Rare is the NBA trade that helps both teams. Obviously both teams must think any given trade is the right thing to do at the time or no trade would ever happen, but invariably one team or another is dealing from a position of weakness. So while a trade might make sense for a team from some perspective, that's only because that team's alternatives are poor. Although in theory the win-win trade is conceivable (for instance if each team could fill a roster need by giving up a player at a position where they have a glut) in practice they occur infrequently.
Rarer still though is the lose-lose trade, where neither team comes out ahead. Again, why would a team make a trade that doesn't help them? In the case of the lose-lose, why would either team?
Obviously neither the Thunder nor the Rockets view it this way, but I can't help but look at the trade of James Harden from Oklahoma City to Houston as sort of a lose-lose. The Thunder gave up Harden, a key member of their Western Conference Championship team, and some scraps for one year of Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, and a couple of 2013 first round picks.
But aren't the Thunder in a win-now situation? They've gone from the lottery to the eighth seed in the playoffs to the Western Conference Finals to the NBA Finals in the past four years, they have the talent to win a title this season, and they've paid their dues. Why would a win-now team give up talent for future assets?
On the other hand, aren't the Rockets a LONG way from being competitive? Did they have any championship building blocks in Houston prior to the trade? Jeremy Lin? Omer Asik? These seem like complementary players at best (though I guess we'll see with Lin). Harden was the third or possibly fourth best player on a team that DIDN'T win an NBA title last season. Can he really be the centerpiece of a competitor?
One of the worst contracts in basketball is the maximum deal for the non-maximum player, the not-quite-a-superstar. James Harden has made exactly zero All Star teams, and while I like Harden very, very much as a player, he has not deserved to make an All Star team so far. He's young and maybe he will be worth a max contract, but he hasn't shown that he is yet, in my opinion. One little-discussed but very important aspect of the Chris Paul trade for the Clippers was that it allowed L.A. to get rid of Eric Gordon before they had to pay him. That's right, I love Eric Gordon, and even ignoring his current injury issues, I'm very, very happy that it is New Orleans paying him this season and not the Clippers. It will be difficult enough for the Clippers' front office to keep the team near the top of the conference with Paul and Blake Griffin tying up so much cap space -- what if it were Gordon and Griffin? Are those two pieces good enough to compete for a championship? No, they're not.
Sam Presti seems to have understood this about Harden as well, which is why OKC made this deal. And if Presti's goal is to remain very competitive for a long time while avoiding the luxury tax then this is a great deal. But if his goal is to win a title, it's a bad deal. Because OKC had a better chance to win that title this year with Harden than they have this year without him, or next year with a couple new draft picks (unless they get very lucky in the lottery and/or the draft). And why the urgency? Harden was going to be a restricted free agent. Did this deal really have to be made now? Presti could have waited to see what he had starting another season with this group.
Basically, I don't like this trade for Houston at all. I think Harden is terrific, but paying him the maximum for the next four years is going to get them all the way to the first round of the playoffs at best, it seems to me. It would be better to stink and hope for some lottery luck than to be stuck in first round loss purgatory.
For OKC, I like it for long term sustained success -- but in a Ricky Bobby world where "if you ain't first you're last" the Thunder just diminished their chances of being first this season. They've already come in second -- there's only one way to go from here -- and this trade certainly doesn't get them closer to their goal in the short term, and probably not in the long term either. Who knows? Kevin Martin used to be good and maybe he'll play well for them. Maybe Lamb or one of the future picks will turn out to be a star. It certainly gives the team a means of putting cheap talent around Durant and Westbrook and Ibaka for the foreseeable future. Maybe it's brilliant. But it feels like a win-now team has decided it's better to win-later, and that's almost never the case.