Know this: Until the Thunder ink James Harden to an extension, the discussion around him and his future with the team isn’t going to go away. Really, it’ll only escalate. Maybe Oklahoma City has a plan that involves waiting until the market determines his value next summer. Maybe Sam Presti has been drafting an extension while laying on a beach somewhere in Hawaii on his honeymoon. Or maybe there’s another plan.
Whatever it is, the Thunder sit in a fine position. They hold the upper hand having already locked up a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka for the long-term. Regardless of what the future holds for Harden, the Thunder are going to be good and very competitive, at least for the next five years or so.
Plus, the Thunder have plenty of options. As I’ve been trying to maintain for a while, the idea of the Thunder not possessing the capability to pay the luxury tax isn’t accurate. Because it’s obviously in play. Yes, there are challenges to playing in one of the league tiniest markets. But it’s not like Clay Bennett and his ownership group is shy about spending. He paid Durant. He paid Westbrook. He paid Ibaka. He paid Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. He overpaid to rent Derek Fisher for a few months. He spent big on just moving the team from Seattle. This isn’t some penny-pinching ownership group. They’re extremely committed to winning and they know the landscape of the NBA. You have to spend to win, and thus far, they’ve done it.
There’s also the option of using the amnesty clause on Perk to shave off some of the payroll and cut down on the tax bill. It would get the Thunder under the threshold or darn close to it, meaning they could avoid it altogether while retaining Harden, Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook. Yes, you’d have those four players. But you’d also have some $60 million or so committed to them alone.
There’s the less fun option of not signing Harden now or next summer and letting him walk while trying to find a replacement for him on the open market. (Not a fan of this one.)
But there’s also this one as Zach Lowe of SI.com analyzed today: Trade Harden.
But there’s an argument to be made that Harden’s skills overlap closely enough with those of Durant and Westbrook to make a trade for the right sort of package, even in the short-term. Step back, and you can see that package taking form: Some cheaper shooting, with perhaps a dash of ball-handling creativity, and multiple high draft picks. Forget the future for a second: Is it possible the Thunder might be able to maintain their current status as (at least) Western Conference co-favorites in 2012-13 if they got that kind of package? What if Eric Maynor, forgotten after a season-ending knee injury, emerges by the trade deadline as the league’s best back-up point guard — a player with the combination of shooting and pick-and-roll creativity required to fill Harden’s role as the second-unit quarterback? And what if Perry Jones, the Thunder’s first-round draft pick, comes into his own as a second-unit force?
Kind of an ugly scenario, no? The thought of trading that glorious beard away is a pretty unhappy thought. But as Lowe points out, it does make a reasonable amount of sense, if — IF — the Thunder aren’t interested in paying up to keep the current core together.
A couple ideas that Lowe has:
- Trade Harden to the Magic for J.J. Redick and three first rounders. As a big fan of Redick, I don’t hate it. I mean, I hate it of course, but I don’t hate it. You know?
- Trade Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin and his expiring deal and picks, including Toronto’s likely lottery pick. Or instead of Martin, get the picks with a young player or two (Jeremy Lamb, Chandler Parsons, Royce White).
- Picks from Milwaukee for Mike Dunleavy Jr. and a young player (Doron Lamb, Tobias Harris).
- Send Harden to Cleveland for something like Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson or Dion Waiters.
- Lou Williams and multiple first-round picks from the Hawks.
All make some sense and could be rationalized. Again, if the Thunder decide keeping Harden isn’t possible. But then again, there were possibly more lucrative offers on the table before the draft involving players like Bradley Beal or the No. 2 overall pick and those were essentially laughed off by Oklahoma City. So if they weren’t dealing then, why would they now? Especially at the deadline where you’re talking about upsetting a very real chemistry the Thunder have and trying to insert a completely foreign piece into the fold on the fly.
Dealing Harden would make the fanbase extremely angry, and not just because he’s a fan favorite. It would be more about what the deal would signify. Any allusions to the Thunder being a legit contender in the NBA’s big boy market would be gone. It would be painfully obvious that OKC wasn’t on a level playing field. While teams like the Lakers, Nets and Heat stockpile stars and laugh off any tax implications, the Thunder would be trading away a 23-year-old star that was just included on the U.S. Olympic team, won Sixth Man of the Year and hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential.
How do you rationalize that one without simply saying, “Yep, we’re too small time to keep him.” That might be a harsh reality that Thunder fans have to accept, but it certainly wouldn’t go over that well. And it surely wouldn’t sit that well with Durant, who is best buds with Harden or Westbrook, who has tunnel vision on winning and winning only.
But again, this is all operating under this misguided notion that the Thunder can’t and won’t consider paying up to keep their team. All indications point to exactly that happening with the organization crossing the luxury tax bridge when that time comes by either amnestying Perk, making a move to unload salary or just biting the bullet and paying up. Abandoning ship and making a rash play on the trade market doesn’t strike me as a very Thunder-like move at all.
Because consider this: If the Thunder don’t keep Harden, the 2012-13 season is probably their best chance ever to win a title. While a deal getting Kevin Martin and picks or J.J. Redick and picks might benefit the team down the road, it will only hurt their current title chances. And after coming so painfully close to glory last season, you really think they’re going to take that kind of step back? If anything, it would be about one last run at it next season and then trying to recover in 2013-13 if Harden signed elsewhere.
I have a feeling all of this talk is going to look really silly when Harden inks an extension in the coming weeks. But until that happens, it’s an unavoidable discussion.