Bernucca: Forget the championship, Thunder want a “sustainable team”

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden on Saturday night, they revealed to everyone that they are a team far more concerned with the bottom line than the top of the heap.

Probably a bit ahead of schedule, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals last season. As we have said before, they were a questionable foul call away from opening a 2-0 lead on the mighty Miami Heat that would have cultivated the doubt and derision that has swirled around LeBron James for the last five years.

And even as the Heat were wiping the AmericanAirlines Arena floor with the Thunder in the clinching Game 5, the conventional wisdom was that Oklahoma City would be back very soon. Its window of championship opportunity was still wide open and would remain that way for several years.

Why wouldn’t it?

The Thunder had a true superstar in three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. They had another All-Star in Russell Westbrook, whose ceiling still seems limitless. They had the hypotenuse of the “Big Three” triangle – a mandatory component to compete for championships in today’s NBA – in Harden, who won the Sixth Man Award only because he was used as a reserve.

Assembling a three-headed monster to compete for a championship is not just a theory. It’s an axiom. Ask the Heat, who did it so ostentatiously they obscured the fact that other teams have been doing it for years.

Ask the Spurs, who have contended and won for a decade with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Ask the  Celtics, who have done the same with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (and now Rajon Rondo). Or ask the Lakers, who have upped the ante to an “Fearsome Foursome” of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.

All of them looked with some level of envy at the Thunder, whose “Big Three” were all under 25 years old entering this season. Oklahoma City didn’t have a championship window; it had a double patio door.

And owner Clay Bennett, GM Sam Presti and the rest of the braintrust decided to shutter it over a lousy $6 million over the next four years. What a bunch of cheapskates.

In their news release, Presti said the trade “will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team.” Huh? Our “organizational goal”? Does that mean the vision is to settle for good because the chance to be great is a little pricey?

And what the hell is a “sustainable team”? Were the Thunder on the verge of Chapter 11 bankruptcy? Do Bennett and his ownership partners have to eat pasta and tunafish if the team doesn’t turn a profit?


  1. John Bailey says

    I guess I am from a “small market team” area and can understand the dilema that a team like the Thunder has. In order to restock and recoup strong bench players, it’s usually about location, location, winning, and location. Even when Sacramento was good in the Webber years, we really never got top notch role players to sign. And OKC to me would have had the same dilema. Instead of signing a 3rd perimeter guy to a huge deal, they received financial flexibility, decent draft picks and some potential space down the line.

    I know Harden was good, but I’m not sure his role long term would have been the better play. He wasn’t a big ala Duncan, Garnett, or Bosh that complimented the 2 stud wings. And Durant isn’t a power player. I still think this team has a shot this year, next year, and even a greater shot in 3 years based on what they did then had they signed Harden.

    • Chris Bernucca says

      I see your side – I almost always SEE the other side, just dont agree – and I certainly don’t expect the Kings to max out Evans; they can lose 55 without him, too. But the Thunder were knocking on the door.

      Also, as I recall, Kings situation got problematic with Miller’s contract, which I think was $68 million for 7 years. That was a TON of money for a team that already had Webber and Bibby maxed and Divac making eight figures. Think I’m remembering it right.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Dan says

    For once, I actually agree with Chris.

    I personally look at this deal as Daryl Morey – the Daryl Morey of yesterday – swinging a deal with the Dary Morey of today: Sam Presti; two stats obsessed geeks that have read “Moneyball” more times than Paul Ryan has read “Atlas Shrugged.”

    When you’re more obsessed with spreadsheets than you are with what’s on the court, that’s not a winning approach. Bernucca is right: ownership would have recouped the extra $6 mil sometime between the first round of this year’s playoffs and advance sales on season tickets for next season.

    Now instead of returning this season with the team that went to the finals last year, they got a patch-work player in Martin and some draft picks. Stupid move by OKC.

      • Daniel says

        Hey Chris,

        You too, man – I’m ecstatic they we’ve got a full season of hoops ahead of us. I know I’ve given you crap in the past, but I’m sure you know I’m just sensitive when it comes to my beloved ****** (I know you know who I mean, I can’t even type it for fear of getting blasted with comments, lol).

        Back to OKC, though…. the whole thing reeks of Spreadsheet Basketball…. Hoops for Shareholders…. whatever you want to call it, I think it stinks. Plus, they could have explored other options at the end of the year (amnesty Perkins & trade Ibaka sounds more sensible in my view). No matter how you look at it, at the end of the day, OKC done messed up.


        PS – As another poster commented, I really appreciate that you write back. Thanks again!

  3. AJ says

    First point was the foul that wasn’t called that was a horrendous no call.

    Second point is that I agree completely. It’s not about sustainability, and I have no idea how you sell that to a fan base. It’s about winning, bottom line. What fan base, or fan in particular, would want a team that just makes the playoffs every year? The ultimate goal is simply: to win a championship and how valuable a piece is Harden? Very. A sixth man lowers the pressure from Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and everyone else (Perkins included) and Harden did just that. He could score, he could play point and he was a huge chemistry guy. This trade is just beyond me I guess. I have no idea how you break up a team like that by trading such an important piece for 6mil. Clay Bennett has tons of money, and Presti? They’ve been raking in cash since they moved to OKC. Even if this isn’t about money (it is) then “sustainability” is a poor excuse. They say Boston fans only accept World Championships (and it’s true) but other teams should expect the same. No fan base, or owner, or GM should ever be bottom lining before attempting to win a title. Chicago tried to do it with MJ, and he forced them to reconsider, it just doesn’t work. I can’t believe how lucky the Rockets got with this, but there is one thing I think that might make this trade decent.

    I like Jeremy Lamb a lot, and if he can become a good off the bench player (I think he can) maybe he can be a cheaper solution (which I guess OKC loves) and can make the trade look a little better. But now? The Rockets crushed OKC because they took away their title chance and that’s all that matters.

  4. Logic says

    They had to do what they had to do for the business to survive. Okc doesn’t have a 2billion dollar tv deal like the lakers, so they took the hit. If u ever owned a succesfull business u would understand that paying luxury money for often injured shooting guards would be a mistake. There is only one Westbrook, durant, and ibaka in the nba so they had to get paid. Harden is a great player, but Kevin Martin/lamb will be more than enough to make up for his loss this year off the bench. Martin comes off the books this year and with $$$$, draft picks, and desirable talent they can hit a Home run via trade or free agency. It’s just business. Their gm is one the best in the league so I’ll take his side on knowing harden wasn’t worth the max to this team. Lakers or spurs might have a CHANCE to beat them this year, but Okc and the Clippers will be battling it out for the west for the next 5-6 years after that. Lakers might be there, but they need to resign Dh first and then find the next Kobe Bryant quick.

  5. says

    I think you are discounting the fact that the core they built to get to the finals was built using the same ideology that led them to deal Harden. They were ridiculed for drafting Westbrook too high, then Harden. They made strategic deals to acquire perkins Ibaka was a relative unknown when they drafted him. They also have lots of young talent that they want to groom to be able to compete for championships for MANY years. With Westbrook Maynor Sefolosha Durant and Jackson, The thunder will still have plenty of wing players that are experienced in the system and they add 1 experienced scorer who was the best player on his team and a rookie with massive upside (kind of like harden, whom they molded into an amazing 2nd unit player.) I think the Thunder took the opportunity to get something for Harden instead of waiting till the end of over paying him or waiting until the end of the season to lose him in free agency, because they cant afford to pay him what he thinks he is worth. As a thunder fan i feel that made a good move and they are committed to a sustainable excellence not just trying to get a few championships right now at any cost.

  6. Demosthenes says

    What a terrible article. You may think it would be worth putting the Thunder in franchise-crushing debt in the very near future to resign Harden. As a Thunder fan, I don’t. You may think it would be worth the distractions to (at the very least) let the situation ride for one more season, to try and grab a title this year. As a Thunder fan, I don’t. There are too many if’s to factor in, and not all of them are good. And at the end of the year, a sign-and-trade nets the Thunder less in value than a simple trade right now.

    More to the point, though — everyone who re-signs with the Thunder makes the team an accommodation. It’s their buy-in. Ibaka and Perkins left money on the table. So did Thabo. Collison structured his contract in a bizarre way to help out the team. Westbrook forewent his Rose Rule bump. Even KD asked that there be no opt-out clause in his contract. You’re saying that James Harden deserves better treatment than Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? I love Harden, but that’s idiotic. Westbrook leaves fifteen million on the table, and Harden can’t even leave six? Later.

    Plus…how much do you know about basketball? That six million bites the Thunder hard when the new CBA penalties kick in. They would have been paying luxury tax as it was, I grant you…but six million is not just six million when penalties are factored in, and you should know that. I guess it’s easy to say “penny wise and pound foolish” when it’s other people’s pennies and pounds at stake instead of your own. And our Big THREE — Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka — will be just fine moving forward. Ibaka is a runner-up for DPOY, after all. We’re back in the Finals this season, at least. And when that happens, I wonder if you’ll have the good grace to apologize for this stupidity.

    • Arky says

      Yeah, I think that issue of “if Harden won’t sacrifice like the others, it’ll cause trouble” is being underrated. A year ago everyone wanted to talk about Westbrook being jealous of Durant, but if Harden wouldn’t sacrifice- especially after they just lost in the finals to a team built because three bigger stars than Harden all took less than the max- then the chemistry would have been at risk.

      Maybe if the Lakers don’t get Howard, they see the Finals as a near-lock and figure it’s worth paying the price for at least one year, that they’ll make the tax penalties back in the increase sales and merchandise and reputation of the franchise and all that. But with less certainty, they’ve decided to stay near the top and hope for even more improvement from their remaining trio. If either Lamb or one of the bonus draft picks turns into a player as good as Harden, all they’ve done is move their window a little bit further down the line, when Miami and the Lakers are a bit more aged.

      • Arky says

        And hell, all it really takes is injury problems for the Old Lakers and this Thunder team is still the best in the West, and even with Harden they were not favourites to beat Miami… so you can see why the deal makes sense for them.

        I’m not sure it makes sense for HOUSTON, but Morey has been obsessed with trading for a star so it makes sense for him.

  7. Ben says

    The answer to your trivia question is Smush Parker, with 15 points, I believe.

    I’m amazed how much praise Presti is getting for this trade. Harden for Kevin Martin’s expiring contract and the hope that Lamb might someday be as good as Harden is now is a terrible trade. And to claim that it was a choice between Harden and paying the luxury tax is ridiculous. The team’s payroll as a whole is what puts you over the cap, not the salary of any one player. The Thunder didn’t choose “sustainability” over Harden, they chose Perkins over Harden.

    • Chris Bernucca says

      Right guy. He had 13. In history of NBA, no two teammates have ever combined for the 100 that Wilt scored.

  8. Jim says

    Most of what you say I agree with, and for the most part even the aspects of this article I do not agree with I can see where you are coming from.

    But what I don’t get, and too many in the Media/Fan world are guilty of this, is why they are allowed to count other peoples’ money? Yes, most of the owners have a lot of money, but they have money because they have made great business decisions throughout their lives and those business decisions include keeping their $500million dollar investment in the black. Owners were not given teams, they bought them, and they can make whatever financial decisions they want to. If a team wants to avoid an escalating cap situation to try and maximize the return on an asset it will lose I get that. I’m not saying media/fans can’t be upset regarding the loss of an possible elite player, and media/fans can not like what they got back in the deal, but harping on the money angle is in my opinion lazy and unfair.

    But I love you, Chris!

    • Chris Bernucca says


      I certainly can be accused of almost unilaterally siding with players/labor in general – even more outside NBA realm – but each one of these are separate sitches and have to be evaluated as such. Just think Harden was worth the stretch. And I also think Bennett stood to build some community capital with expenditure, esp. with Durant on next deal. Second max deal is when stars really get that wandering look. As Denzel said in Training Day – and this applies to Bennett AND Harden – “You made your decision now live with your decision.” Thanks for reading and the kind words.

      • Jim says

        Hey Chris,

        I have been thinking a lot about what you have said, and what other commenters have said, and there is one point that has been made that I can’t argue against. And that is when you have a chance to win a title you have to do it. It doesn’t matter who might leave next year, what you might lose in return if you do not trade him, or about retaining/getting players to stay competitive. Harden was scheduled to make about $7-8 million I think this year, might as well get one more year out of Harden and try and win a championship. It isn’t like Harden put them over the cap, and I don’t think Harden would have been the distraction Dwight Howard was. Teams only get so many chances to win a championship, and they have to go all out to try and reach it. That is one thing that annoys me so much about my Bulls, they would rather be a #2 seed every year and play hard and be cautious in player movement than take a big risk and go all out. The Thunder should have kept Harden, and if I’m a Thunder fan I am not happy.

        BUT, I still get the thinking of the Thunder. Plus, I still don’t think with Harden they could have/would have beat the Heat (yes, I’m already crowning the Heat again). Maybe this is Presti admitting they were not good enough as constructed, especially since scoring is not why they lost the finals last year. Perkins couldn’t play, as he had no one to match up with. Plus, I know Ibaka’s defense if valued high, but he is a remarkable help defender, not a shut down defender. Making him a priority over Harden to me was a mistake, but I know I’m in the minority with that thinking.

        Keep up the great articles so I can continue to disagree and debate with you.

        • Chris Bernucca says


          Just FYI, Harden $5.8 mill this sea, $7.6 mill QO next. Highest paid Rocket this sea

          Bulls rolled dice on Boozer max and were wrong. Tougher when you go outside org bc you never know how a guy will fit. IMO Thunder decision to keep Harden easier

          Perk was marginalized by MIA small lineups but also was hurt. Agree on Ibaka. If they had kept his deal at $40 mill, Harden might still be around.

          As long as we’re not name calling I’ll always go back and forth. I’ll even admit when I’m wrong. But I think I’m right on this one. When the hot girl says yes if you buy me these shoes, you buy the shoes.

          • Jim says

            Well, if we are talking hot girls and shoes then off course you win.

            And good point on the staying in house versus getting burned in FA when it comes to Boozer and Harden. But I don’t think signing Boozer by the Bulls was rolling the dice and going all out to win, I felt he was the safe play and that they spent the money only because they realized they had lost out on Lebron and Bosh.

            Finally, that is why I like commenting on your stories, your respond back frequently. And don’t worry, I can handle someone disagreeing with me when their opinions are backed by logic and reason versus screaming, name-calling, and bad grammar. Very few people understand that there is nothing wrong with disagreeing, and it usually makes us smarter when we go through the thought process of having to defend our positions.

  9. Chris Engels says

    I couldn’t agree more, with the new additions to the Lakers and the Heat still dominant, the Thunder basically gave up a title. For what? When Kevin Martin’s contract expires, they’re still over the cap, so they can’t spend all of the thirteen million they’re paying Martin this year. If my calculations are correct, they’ll only be able to spend around three million IF they don’t amnesty Perkins.

  10. KC says

    You sound too bitter, can you even see the other side? Is Harden all that? Do we really know? Is he WORTH a max contract? Not saying he can’t get it on the free market, he’s prob the 3rd best SG in the game but there’s a HUGE drop off from the top. can he carry a team like kobe or wade? I’m not convinced and I don’t fault the thunder

    • Chris Bernucca says


      I can see the other side. But right now, if you want to truly compete for the title, you pretty much have to pay the tax. Its not entirely a zero sum game but it’s close. And I am sick of the richest men in the country crying poor. Because the luxury tax is a collectively bargained line, everyone assumes “Oh, this is how much the owner can afford.” No it’s not. It’s a ruse to get the public to believe it’s what an owner can afford. It has nothing to do with whether an owner has the money to cross it.

      Remember that at its roots, everyone’s opinion on this is driven by what they think of Harden. I think he’s fantastic. I think OKC is better when Harden runs the show and Westbrook is off the ball. In 2 years, Harden will be 25, Kobe will be 36 and Wade will be 32. Where do you think he will rank among SGs then?

      Harden is a far better player than EGordon or BLopez, or RHibbert, who got max deals. His fate probably was sealed with the Ibaka overpay. But with a clear shift to small ball across the league, he should have been retained. I would have let it go to next summer, take another shot with these guys, and then either match an RFA offer or amnesty Perkins.

      That’s just me. Thanks for reading.

  11. D21 says

    if they had reached an aggrement okc would have had to pay 15 million tax penalty plus it gets worse every year .for me it was surprising that they offered him 55 but i didnt think they would trade him this early.

    • Colin says

      this. it’s not just the extra money on Harden’s paycheck, it’s the tax penalties.

      the new cba was supposed to help small market teams, not hurt them like this.

      • Chris Bernucca says


        It does seem that way right now, and given the Lakers’ TV deal I don’t know that they will ever be impacted. But I do think that we need to see the supertax in place for a year or two before we see a leveling of the playing field. Free spenders such as Micky Arison and Mark Cuban already have expressed serious concern about its long-term impact. Perhaps that will force other teams to scale back to a “Big Two” which puts OKC and other small-market teams back in the picture. I just think it was worth keeping Harden for another run this season. Oct. 31 wasn’t the cliff. July 1 was. Thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>