Oklahoma City has been quite the NBA story the past few seasons.
The Thunder play in a quaint, small market that's absolutely crazy about the team. A frenzied college atmosphere drapes Chesapeake Energy Arena during games. The stands are packed with fans in uniform T-shirts.
It's the type of story that, sadly, tends to be romanticized in pro sports.
They're the feisty little guys holding their own against the big, bad Lakers and Mavericks. They're the thousands of fans who gather outside to watch playoff games on a huge video screen attached to the arena. They're the homegrown stars who were hand-picked and developed by the team, including three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, who signed a five-year extension as LeBron James was taking his talents to South Beach.
Aww, isn't this market so adorable? Isn't this franchise so cute? Isn't this saga so sweet?
OKC was a fairy tale to Thunder fans, especially innocent youngsters who don't know better. Everyone else knows that fairy tales aren't true, especially in pro sports. The Thunder proved as much Saturday night by trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
As far as shockers go, OKC general manager Sam Presti maxed out by breaking up the core of a young team that won the Western Conference last season. Harden, the league's Sixth Man of the Year, is a fan favorite and one of the NBA's most-recognizable players, thanks to his distinctive beard. He's coming off a summer in which he won an Olympic gold medal along with teammates Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Thankfully, Presti took none of that into account. He didn't allow himself to become a sentimental sap. He didn't play along with the fantasy of keeping OKC's "Big Three" intact so they could slay NBA dragons and play happily ever after.
That's the folly of dreamers who don't have to face the cold reality of salary caps and luxury taxes. But Presti had to sign Harden to a contract extension by Oct. 31, trade him during the season, or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in July. Not exactly an enchanting situation when the team and player disagree on remuneration.
"We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved," Presti said in a statement. "We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of [Kevin Martin's] caliber, a young talent like Jeremy [Lamb] and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team."
That's a clear, sober and rational explanation for a move that shook up the NBA just days before the season opens.
Yet Presti immediately faced cries of "How could you?!"
The Thunder were among the leading contenders to win the title. The comfort level among Harden, Durant and Westbrook figured to grow thanks to their London experience. Team chemistry seemed great, a close-knit collection of players who love playing together.
But pro teams are businesses and players are assets, to be utilized as each franchise sees fit. Neither side owes the other any loyalty beyond fulfilling contract terms and abiding by the collective bargaining agreement. In that sense, you can't blame Presti's decision to fetch what he could instead of paying more than he wanted.
Romantics are mad at Presti, unjustifiably. They also could have ire toward Harden, which is just as boneheaded.
Harden had said he might accept less money to remain with OKC, sort of like Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, who signed an extension over the summer. Ibaka probably would've received larger offers as a free agent, but he accepted less than market value to stay put.
Good for him. If you're happy with what you're doing, where you're doing it, who you're doing it with, and what you're being paid, that's a simple choice.
But don't demonize players who opt to go elsewhere for larger paychecks. Harden wasn't obliged to accept less money than Houston is about to pay. He didn't owe the Thunder or fans anything more than the effort he exerted during four seasons in an OKC uniform.
Yahoo Sports reported that he turned down a four-year contract worth about $52 million.
The Rockets intend to sign him to a five-year deal worth nearly $80 million.
Suggesting that Harden should've left money on the table to maintain OKC's utopia is much easier than it'd be for you to walk away from $28 million. Likewise, it's painless to suggest the team should've offered a max deal, as long as you don't have to pay exorbitant luxury tax.
The clock has struck midnight and the bubble has burst in Oklahoma City.
Welcome to the real world.
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