DT Mailbag: Beardemic

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We get it. The Thunder have a big decision about James Harden ahead and it’s something that’s completely hanging over the start of the season. But isn’t there more to talk about? — Royce Y.

I agree Royce Y. That said, the only emails I’ve received the past two weeks had something to do with Harden. It’s OKC’s mini version of Melodrama or Dwightmare. Fear the Free Agency? Beardemic? Hardend-of-days? (OK, that was terrible.) There might not be a catchy name for it, but the longer it drags on, the more of a distraction it becomes. It’s just unavoidable.

Once training camp starts and Oct. 31 comes and goes, eventually the questions will kind of subside. At least until the trade deadline where there will be chatter. If Harden is unsigned by the Oct. 31 deadline, opposing GMs will be calling with offers. The Thunder very well may view this season as a last hurrah with the current core with a reevaluation to come next summer. I get the feeling the Thunder know exactly what they’re doing with this situation. What that is or whether or not it makes everyone happy is still unknown.

Which is why we can’t really stop talking about it. So here are a few Harden emails…

I’ve written in a number of times, and again, I’m a reader from Dallas, TX. The reason that is worth saying is this: I think the best comparison to James Harden has to be former Maverick Michael Finley. If you take a look at his numbers, there are very stark similarities. Sure, Harden is the better distributor, but I think Finley had the better mid-range game. Other than that, in terms of athleticism, driving to the basket, hitting the 3-point shot, size at shooting guard–these guys have a lot in common.

Which is exactly why I’d have to say it is a terrible idea to throw a max deal at Harden. Finley got one too, except by the end of his 3rd season playing alongside Dirk and Nash he fell to third-best player on the team (ironic that Harden is starting off as the 3rd best, but looking to get #1 player cash?). If he’s already undoubtedly the 3rd-best player on a championship team (except to those who still hate and minimize Russell), I can’t find a reason for them to throw the same amount of cash at him that they would Durant.

Harden, like Finley, has a number of skills that make him an ideal 3rd-best/6th man. His spot-up shooting, ability to handle and drive, and overall feel for the game are excellent. But he is not going to go to any other team–not Charlotte, Phoenix, Toronto, anybody–and even with the “green light” average more than 22-6-6. Yup, Finley numbers. And those numbers were enough to get the Mavs in the playoffs, but when it came time for their championship aspirations, his role was reduced dramatically.

Bottom line, I love Harden, but I was ecstatic that Presti stayed with Ibaka. Championship teams have championship-level post defense, and that’s what he brings. Harden’s versatility and scoring are another crucial piece to a championship team, but it’s just as crucial that they avoid overpaying him. If he wants to be traded they’ll get great value for him, but hopefully he will see that his best chance to get paid and win championships will be remaining with the Thunder. — Clifton J.

Interesting comparison, but Finley was much more of a spot-up shooter and scorer than Harden. He wasn’t really a pick-and-roll creator or primary ball-handler like Harden. Unlike the Thunder, the Mavs were never in the Finals with that Finley-Dirk-Nash core. So clearly, OKC’s setup is working.

But you’re looking at the money all wrong. Just because you give a guy the max doesn’t mean that defines his role or where he sits in the star pecking order. Because the limitations of the max deals don’t allow a free market to decide a player’s true value. Kevin Durant is worth far more than the deal he got. Russell Westbrook probably is too. A max deal isn’t a real reflection of a player’s value. It’s just the percentage of your cap you’re willing to commit to that guy. The system puts a price ceiling on players, limiting the amount teams can pay. Which means players like Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert are suddenly worth the same amount of money guys like Durant and Westbrook are. The system artificially determines player value.

And to someone, Harden will be worth that max percentage. Teams that have the cash to spend will absolutely throw it at Harden. The question is, is he worth that to the Thunder? Does his production and on-court value and contributions to winning warrant the money and percentage of cap space OKC would give him? I think yes. If the point is to win championships, the Thunder have a much better chance to do that with James Harden than they would without him.

I just wanted to give my quick opinion on this whole contract process. I believe that it wasn’t a coincidence that Serge Ibaka got his deal done before James Harden. To me, they could have just as easily gotten Harden first and then weighed the whole Ibaka situation. I believe they felt that Ibaka’s skill set was one that they needed desperately. If we just had three scorers but no elite defender, we would be no different than a Golden State. I believe they looked at his defensively abilities and high ceiling as an offensive player and though it was too good to pass up.

Obviously, I hope James Harden comes back to the Thunder for years to come, but it will have to be on the Thunder’s terms. We obviously know that he wants to be here but the money has to be right. The good news is that much can happen from now until October 31st and even now until July of 2013. But Presti is going to make calculated decisions that support the team long term. I really hope the Beard is here for 5 more years but if not lets just enjoy his final season in OKC and go for it all! Have a great day! — Rafael R.

See, I’ve always seen it the opposite. I’ve always seen Harden as the more valuable piece. Harden seems like the glue that binds Westbrook and Durant into a cohesive scoring duo. Without Harden balancing them, Westbrook and Durant might dissolve into a take-turns-you-then-me scoring tandem that doesn’t really work well in concert. Harden’s the pressure release, a perfect outlet to relieve the scoring tension.

Then again, a Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka trio mirrors exactly the core the Heat just used to win an NBA title. And if Ibaka continues his upward climb as an offensive force, the Thunder might be able to recover that auxiliary scoring Harden provided via Ibaka. It’s not crazy to look at the structure of the Thunder roster and see too much talent. OK, that definitely sounds crazy, but the better these guys get, the more they develop their own games, the more they improve, the less the Thunder might need each player’s individual skills. There’s only 48 minutes in a game and only so many shots to go around. Roles have to be defined, places understood. And if OKC has four scoring studs, that type of thing could get a little cloudy.

That said, screw all that noise and just re-sign Harden.

I think the Thunder has a one year window remaining with their current core, and they will leave it unchanged all year, basically giving them one more chance to win it all together…and then I predict they will end up doing a sign-and-trade of Harden for the draft rights to Shabazz Mohammad, considered the best 2 guard prospect in a few years and a likely top 3 pick in the 2013 draft. He’s not better than Harden, but he has the potential to be as good, and he’d be on that money-saving rookie contract so the Thunder would avoid the lux tax, have money to re-sign Maynor, and continue building for the future.

The Bobcats will likely be bad enough to be drafting in the bottom 3 again next year, and they have two other No 1s via trade…I could see the Thunder sign-and-trading Harden to Charlotte for the No. 2 overall pick and a mid-first rounder, and then drafting Shabazz. In this scenario Charlotte signs Harden to a max deal, and the Thunder get a $10M trade exception to help facilitate future deals.

Another option would be trying to facilitate a sign-and-trade to get a pick that projects to be at the top of the loaded 2014 draft (current high school seniors), which projects to have some great wing talent. The long-term hole, assuming Harden is unaffordable in my scenario, is acquiring a great two-guard, or even another hyper athletic small forward who complements Durant. The offer for Kidd-Gilchrist wasn’t the right one, but the six guys at top of this list? One of them might be a year from now, the kind of return you’d want in a Harden sign-and-trade. — Jacob J.

It’s definitely one of many options the Thunder will have. The scenarios are plenty, with some sounding very good in theory. That’s certainly one that seems like it’s a great backup plan. And if the Thunder win an NBA title this season, then it opens a whole lot of doors to Sam Presti because the fanbase will be far more forgiving of any decision. Once you put that trophy in your pocket, then there’s a lot more freedom and flexibility.

If that doesn’t happen and OKC makes the move? Then it’s either a) the Thunder giving up on their current core and plan because of money issues or b) a change in direction because it’s been determined the current core isn’t built to get over the hump and win.

The Thunder had the opportunity to do this with Bradley Beal this season. But it made little sense because they’re still a contending team and have Harden under contract for this season. Harden’s value really won’t change (in terms of contract value) because he’s getting paid next summer regardless. So for the Thunder to deal him now rather than a year from now wouldn’t be wise.

The question is, would a team jump for that sort of deal? Would a team trade the chance to be drafting The Next Big Thing for an established NBA scorer on a max contract extension? I’m not sure.

Let’s just all hope all this talk and conjecture looks really silly in a few weeks because Harden signs his four-year, $52 million extension with the Thunder.

Have a question or thought? Send it to dailythunder@gmail.com.