When Thunder general manager Sam Presti came to understand he could not keep James Harden so many years ago, do you think he had any idea the slot machine Harden would become once gone?
Or, perhaps, the broken slot machine he would become? Because slot machines, ultimately, are supposed to take from you more than they give.
Try as he might not to, he keeps making Oklahoma City richer.
It was late October, 2012, when the Thunder moved Harden to Houston, getting back Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and three draft picks, two of them first rounders.
Lamb and Martin might not have paid huge dividends, but the Thunder still prospered, reaching the Western Conference finals two of the next four seasons, even taking a 3-1 edge over Golden State in the last of them, trying to reach the 2016 NBA Finals.
But if that Harden trade was a wash, or even one that set Oklahoma City back — an arguable point, though hard to buy given his team-wrecking ways since — what Harden’s given OKC lately more than makes up for it.
Essentially, he gave the Thunder their feel-good 2019-20 season, easily the most rewarding campaign for the organization and its fans since Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State.
Though Oklahoma City exited the playoffs in the first round yet again, the team was an overachieving treat thanks to Chris Paul’s presence and influence; presence and influence that existed entirely because Harden and Paul could not exist on the same team in Houston.
For the honor of accepting Russell Westbrook, and sending Paul to Oklahoma City, the Rockets also sent two first-round draft picks and the rights to two first-round draft swaps to the Thunder.
Harden, you may have heard, has talked his way out of Houston, all the way to Brooklyn, to play alongside Durant and Kyrie Irving, begging the question if there might be enough basketballs for the three of them, not to mention sports psychologists capable of helping them to work together.
In so doing, Harden is paying the Thunder off yet again, because while the Westbrook-for-Paul deal he made necessary gave the Thunder a wonderful season and a bounty of picks and swaps, the Rockets moving him to Brooklyn is bound to make those picks and swaps more valuable.
When OKC dealt Westbrook for Paul, conventional wisdom said the picks would likely never be any higher than the draft’s 20th selection and the swaps might never mean a thing because the Rockets appeared set up as one of the best three, four or five teams in the Western Conference for years to come.
That was so a few months ago.
The next draft, all in the first round, the Thunder have their own pick, Houston’s or Miami’s pick, whichever’s higher, and Golden State’s pick, as long as it’s not higher than No. 21.
The Warriors are 6-5, but that’s after opening 0-2. Entering Thursday, they’d won 2 of 3, topping the Clippers and Raptors. So, good chance the Thunder get their pick.
Miami’s off to a slow start (4-5), but Houston’s off to a slower one (3-6) and just traded away Harden, both its headache and superstar.
There’s one catch: OKC can’t exercise the Rockets’ pick if it’s among the top four. Still, the chances of it being a lottery pick outside the top four would seem to be quite good.
The Thunder also have Houston’s first-round pick in 2024 and 2026. Both are top-four protected, yet both could easily fall between No. 5 and No. 10.
Because Harden talked his way out of town, they’re not only likely to be more valuable when exercised, but they’ve already become more valuable as trade commodities.
The Beard, for all of his negatives, keeps paying the Thunder back positively.
Oklahoma City (5-6), by the way, stands a good chance to get back to even tonight. Chicago (4-7) and former Thunder coach Billy Donovan will be inside Chesapeake Energy Arena this evening.
Wednesday, the Lakers beat them by 29 points, yet huge losses haven’t kept the Thunder from carving out narrow victories and tonight could be another one.
Indeed, coach Mark Daigneault keeps making it clear Oklahoma City is trying to win now.
“The message to the team, you know, up big [or] down big, first quarter, fourth quarter, is always that it’s a 48-minute game,” he said after the Laker loss. “Every minute in the game is an opportunity to compete and an opportunity to forge an identity.”
Those are not the words of a coach interested in losing.
It doesn’t mean the Thunder won’t lose, though. Doesn’t mean they won’t be looking to trade Al Horford or George Hill, wily veterans playoff teams might want, and add even more draft assets before the trade deadline.
But if they don’t … lose big or make trades that cause them to lose big, James Harden has already come through for them.
It might have been hard watching him go. Yet, since, he keeps giving back.