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I already linked to Bill Simmons’ Grantland column about why the Thunder have to pay James Harden, but there’s a lot of great stuff in there. (Other than our statewide nightmare of him not writing “Thunder” being over.)
Both sides of the issue are laid out perfectly clear: It’s a game of chicken between two sides that both want each other. The Thunder are preaching their woe-is-me small market line about the luxury tax and “challenges” while Harden clearly wants the money he knows he’d get elsewhere. It’s a matter of who will blink first.
Except there may be no blinking at all.
As the Oct. 31 deadline approaches, the longer Harden’s braintrust sits on the max or nothing line, the more inclined the Thunder are to just wait until next summer. Because why extend Harden now at the max if you’re just going to do it next summer anyway? You can’t give him the extra year like you could with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Other than the contract thing being a bit of a distraction throughout the season — especially at the trade deadline — it really makes no difference whether Harden is extended now or matched on next summer.
(And no, there’s no hope that for some reason Harden might not get a max offer sheet. Someone is offering Harden the max if only for the reason to force the Thunder to match it.)
But why would the Thunder not pay to keep Harden? Yeah yeah, the luxury tax. As I’ve written before too, there’s really no precedent for breaking up a team this close to a title. Other small markets have paid big tax dollars to keep their title hope alive. Yes, the new tax is much harsher. But the actual dollars spent won’t necessarily be.
If the Thunder were to pass on extending Harden, it would be a really unfortunate turn for the future of successful professional basketball in Oklahoma City. It would signal that the Thunder absolutely can’t compete in the NBA’s marketplace, at least in terms of the big market boys. Think about it: The Thunder would be watching a player of James Harden’s caliber walk — and the potential to compete for multiple titles — because they couldn’t afford it. Wouldn’t that piss you off?
Simmons says it better:
If Oklahoma City’s owners don’t want to pay full price for Harden, then they’re really saying, We moved an NBA team from a booming city in the Pacific Northwest to a much smaller city that generates much less revenue and compromises our ability to win championships, but the fans here are so grateful that they won’t hold it against us that we just tossed away a puncher’s chance at a dynasty.
If that’s true, they’re taking advantage of the goodwill of Oklahoma City’s fans — really, they should be flipping their asset, cashing out and selling to an egomaniac billionaire who won’t worry about losing a few bucks, just about owning one of the NBA’s hottest franchises and getting shown on nationally televised games 20 to 25 times per year.
Because as Simmons notes, if the Thunder don’t pay Harden, they actually remain under the luxury tax. Yes, ownership would be making money, but what for? Remember, NBA franchises are essentially hobbies. These guys are already billionaires from other businesses. An NBA franchise is an investment and while naturally making money year over year on it is a good thing, it’s not supposed to be the goal. Not supposed to be.
Which means you pay to keep your team good. You pay to make sure they’re competing for a title. You pay. If not, you’re just the Clippers with better players. Just cashing revenue sharing checks and hoping the team plays okay. The Thunder have gifted themselves with terrific management which in turn has gifted a tremendous roster. Wasting that over money, money that is there, would be a shame.
In the end, it all seems like smoke and mirrors to me. Both sides having a staring contest hoping one side will cave, when in reality the outcome is probably foretold. There’s just no way you can let Harden get away. When you have a top 25 player as your third banana, that means you’re competing for a title. And you do what it takes to keep him. Otherwise, you’re in the wrong business.
(There’s an unless here: UNLESS Thunder management sees an opportunity to still contend for championships sans Harden. Whether it be by trading him for a solid replacement or banking on the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka trio being good enough, if OKC feels like it doesn’t NEED Harden to win, they might not be all that concerned. And if that’s what they think, then they aren’t near as brilliant as we all thought.)
With 20 days to go, here are the (realistic) remaining Harden scenarios:
1) An extension whether it be for the max or not
2) No extension, to which he becomes a restricted free agent with the Thunder intending to match next summer
3) No extension, to which he becomes a restricted free agent and the Thunder don’t match
4) A trade before Oct. 31
5) An extension and the Thunder trade him at the deadline
6) No extension and the Thunder trade him at the deadline
7) A sign-and-trade next summer before the draft to acquire a top five pick
8) Harden just plays for free (Oh yeah, realistic)
What’s the most likely? At this point, I’m leaning towards option No. 2. The least likely? Probably No. 3, because it just wouldn’t make any sense to let a player as valuable as Harden leave for nothing. That kind of asset can’t get away without getting something in return. (Note: The Thunder wouldn’t be able to trade Harden for one year if they match an offer sheet, without his consent. And they can’t trade him to the team that inked him to an offer sheet.)
Forget the fact that Harden is an absolutely ideal fit for this current roster. It’s more about the principle of it all. How will Durant and Westbrook feel about their long-term future with the team if one of their best pals, and top contributors in completing their goal of a title, was to get away because of money? Can you imagine LeBron’s reaction if the Cavs let Larry Hughes walk? Wait, bad example. But you get the point.
(An aside: If the Thunder are following in the Spurs model, they’re kind of doing a terrible job of it. Tim Duncan never signed a true “max” deal, Tony Parker always had reasonable contracts and Manu Ginobili was underpaid. The Thunder have two guys on max contracts and Ibaka is paid well. If anything, I think Sam Presti might’ve done too good of a job drafting these guys. They’re too good to afford.)
Honestly, if Harden were to get away, I think it would be a terrible sign of things to come for this franchise. Because one day, Durant will be old. One day, Westbrook will go somewhere else. One day, the team isn’t going to be as good. And when that happens, will ownership just cross their fingers and pray for another lottery jackpot (or three) or will they be committed to building another winner?
I believe in Oklahoma City’s ownership group. I think Clay Bennett is quietly one of the best owners in all of sports. He showed with the team’s move that he was willing to do what it took to make his goal happen. He put the money up, he took the heat and he got it done. When it comes to James Harden and maintaining the standard of excellence this team has set over the past few seasons, I just don’t see how he doesn’t step up again.