James Harden doesn't deserve criticism for taking the money

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

If you criticize James Harden for choosing money over the chance to compete for titles with the Thunder, you're imposing your own value system on a 23-year-old who's doing just fine.

James Harden rejected the Oklahoma City Thunder's final offer of $54 million over four years late last week, which led to Thunder GM Sam Presti ringing up the Houston Rockets' Daryl Morey and getting a deal done. In Houston, chances are that, by the Wednesday deadline, Harden will ink a five-year, $78 million extension. (OKC couldn't have offered a five-year deal because each team is allowed just one under the new collective bargaining agreement, and Russell Westbrook got it.) The maximum that OKC could have offered is $60 million over four years. But they didn't, so Harden didn't agree to the deal.

Realize also that if Harden had rejected OKC's offer and the Thunder didn't trade him, he'd be a restricted free agent in July 2013. Numerous teams would, at that point, extend four-year, $60 million extensions. OKC could have matched those offers or agreed to sign-and-trade deals. But regardless, the only way in which Harden was going to take less money was to re-sign now with the Thunder for a discount. He knows he could get an extra $6 million by waiting one year.

By getting traded, he did even better. He basically won the right to spend one additional season under contract for $24 million. That's Kobe money. (OK, it's not quite Kobe money.) The dollars will smooth out over the contract, so he won't actually be making $24 million in 2017-18, but that's what the difference between taking the discount in OKC and signing a five-year max in Houston represents. $24 million.

I joked Saturday night that there is very, very little you cannot buy with $24 million, and that though Harden will miss the Thunder, he'll find a way to be okay. A few replied that one of the things you can't buy with $24 million is an NBA championship. That's true. But let's not assume that a greater chance at an NBA championship is worth $24 million to everyone ... or anyone. I don't know much about Harden's childhood, but I know I wouldn't be turning down the opportunity for an extra $24 million at age 23 based on some principles, unless those principles had to do with good and evil.

We act as if Harden will never have another friend again after leaving Kevin Durant. We act as if taking the discount with OKC would have guaranteed Harden a championship. (We do this as most of us pick the Lakers to win the West.) Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, so you'd better take those guarantees when you get them. All of that extra money? That's likely to be guaranteed. Take it, if you want. If friendship and a better chance at professional glory mean that much to you, sign the discounted deal. Don't let social norms and middle-aged white men in the media guilt you into it, though. Do what you feel you should be doing.

It'll be interesting to see how the former players in professional media react -- few, if any, ever had the opportunity to turn down $24 million. You certainly can't fault Sam Presti and the Thunder for trying to get Harden inked up for less -- heck, the San Antonio Spurs have been able to convince Tim Duncan to take less to preserve championship aspirations. But that happened much later in Duncan's career, when he'd made closer to a $100 million in earnings and had a couple of rings. Harden is 23, and has made less than $15 million in the NBA. Criticizing him for refusing to leave that much money on the table is just blind to reality.

This is the single greatest fault in modern sports punditry: so many writers pretend to know what it's like to look $6 million in the face and say no. So many writers are so sure that because they can delude themselves into thinking that they would do the selfless thing, that because they would totally take $54 million to play a game they love that players should do the same. So many writers have this strange idea that championships are really all that matters. For some players, there's no doubt that the ring is all that matters. But it's not that way for everyone. They all say it because we demand they all say it. We beat the nuance and the thirst for individual glory out of their mouths, whether on purpose or not. (I'm still joking about LeBron's "Global Icon" talk, even though it was a sincere objective for a striving young man who simply had the nerve to expect more from himself. The whole anti-individual mindset is embedded within us when it comes to team sports. It's a little unsettling how deep-seated the outlook has become.)

I'm not James Harden, but I know he was asked to give up $6 million for the good of a very small collective, and he said no, and that's good enough for me. He's going to get even more money as a result. That's good enough for me. I'm going to stay out of his wallet and reject the idea that I would do it differently, because I wouldn't.

Chances are, no matter how strongly you object to Harden's decision, you wouldn't either. Be honest with yourself, and the truth will set you free.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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