James Harden, The NBA and the Myth of Small Markets

In a trade that shocked the most snark-encrusted NBA observers, the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped their hellaciously talented, hirsute guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assemblage of spare parts. Harden, the reigning sixth-man of the year, made up along with teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the core of the defending Western conference champions.  The Oklahoma City Thunder were the only legitimate team standing between the restocked Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA Finals. Perhaps age and chemistry will knock the Lakers aside, but absent that, their greatest threat just waved the white flag before opening day. This electric young team with title hopes just unilaterally disarmed because they claimed to be a poor small market club unable to meet the contract demands of the 23-year-old star.

Immediately the cry went out across all media, old and new: small market teams, like Oklahoma City just can't compete. As USA Today wrote, “The deal cuts to the heart of the plight of small- and mid-market teams such as the Thunder. Can they return all of their top players? Are they willing to have a payroll that surpasses the luxury tax and are they willing to pay the tax when they go over?”

Thunder management played the part of damaged small market suitor, with General Manager Sam Presti saying, "We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.” He also spoke mournfully of their need to have a “sustainable” model for developing the team. As Howard Beck wrote in the New York Times, “A system that forces a small-market wonder to give up a star player — to a team in a much larger market, no less — seems cruel and counterproductive.”

This is all nonsense. If we want to understand why the hideous Harden trade took place, we need to understand the politics and priorities of today's NBA. We need to understand that the Thunder are small-market by choice because small-markets can mean big profits. It's a business model, not a tragic geographical handicap.

First, we need to remember how the Thunder came into existence in 2008 because in this case, past has certainly proven to be prologue. In full collusion with David Stern, Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics in 2006 and moved them to his hometown of Oklahoma City. Stern recruited Bennett, a former member of the NBA's Board of Governors, to make this move. Why would David Stern, the man they call “Money’, choose to move a team from the 14th largest television market to the 45th? Why would he move a team to a place with ½ the per capita income? Simply, put, it’s because Oklahoma City offered hundreds of millions in corporate welfare and public revenue while Seattle did not. Using Seattle as an object lesson for any other fan base that would dare tell Stern not to feed at the public trough, was a bonus. As Bennett gushed to Stern in a private email,  "You are just one of my favorite people on earth." It’s a love built on a passion for corporate welfare, a love so great that the NBA chose to think small.

The move to a  "small market" has meant the best of both worlds for the swelling pockets of Clay Bennett. It has provided him with a publicly subsidized money-making machine - $35 million in profits last year according to ESPN -  while also creating the illusion of scarcity. Pressure to spend can be deflected, as Presti did, onto the need for  "sustainability" while prying eyes are dissuaded by anti-trust protections: protections that outrageously exist even with the infusion of public money. The blame then gets deflected onto Harden for not taking less money to stay in Oklahoma City. I have never understood how sports writers can turn so much bile on players for trying to maximize their incredibly narrow earning windows while owners, who have inherited - or in Bennett’s case, married  -generational wealth, are exempt from the same criticisms. Last year's Stern engineered lockout, it should now be clear, wasn't about small-market competitive balance, but extracting wealth from the players and redistibuting it into the bank accounts of ownership.

While Harden is slammed and Presti cries the tears of the crocodile,  Bennett gets to be the Bain Capital of owners: harvesting teams for profits and then throwing away their dried husks when profit margins are under any kind of threat. David Stern will retire in February 2014, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come and it’s a legacy that has cultivated a coterie of owners that put fans and communities last. The Harden trade is just a symptom of the disease.

15 Reader Comments | Add a comment

harden trade

While I don't always agree with your stance on issues this one is right on. As for players taking less money to stay with a team, that's only done by veterans chasing a trophy. Harden is looking for that first big payday. Who knows if there will be a second.

Cattle City Con job

The NBA has a salary cap. OKC GM Sam Presti is widely acknowledged as being a master of managing the salary cap, even as that changed and the penalties involved have grown more teeth. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement was lent ti spread talent and limit players earning potential.

Was James Harden really supposed to take even less money under the more restrictive CBA? Harden did his part. He worked at being a better player and earned more money on the NBA's not-so-free market.

The Thunder chose to give big contracts to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Sergei Ibaka. James Harden might have been third on the team in scoring, but he was fourth in value to the organization.

Now Harden gets to be a top two presence in Houston and earn closer closer to his owner-rigged free market value.

Maybe the team could have afforded to keep Harden if they'd stayed in Seattle.

Harden trade.

I wonder if this is what is happening in Pittsburgh with the Pirates. I believe the team is profitable, and I know for a fact that they are losers. I agree that too often the players are scapegoated by fans to the benefit of ownership. Thanks for this column.

Small markets vs. Harden himself

Dave, as much as I understand and agree with you about the illusion of small markets (especially since I am an ex-Seattle resident) maybe this trade has less to do with that and more about Harden's worth as a player. He's a good player (and I'm never against any athlete trying to make as much as possible) but, realistically, he's not a franchise player and the Thunder front office knew that he wasn't worth a "franchise player" salary.

Durant and Westbrook are two of the top five players in the NBA and Serge Ibaka's a shot-blocking expert who, once he develops more of an offensive game, will be one of the best power forwards in the NBA (he's only 23). So, I do agree with Arthur C's comment above that Harden was fourth in value to the organization, as he should be. I also agree that Harden should not have to feel obligated to take a pay cut to stay in OKC if a team wants to offer him more money.

With that said, it's naive as hell to say that the biggest threat to the Lakers "just waived the white flag before opening day." The Thunder gave up Harden, Daquan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward. Okay....in return they got Kevin Martin (a proven 20 plus ppg scorer), 1st Round pick Jeremy Lamb (a combo guard with scoring potential), two future 1st Round picks and a 2nd round pick. And let's not forget that the Thunder had the steal of this year's draft with Perry Jones III, who should be able to fit right into their lineup and get substantial minutes as a rookie.

Which organization made out better with this trade? I'll get back to you on that come playoff time when the Thunder are battling the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and Harden and Lin are doing Volvo commercials after the Rockets finished dead last in the Conference.

Harden > Westbrook

Harden is a better player than Westbrook. Westbrook turns the ball over too much. He looks for his shot too much over getting teammates involved. Harden is better suited for playoff basketball and was more of a go-to player at the ends of games last season. The Thunder could win 10 fewer games this year and fail to make it out of the 1st round of the playoffs.

This trade is the latest example of the disgusting nature of NBA owners, and pro sports owners in general. Almost every owner is more interested in the bottom line over winning. This should be obvious based on the way most franchises operate. Win a championship and lose a couple million or fail to make the playoffs and profit $30 million? Which choice would 99% of owners make?

Westbrook vs. Harden

No disrespect to Rich, but you're not thinking like a GM. When Westbrook came out of UCLA in 2008, he was a raw 19 yr old that could jump out of the stratosphere and had limitless upside. Like Ibaka, Thunder (then Supersonics) management knew that they could teach a young kid the skills needed to play in the NBA, but you can't teach athleticism. I agree with your thoughts on Westbrook but he's also still a work in progress. The kid's only 23 years old and he's a million times more athletic than Harden will ever be. For every game that he has multiple turnovers and takes too many bad shots, there's also games where he puts up insane videogame-like triple-doubles.

Harden's an old-school player (which I love) who's incredibly skilled but he's a Pippen who needs a Jordan to play at his best. He's not at all an athletic player (and neither is Lin) and it's going to show when players like Westbrook and Jrue Holiday cruise right past them in transition. Everyone's entitled to their opinion but if you call yourself a basketball fan, you know I'm right.

It sucks that Harden got traded because he fit extremely well in that system (much more so than I guarantee he will in Houston) and I was hoping to see all those young, talented players grow up together and win a few championships, but at the end of the day it's business. Players in all sports get traded all the time. If it effects you too much, then stop watching basketball (and all sports, for that matter). Players are only worth what fans are willing to pay for admission, merchandise, and cable television. If fans in OKC stopped going to games in protest of bad bad management instead of vilifying Harden for getting a max contract, then their GM will do their best to get him back. But that will never happen because Durant and Westbrook are still there and will find a way to play with slightly lesser talent until they get they're lottery picks from the Rockets. Cool...I'm over it.

Harden's first game

James Harden just became the first player in NBA history to notch 30pts (scored 37 overall) and 12 dimes in his first game with a new team. Damn.

Harden killed my Pistons!

I was resting up from walking my sons around a shopping mall and then the neighborhood for Halloween. I went to watch my Detroit Pistons on the free NBA League Pass Preview while the house was asleep. We had a great third quarter and were pulling away.

And then James Harden threw eggs and toilet paper all over the Pistons' house. 37 points and 12 dimes is unreal. My Pistons are trying to commit more to defense, and we need a better wing defender, but damn.Open threes, quick release threes, floaters in traffic, jams in crowds and of course the playmaking.

It's one game, and my Pistons will struggle to make the playoffs, but I'm happy Harden got not only his $80 mil, but also the chance to prove he was worth that large coin. He was never going to have a shot like this in Oklahoma City.

And yes, Dave, I allow Tom Gores to write the checks but they are my Detroit Pistons until Mitt Romney kills the auto industry and Gores sells the Pistons to Larry Elison who moves them to San Jose.

Re: Harden's first game

I give credit when it's due and that was a hell of a game. It was, however, one game against a sub-.500 team. We'll see how the season pans out. I think Harden's great and I hope I'm wrong.

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Actual sports talk and insightful analysis in this comments section. Take a picture - it may not happen again!

Dang it, Nick B...

...why do you have to be so logical and reasonable? You beat me to most of it.

The leap between runner-up and champion is greater than most fans realize. The Thunder migh have returned and won with the same lineup, but they could just as easily have ended up like the Magic after 2009. Otis Smith paid out lots of money, including generous extensions to keep is guys. Only 3 years later, he's out of work, his superstar was gone, and they never returned to the finals. Presti doesn't want to be Smith and the Thunder don't want to be the Magic.

McClendon/Bennett (McBlennedon?) left a large, lucrative market for a smaller one, but they still have to deal with a salary cap. Once you sign players for more money than they're worth, you can't trade them until you either find a sucker franchise or the contract is about to expire. Harden is really good, but Lamb, Martin, et al, aren't chopped liver. Harden was a sixth man who wanted superstar money. OKC is already over the cap, whereas it looks like Houston will pay. Many players have won 6th man of the year award before being promoted to starter. Not so many became superstars.

Right On Dave, But Don't Forget Howard Schultz

Yes, never forget how the Blunder were created, and you don't have to tell Seattle sports fans to not get over it. Here sports fans count Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz's among the villains in the theft of their team. You know, the whiny billionaire who in 2004 demanded that the city do a complete rebuild of Key Arena, pay for all of it, plus, allow the Sonics to collect all the revenue from the new arena, including non-Sonics events. Really reasonable negotiating position. Just get down on your knees and let Howard have his way with you.

So Schultz sold the team to an out of town ownership intent on moving the team. The move doesn't happen without Schultz agreeing to the sale to Bennett. Herb Kohl could have done the same thing with the Bucks years ago but he didn't. Now that he is retiring from his Senate seat it will be interesting to see what he does with the Bucks.

And does Schultz hire a union busting law firm in response in response to union organizing attempts among Starbucks employees. Of course!

What I don 't like about some among the jilted Seattle basketball fan base is their anger at the politicians for supposedly not doing enough to keep the Sonics. In other words, they should have given Schultz what he wants.

The response of Seattle voters to this was to pass a new law requiring any public money invested in professional sports facilities to be paid back to the city at a reasonable profit. This law should be a model for how cities in the top 30 markets nation wide deal with sports teams constantly showing up with hats in hand demanding tax payer cash all the time. Enough is enough. No more subsidization of billionaire sports team ownership groups.

Thank you, Rick. Hello?

Why Bennett, Stern, or anybody other than Schultz is painted as the villain in the whole Sonics exodus has always eluded me. Bennett had no connection to Seattle, and represented an outfit that was actually called Professional Basketball Club LLC, based in Oklahoma City. That would be like selling your solar farm to Dick Cheney and being angry that he closed it the next day.

Small Market teams

So tired of hearing rich, white, republican, free market loving, Ayn Rand reading, capitalists complain about small markets! Why should you be able to compete with the Lakers? You are in Orlando (or Charlotte, or Milwaukee, or Cleveland, etc.) If you want to compete with a big market team then BUY ONE!!! Why do we need "competitive balance" in the NBA when we don't have it anywhere else in the country. These free market fat cats now want the Lakers to subsidize them?! What a bunch of hypocrites!

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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