HANG TIME, Texas — Numbers are good. Numbers are practical. We need numbers to remind us how old we are, how much that bacon double-cheeseburger is going to show up in that next photo on Facebook, if we can afford one more $6 cup of bad coffee at the airport.
However, sometimes too many numbers just get in the way of the good things in life.
Take James Harden, for instance. Just don’t take him away from the Thunder.
The always thoughtful, always analytical Zach Lowe of SI.com makes a commendable case that as the NBA’s second-smallest market, it only makes sense that Oklahoma City consider the long-term balance sheet of the franchise when it comes to maybe trimming The Beard from the payroll:
It would be difficult for Oklahoma City to find a reasonable approximation of Harden’s versatile talents on the trade market, especially next season, when Harden will “only” make $5.8 million — a salary that makes it difficult to bring back a top talent under the league’s salary-matching rules.
But there’s an argument to be made that Harden’s skills overlap closely enough with those of Durant and Westbrook to make a trade for the right sort of package, even in the short-term. Step back, and you can see that package taking form: Some cheaper shooting, with perhaps a dash of ball-handling creativity, and multiple high draft picks. Forget the future for a second: Is it possible the Thunder might be able to maintain their current status as (at least) Western Conference co-favorites in 2012-13 if they got that kind of package? What if Eric Maynor, forgotten after a season-ending knee injury, emerges by the trade deadline as the league’s best back-up point guard — a player with the combination of shooting and pick-and-roll creativity required to fill Harden’s role as the second-unit quarterback? And what if Perry Jones, the Thunder’s first-round draft pick, comes into his own as a second-unit force?
And what if Harden simply gets it in his head that, for all the fun he’s had with his young playmates in OKC, it is simply time to collect his deserved max contact payday and go off to be a big dog in a bigger city?
While so much of the focus has been on the Thunder’s side of the equation, the insightful Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman notes that, a few weekend snapshots from his All-White Yacht Party aside, the most fun Harden has experienced came from his bonds with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the gang.
“This is something special here,” he said a few days after that Finals loss. “A dynasty could be, is being built here. We’re winning, we’re having fun, and we’re brothers.
“The other stuff, you can’t buy.”
Harden can certainly justify maximizing his earning potential and making the most money that he can while he can. But he has to remember that fundamental reason that every athlete steps onto the court or the playing field in the first place — to compete and to win. And that is exactly what the core group of Thunder players has learned to do together over the past handful of seasons.
He could cash a bigger paycheck, indeed, over four years and spend the rest of his career trying to recapture that elusive chemistry, that spark, that sheer joy.
OKC’s management can understandably want to keep an eye on the bottom line because the team, after all, is a business. Yet the uniqueness of pro sports is that they are more than a business. They are ties that bind a community and can give it an identity that cannot be bought. So there times that require looking beyond the balance sheet to a moment in time of sheer excitement and possibility.
This is one of those times and OKC is that place right here, right now, for Harden and for the Thunder.
Save the numbers and the cold analytics for another day. Some things just make a lot more sense than dollars.