Oklahoma City - Just when the question of James Harden threatened to hang over the Oklahoma City Thunder season, Sam Presti answered it.
Walking into the Thunder practice facility as the team finishes practice, the differences are obvious.
There is no cloud of uncertainty either.
Many were shocked by the timing of the big trade that sent Harden to Houston. Players tweeted their surprise. Pundits voiced their astonishment.
Clearly, they thought the Thunder would keep Harden this season even if the two sides couldn't reach a deal for a contract extension by the Wednesday deadline. Keep the young core together for one last run at a title, they surmised. Play it out. See what happens.
But doing that would've left a dark cloud hanging over this team. There would've been uncertainty. There would've been questions.
Lots of questions.
Would Harden be dealt before the trade deadline? Would the team be changed in the middle of the season? Would they have to go through all of this again after the season when free agency opened?
How would the Thunder handle all of that?
“That's a great question,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said when I asked him after Monday's practice. “It's something we haven't experienced before.”
No, they haven't.
And that's not by accident. Sam Presti refuses to allow contract questions to linger long, especially where core players are concerned. The Thunder general manager showed up on Kevin Durant's doorstep at 11:01 p.m., the first minute of the first day the team could negotiate a contract extension with him. They had a deal done by 11:02 p.m.
There was no late-night visit to Russell Westbrook when he was eligible for an extension last season, but that was because of the lockout. Still, Presti and Co. could start negotiating with him on Dec. 1, and only six weeks later, they had an agreement.
The closest Presti came to allowing a big question mark to hang over the team was with Jeff Green. The two sides broke off negotiations in late October 2010, and for three-plus months, everyone wondered what would happen.
But before the February trading deadline, Presti dealt him to Boston for Kendrick Perkins.
Presti hasn't been one to let things linger.
He was true to form with Harden.
“We got to a point ... where we needed to make a decision,” he said.
Want to know why the Thunder did this deal now?
It starts with Harden's desire to have not only a max deal but also a five-year max deal. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are only allowed to have one player with that kind of contract, and the Thunder had already signed Westbrook to a five-year max deal. OKC couldn't give Harden what he wanted, and truth be told, neither could some other teams who already had players with a five-year max contract.
In other words, the number of teams the Thunder could negotiate with was limited.
Houston was one of those teams that was able and willing to sign Harden to a five-year max deal, but in order to do it, the Rockets need to sign Harden's extension before Wednesday's deadline. Otherwise, he would become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
And in order for Harden to sign that extension, all the players involved in the trade have to pass their physicals. That sounds like a minor thing, but with six players involved, getting all of them poked and prodded takes time.
Everyone in Oklahoma City knows that the physical is no rubber-stamp deal.
Remember the Tyson Chandler trade?
Back in 2009, he was traded from the New Orleans Hornets to the Thunder and looked like a much-needed answer in the post. Then Carlan Yates looked at the big fellow's surgically repaired big toe. The team's physician didn't like what he saw, and the Thunder nixed the deal.
The Rockets couldn't wait until Monday or Tuesday this week to do the trade for Harden. Otherwise, they might not have gotten everything done in time to sign his extension before Wednesday.
Presti knew the trigger had to be pulled.
He isn't gun-shy.
No one involved with the Thunder wanted to have to trade Harden, but doing it now gave the team the most leverage, the most options and the least distractions.
Maybe the Thunder would've handled the uncertainty.
“The only thing I can base (an opinion) on how we would react to that is that we have high character guys that understand what it is that we do,” Brooks said. “We have to do it every day, and we can't let outside distractions affect how we play.
“There's no way to know it, but knowing our guys, I don't think it would've been an issue.”
But now, the Thunder is sure of it. They can move ahead without having to answer the questions and face the uncertainty. They can focus on integrating the new guys and moving ahead.
They can exhale.
“It's tough when you're going through contract negotiations; you never know what's going to happen,” Durant said. “But to have our team and just know that we can move forward with these guys, it feels good.
“I think we'll be fine.”
No dark cloud here.