Lon Babby and the Phoenix Suns spent some time in Oklahoma City just eight days before the mega-trade that sent star guard and former Arizona State great James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The team had a reservation with the Thunder in Tulsa that night for the entree course, a pre-season tilt, but that was then parlayed into desert with Sam Presti to discuss the pieces in a potential Harden trade.
Over the course of the next week Babby had numerous conversations with Presti over the phone gauging interest in what the Suns had to offer to get the star guard. The demand was appropriately steep.
When it came down to it the Suns were not willing to part with the pieces required to get Harden at this time.
In the end it wasn't a matter of the Suns giving up the assets and getting Harden, "we were never close," but the talks were "extensive" according to Babby. The talks boiled down to the Suns having to part with a "substantial player," another asset, and two first round picks. In the end it became a simple question of whether the team thought Harden was worth two first round picks. Could they afford to mortgage their future for the potential of Harden becoming a star? Babby ultimately decided the answer to that was no.
The team would not divulge on the details of who was involved, but said to, "use your imagination as to who" the Thunder were targeting.
Harden is a fantastic player, but as Jared Dudley said about what it takes to be a star is that they have to, "not only score on the other teams best defender, but to guard the Kobe's of the league all game."
In the NBA Finals, with a smaller role than he will have going forward, Harden averaged 12.4 PPG and 3.0 APG on 37.5% shooting and struggling overall on the court. It was a far cry from his performances as an All-Star caliber season and Olympian during a great season for the third year guard. The decision to move Harden had more to do with his role as a Sixth Man than meets the eye, a role that the media applauded Harden for embracing over the years.
All season his role was to be that play-maker and scorer late in games off the bench, but according to Yahoo! Sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski during the Finals he was frustrated with his role offensively. That led to some minor tension and a quick exit from center stage as the runner-up in the NBA.
Couple that with Harden's agent playing "hardball" with the Thunder on getting a max contract over the reported 4 year 52 million dollar deal offered by Presti to Harden, which fell eight million short of his expectations.
With negotiations going on for a month Presti was able to privately field offers from teams they felt had the assets to make a move. The Suns, Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks were the teams with the most interest, and assets, but in the end Houston simply compiled the better assets over the course of last season. They were prepared to not only go after, but make moves for Dwight Howard AND Deron Williams so the assets were in place for a player like Harden. They were in a better position to make a major move.
How is this relevant to the Suns?
All summer Lance Blanks and Lon Babby touted this as a team that was full of assets. They like their current group heading into the season and are full and ready to compete with the status quo, but their package was not on the level of Houston's. But the underlying issue in this trade is that the Suns feel they acquired a plethora of attractive assets to make moves and in the end they did just that, but they are not necessarily what other teams are looking for.
If the Thunder were looking for a significant young player, another asset, and multiple picks the Suns best offer to the naked eye would involve who; Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley, and picks or maybe Marcin Gortat?
It is time to face reality about the "assets" the team built up; they are what the Suns want, but not exactly the best trade bait in the league. This was not a trade the team needed to make, being in the discussion is telling of the type of talent the team has on the roster, but again, not enough to seal the deal.
"Maybe we already have our star player," said Babby with a wink and smile as Goran Dragic practiced his free-throws, Michael Beasley rifled up more catch-and-shoot threes, and Morris took a quick water break. Maybe they do.