I know, I know. The season starts for the Thunder in two days and there’s a team in place and it’s time to stop talking about James Harden. I agree.
That said, my inbox and Twitter mentions disagree. There are some lingering questions about the whole situation, some of which I’ve definitely already written about as well as all the other brilliant NBA writers have covered too. (Aside: That’s the underrated part of big, polarizing deals like this — all the awesome analysis and differing smart takes.)
So let’s try and clean this whole thing up by looking over the most popular remaining questions. And then it’s on to previewing and talking about the season at hand, I promise.
1. What would’ve happened if the Thunder wouldn’t have extended Ibaka first?
When Serge Ibaka signed his four-year, $48 million extension, many saw as the Thunder “choosing” him over Harden. As if by signing him, that eliminated their opportunity of keeping Harden.
What if the Thunder had focused on Harden first and left Ibaka to be dealt with after The Beard was handled? Well, it’s simple: If the Thunder truly weren’t willing to go into max dollar territory for Harden, then it didn’t matter. Harden and his agent drew that line in the sand from the beginning. According to a league source, Team Harden told the Thunder in July they wanted the max and if they didn’t get it, they would be looking for exactly that in restricted free agency. So the Thunder knew what they were dealing with right away. And their hope was that it was just a bluff.
So. Had they not signed Ibaka and tried to focus all attention on Harden and then failed — because they weren’t going into the four-year, $60 million range for him — then they likely wouldn’t have gotten the discount with Ibaka. Ibaka would’ve seen he was the remaining choice and pushed for all he could get, especially the Thunder would have newfound financial flexibility. By getting Ibaka done early, the Thunder actually pulled off a great move in saving money they probably wouldn’t have been able to. Ibaka was willing to flex on dollars, while Harden wasn’t. So it was only sensible to get him done while the opportunity was there.
Of course the Thunder could’ve literally “picked” Harden, in that they just signed him for the max he wanted, lowballed the hell out of Ibaka or just let him walk entirely. But if there was going to be any dream of keeping both, which was the goal all along, this was the way it had the happen. Other than just biting the bullet and paying, the Thunder really played this out as well as they could’ve. It just came down to a) them not wanting to max out and b) Harden not willing to bend.
2. Why not wait until after the season?
So this one has been gone over about 50 times, but here’s the simple answer: It would’ve been really risky. Yes, the Thunder downgraded their team, damaged their title chances and left themselves with a less talented roster for the 2012-13 campaign.
Their chances of winning a championship this season were better with James Harden than without. They weren’t just a contender, but a favorite.
But if you roll those dice and don’t win a title and Harden walks away, then Sam Presti is left holding hit hat in his hands and has made a really irresponsible long-term choice. Which as you know, would be completely against the Thunder philosophy.
What if someone got hurt? What if someone underperformed in the postseason? What if the Lakers really are that good? What if the Thunder got eliminated in the first or second round while taking their title shot while knowing they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — match on Harden in the summer? His top trade value would be mostly shot and the Thunder would miss out on what they felt was the best possible package.
If the decision was made not to play out the season and try for the title, trading him now made all the sense in the world. If you could’ve guaranteed Presti that the Thunder would be back in the Finals with Harden, he almost assuredly plays it out and takes those chances. But there are no guarantees, especially with this.
(For the record though, as I’ve said before, I’m in the play-it-out-and-see camp. You can bring ifs in to a lot of stuff, but the Thunder were very obviously close to a championship with last season’s roster and would be right there again, barring something catastrophic.)
3. Is James Harden to blame?
This has probably been the most polarizing issue about the Harden ordeal. Many feel like it’s completely ridiculous to expect Harden to have taken less money when it wasn’t his market value. While others heard all his talk of sacrifice, brotherhood and money not buying things, rightfully assuming he was going to flex some. Except he lied. I know, “athletes lie,” but that doesn’t mean it’s excused. What happens if you lie at your job? There’s no reason Harden needed to come out and say the things he said. He didn’t have to say he wasn’t only accepting the max, that he’d be willing to give something up to stay and all that junk. All he had to say was simply, “I want to stay here, but we’ll have to see how it works out.” That’s it.
Instead, he continued on, almost arrogantly claiming it would get done. Part of me wonders if this was a ploy from Team Harden to put more pressure on the Thunder to pony up the max. With Harden teeing the situation up as a done deal, he was putting a bunch of confidence in fans meaning the Thunder would have to do major damage control if it didn’t get done.
Harden’s not to blame for being “greedy” necessarily. It’s just that he said one thing publicly and did another behind closed doors.
That said, I do want to talk about this weird discussion surrounding a player getting his and the scolding going on from some writers when others suggest otherwise. What people don’t realize is that Harden potentially chose money over happiness. Not many people recommend taking the job that pays great over the one that pays less but you love. In regular life, you’re supposed to follow your heart. In the NBA, you’re supposed to follow the benjamins, which makes no sense to me. Again, his life, his career, his money. But if I had an offer to move to Atlanta where I was going to make more money — when I was already doing really well here — loved my job, lived close to friends and had everything I could want, I think some would question me following the money. Right?
Harden could’ve stayed for a simple $4.5 million less. Yes, you’re asking Harden to give up millions when Clay Bennett has billions. But Bennett is only potentially losing money here via the tax. Harden is making money regardless. Bennett doesn’t necessarily make money on Harden’s deal, but will almost assuredly lose it. Bennett made a big time commitment to go as far as he did. The Thunder were going to pay the tax. They just wanted to something back from Harden and I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask that when other players already did the same.
4. Why could Houston offer Harden $25 million more?
Technically, they can’t. People love tossing that number out but it’s a total manipulation. What the Thunder could offer was a four-year, $60 million offer. Houston potentially can offer a five-year, close to $80 million deal. Why? Because you can only have one five-year max player per collective bargaining agreement and the Thunder already used that extension on Russell Westbrook. (Aside: The Thunder actually have two five-year extension guys, but that’s because KD signed his under the previous CBA.)
So while Houston could offer the extra year, they couldn’t technically offer more money. Just an extra season of guaranteed money. To say it’s $25 million more would be ignoring the fact that Harden isn’t going to retire after his contract expired in OKC. He was going to get another deal. Maybe not max worthy, but it’s deceiving to say Houston was offering $25 million more than OKC could.
5. Why didn’t the Thunder amnesty Kendrick Perkins?
There’s some serious confusion here about this. That play from the Thunder wasn’t a factor this season, because Harden wasn’t going to be making his max money until 2013-14. Which of course is when the more punitive tax would kick in. So it would make no sense to amnesty Perk now because it had no impact on the tax line. I suppose it could’ve been used as a preemptive move, but then you’d be without your starting center for really no good reason.
That move could’ve been deployed next offseason, and definitely might’ve happened, had Harden accepted his contract. But with the Thunder headed into the tax regardless with their offer to Harden, it doesn’t seem like they were that concerned about it anyway. What the Thunder were most concerned about was handcuffing themselves with four highly paid players and three max guys. That was more of the issue than the actual tax bill. So while Perk might’ve gotten that amnesty call, it really didn’t have any direct relation to the negotiations.