When Oklahoma City Thunder announced in October that they were trading away their celebrated sixth man and cult hero James Harden more than a few eyebrows, and dare I say beards, were raised.
After all, ‘fear the beard’ became one of the monikers for Oklahoma’s run to the 2012 NBA Finals.
Throughout last season Harden grew into a formidable scorer and facilitator that could be relied upon to create not only for himself but for others, especially those in the Thunder’s second unit.
His cult status was born out of a combination of this searingly effective talent and a bountiful beard, one that promised to keep Oklahoma’s novelty facial hair sellers employed for years.
However there had been rumblings from as early as 2010 that the Thunder were approaching their own version of the fiscal cliff.
Harden and fast-improving big man Serge Ibaka were both coming up for contract renewals and it was correctly speculated that the Thunder would be unable to keep both on their already bulging payroll.
Indeed Harden would go on to have the kind of season that guarantees max contracts while Ibaka would also put in a solid case for a similarly ludicrous amount of cash. Who would be the one to go?
Many observers, including this writer, opined that the most obvious and slightly less painful decision would be to keep Harden and move Ibaka on.
I for one had no thoughts of Harden leaving the Thunder; there just seemed no sense in such a move.
Yes, Ibaka has proven elite defensive skills and an improving and evolving offensive skill set.
Yes, Ibaka is the kind of big man that many GMs would sell their first born for.
But Harden was something special. An out-and-out offensive assassin that has the talent to lead most other teams in the NBA, but was being used with deadly effect coming off the bench behind fellow offensive killers in Durant and Westbrook.
In fact I even believed that the Thunder may choose to offload Russell Westbrook in order to keep both Harden and Ibaka, and make a play for a competent free-agent point guard that could play the role of a pass first, pass second facilitator to Harden and Durant.
All of us that thought any of these thoughts were wrong. But are we still right?
Harden did end up being traded in a ‘blockbuster’ move to the Houston Rockets that included the very good Kevin Martin landing in Thunder land to take on the scoring responsibilities vacated by the vetted bearded one.
Ibaka was re-signed to a beard-shakingly large contract and many of us scratched our facial hair with confusion.
Harden was on his way to Houston riding a max deal that would see him pair up with Jeremy Lin and take on a starting role at the two point.
For Harden it seemed like a positive move, what with a max deal and a starting role that will give him a huge amount of scoring responsibility. The beard could indeed work on being feared from the outset.
Sam Presti, the GM in Oklahoma, could have been forgiven for jumping at bearded shadows as the 2012/13 season got underway.
Harden exploded out of the blocks and after three efforts with the Rockets was averaging the better part of 30 points and seemingly making the trade a compelling contender for Presti’s first major misstep as Thunder GM.
But it always amazes how quickly the NBA balances itself.
Harden cooled off and his combination with Lin began to slow down. Unfortunately for Jeremy, the sanity in his game had returned and it was his opponents doing the certifying and he was finding it harder to make those Linsane moments stick.
Meanwhile, back in Thunder land, Harden’s less-hairy replacement Kevin Martin was quietly providing excellent scoring options off the bench for Oklahoma, all the while watching Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka continue to make a case for a talent cap in the NBA.
The Thunder have been on a roll ever since (17-4 at last check) and seem to have settled nicely into the post-beard fearing era.
Yet while Houston has been on a slide of late (for which the effect of the tragic circumstances surrounding coach Kevin McHale’s absence can not be overstated), it seems as though Harden and the Rockets may still come up smelling roses.
Harden has himself an $80 million contract as a starting scoring guard on the youngest team in the NBA, while the Rockets have a wonderfully dynamic team leader who can be built around for years to come.
So it seems I, like many others, may be wrong on all counts. The James Harden trade looks like it will go down as one of those rarest of NBA beasts: a trade where all parties come out the other end satisfied.
The recent smiles on the faces of Thunder fans and Houston novelty beard sellers will attest to that.