James Harden And The Quest For The Perfect Sports League

The NBA does more than any other league to help small-market teams keep homegrown talent. And then stuff like this happens while the Lakers are paying like 400 All-Stars a billion dollars each.

Sue Ogrocki / AP

Sam Presti is a basketball genius. I don’t know him personally (a fact that I’m sure surprises you), and I don’t know how he fared on his SATs, but by all accounts he’s the smartest basketball mind currently running an NBA front office, give or take a San Antonio. The Oklahoma City wunderkind (have to love that in a sport that routinely features dominant teenagers, a front office guy can be a wunderkind at 35) built a team in a small market that could compete with anyone in the league and he did it without spending exorbitant money on free agents. In fact, rebuilding teams across the league have used Presti’s path to success with the Thunder as both a model for their basketball operations departments and as a way to sell their fans on sucking for years at a time. “Sure, we’re going to be bad for a while, but that’s what you have to do. Look at OKC! Don’t you want a Durant? A Westbrook? A Harde…”

Those other GMs will have to cut that last one from the pitch, because on Saturday night the Thunder pulled the trigger on a deal that sent emerging star and beard aficionado James Harden to Houston (along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, and Lazar Hayward) in exchange for Kevin “Yes I know what defense is. It’s the thing that goes around de-yard,” Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and draft picks. As a guy in another NBA front office told ESPN’s Mark Stein: “Holy shit.”

On its face it does seem unbelievable. How could OKC do this? They still had Harden under contract for another year. And how can they quibble on that contract extension over what amounts to about $5 million? This is a guy who was crucial for a Thunder team that made the finals last year, and he’s only 23. To quote a stereotypical frat guy talking about proposing marriage to an attractive woman, you have to lock that down. Why did the wisest guy in basketball just send him out of town?

In short, because it was the right move. Though the Collective Bargaining Agreement does help teams keep their own players, the new luxury tax is inadvertently designed to discourage owners from doing too much to retain talent. In an effort to keep teams from doing what the Lakers did this offseason by making teams pay high, ballooning penalties for high salaries, the league has ended up punishing small markets.

The Lakers’ TV deal nets them $250 million a year. The Thunder? Around $15 million. That means, very practically, that it’s far easier for the Lakers to not care about racking up that punitive luxury tax than it is for teams like the Thunder. The intent of the rule is negated by the reality of the situation. Drafting and developing superstars only takes you so far unless you can make the financial jump into Lakerland (or Knickville, or Heatsburg). Meanwhile, a team like Denver that has compiled young, cheap talent finds itself a max-level player short of relevance. Presti’s move seems to suggest he thinks the only way to win as a non-wealthy team is to have superstars AND the cheap assets that you get by trading one.

What makes this so frustrating is that the NBA is actually far closer than baseball or football to having rules that help small market teams build something lasting. Major League Baseball has done little to alter a system that turns teams like the Pirates and the Indians into glorified farm teams, and the NFL is set up so that everyone must constantly reload to stay competitive. Great NFL franchises are built on the backs of middle-aged general managers, not players, which makes rooting for one of them a little less fun.

But with the Bird Rule (a provision that incentivizes players to stay with the team they’re currently with) and a soft salary cap, the NBA isn’t far off from getting this right. What this situation shows us is that we need a new twist to the CBA to make sure teams like OKC can keep their homegrown stars. Let’s call it the Harden Fast Rule. (GET IT??!?!?)

The Harden Fast Rule (GET IT??!?!?) would allow a team to re-sign a player without worrying about luxury tax implications provided that the team drafted that player and that said player has played his whole career for said team. They would still have to pay the player their full salary, but wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant luxury tax against it. This would allow small-market teams a better shot at keeping players, provided they built through the draft. If I was commissioner, I’d do everything in my power to make that happen. Unfortunately for Kevin Durant and the rest of the Thunder, but probably fortunately for everyone else involved in playing and watching the game of basketball, I’m not in that position.

I know. Sad, isn’t it?

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