Oklahoma City Thunder offseason review: James Harden's big decision

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Oklahoma City Thunder's future may hinge on a decision James Harden must make sometime in the next two weeks.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had a relatively quiet offseason that's about to get much more explosive in the coming weeks. Oct. 31 is the deadline for the Thunder to sign James Harden to a contract extension. If the two sides cannot agree, he will become a restricted free agent next summer.

Our offseason review therefore will start by breaking down the Harden situation.

JAMES HARDEN'S POTENTIAL EXTENSION

So much has been written about the Thunder's current status with Harden that it's almost a waste to write more about it. The basics:

  • Harden is eligible to sign an early extension by Oct. 31 that would kick in starting in 2013-14. If he doesn't sign the extension, he will become a restricted free agent next summer.
  • If Harden ever hits the open market, he is a maximum-contract player.
  • Due to large contracts signed by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, among others, the Thunder would have to go deep into the luxury tax to be able to also give Harden a maximum contract.
  • The new collective bargaining agreement adds increased financial penalties for teams that go high into the luxury tax.
  • Oklahoma City is a small market, at least in population.

You can see the obvious issue here. Keep Harden at his price ... and the Thunder will owe millions of dollars in luxury-tax payments. Let Harden hit the open market ... and it's a certainty that he gets that maximum contract. Trade him ... and no matter the pieces the Thunder get back, they will not receive equal value at a time when they need to push for a championship.

That leaves only one ideal avenue: pay Harden less than a maximum contract. Will that work? It's easy to see why not, but there is precedent. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh framed the situation nicely in this ESPN the Magazine cover story.

Facing the extend-or-else choice, Harden can write his own future. Behind door No. 1 is the route that Joe Johnson took. Behind No. 2? Be the next Manu Ginobili.

Ginobili and Johnson faced similar situations in consecutive years. Both players were complementary stars for their championship-caliber squads, and both could have forged their own path as the best player on a max contract for a worse team. In 2004, Ginobili, according to Haberstroh, passed on a big offer from the Nuggets to sign a smaller (six years, $52 million or so) to stay with the Spurs. The very next year, Johnson decided to accept a frontloaded maximum-contract offer with the lowly Hawks over a smaller offer to stay with the Phoenix Suns, who had the NBA's best record a season ago. Their situations mirror Harden's, in that he has to decide whether to take a little less from a contender or take the full maximum contract from a rebuilding squad.

Which legacy does Harden want to live? It's an interesting question. Both Johnson and Ginobili have experienced plenty of professional success in different ways. Johnson has become a perennial all-star player and has made a ton of money in his career. Ginobili has earned less money and received fewer all-star appearances (two to Johnson's six), but he also won two more championships after signing his contract. Moreover, when you combine his accomplishments with his international resume with Argentina, he's much more likely to make the Hall of Fame than Johnson at this stage.

It's a tough situation, but I think Harden, at his core, would rather walk Ginobili's path than Johnson's. That's why I still believe -- as I did in August -- that Harden will ultimately re-sign with the Thunder, even if it's at a contract number that obscures his value. Just a guess, but that's my feeling.

SERGE IBAKA

It also helps the Thunder's cause with Harden that the team's two other complementary stars accepted less money than they could have. Had Ibaka hit the open market next summer, he would have potentially received a maximum contract offer. Instead, like Russell Westbrook did last winter, he took a slight hometown discount, staying with the Thunder on a four-year, $48 million contract.

To a certain extent, the Thunder are paying for what Ibaka will become more than what he currently is. Despite an overall breakout season -- he finished second in the league in Defensive Player of the Year voting -- Ibaka was still sometimes lifted in key situations for Kendrick Perkins and/or Nick Collison. His athleticism makes him arguably the league's most feared shot blocker, but he is still has to improve his defensive positioning and strength when guarding pick and roll and the post. Those weaknesses explain why he only logged 27 minutes per game last season.

But given that Ibaka is just 23 and has already made such huge strides in his NBA career, there's no reason to believe his improvement has finished. He will be worth his contract and much more soon.

PERRY JONES III

The Thunder got a gift when Jones III slipped to the 28th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Jones' college career was a bit disappointing, and it's still not clear exactly what position he should play, but the Thunder have the kind of roster and culture that's ideal for taking on these risks. Little will be expected of Jones initially, and that's just how it should be.

HASHEEM THABEET

The Thunder gave Thabeet a three-year, $3.65 million contract to see if he can capitalize on a small portion of the promise he was supposed to fill as the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. I wouldn't expect that to happen if I were Thunder fans, and I'm not wild about the three-year commitment myself. But if it doesn't work out, the Thunder still have a surplus of big men to use.

OFFSEASON GRADE: TBD

It all depends on Harden.

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