopes of the Thunder winning a title of their own?
Now, 17 months later, while the Rockets would probably still be willing to save him a seat in a victory parade, Presti’s move does not quite seem to be his folly.
After all, it was OKC that snapped San Antonio’s 19-game win streak — completing a 4-0 season sweep of the Spurs — and now bring the NBA’s second best record into the Toyota Center tonight to face Harden and the Rockets (9:30 ET, ESPN).
The plain and simple truth is that Presti’s decision to trade away Harden was all about money, something he never made a secret of. After having given new contracts to the cornerstone duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with a four-year extension for Serge Ibaka, there was simply no way small-market OKC could “max out” on Harden.
We can debate all through the night whether Presti might have been better served by keeping his Big Three together for one last run before he would have had to deal Harden. But Westbrook’s knee injury in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs last season likely dashed championship dreams in any case.
Presti’s challenge after the Harden deal was done was to fill in the hole in the lineup and keep the Thunder moving forward.
Enter Reggie Jackson.
The immediate return for Harden from Houston was Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Martin capably filled in capably off the bench in Harden’s old role last season before jumping to Minnesota. Lamb held down that spot in the rotation through the first 60 games of this season before giving way to free-agent small forward Caron Butler, who was signed last month.
However, the added bonus in the equation is Jackson. He was drafted in the first round in 2011, but was mostly stuck behind the young backcourt trio of Westbrook, Harden and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha. But since the Harden deal, he has gotten an opportunity to play. He’s performed well, with his first opportunity coming in the 2013 playoffs after Westbrook’s injury. This season, he’s averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg and 1.1 spg. No one is putting him close to a level with Harden, but then neither is his $2.3 million salary, which helps make the rest of the OKC operation work.
As for Lamb, he’s seen his playing time cut over the last month because Butler can also hit the 3-pointer and adds size and rebounding on the wing. Still, the 21-year-old has upside that fits the Thunder blueprint going forward.
Presti also counted heavily on Ibaka, giving him an additional $48 million and expecting him to play up to that good faith. A year ago, it appeared to be a bad gamble — to many, OKC was choosing Ibaka over Harden. But this season he’s averaging career bests of 15.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg. While his blocked shots are down slightly (2.6 bpg, 3.0 bpg in 2012-13), the truth is Ibaka has concentrated less on trying to swat everything. As a result, he’s become a more consistent, more effective rim-protector and all-around better player.
Ultimately it was a choice between paying Ibaka or Harden. The Thunder might have correctly decided that, at some point on any championship contender, defense has to matter. They were, after all, exposed by the Heat in the 2012 Finals.
The Thunder’s banner still has to be carried by Durant and and a healthy Westbrook in order to win a championship.
While Presti can perhaps count on the eternal gratitude of every Rockets fan and maybe even that seat on their bandwagon, the fact is he did what he had to do to keep the Thunder on track.