HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This isn’t about scare tactics or some sort of negotiating ploy on the part of the Thunder or anyone else.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s quandary regarding reigning Kia Sixth Man of the Year James Harden is real. They have to figure out how to keep him in the fold when he’s set to cash in with a new contract while the franchise is already somewhat strapped due to big deals it handed out to its other young stars (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka).
The luxury tax is a very real factor for some teams. If you paid attention during the first five minutes of Junior Achievement in middle school, you’d know that the numbers simply do not add up in favor of the team trying to keep a handful of young stars in their primes with generous contracts. The Thunder — a proud, small-market titan — happen to be one of those teams.
And there is a growing concern in Oklahoma City that Harden could end up being a casualty of the financial dilemma the Thunder will face at the end of the 2012-13 season. Thunder general manager Sam Presti addressed the topic Monday, courtesy of Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman:
So, what about Harden?
“James is somebody we value,” Presti said Monday afternoon. “We think he’s an important part to what we’re trying to do with our team and we’re hopeful that he’ll be with us.”
No doubt about that. Harden is super talented, a rare combination of shooter, slasher and distributor. His offensive skills provide an amazing complement to those of Durant and Westbrook.
“By the same token, we’ve been very upfront and transparent with everybody that we have some inherent challenges that we face as an organization as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement,” the Thunder general manager continued. “I know we’d love to have him here. I think James would like to be here as well. But at the end of the day … you have to find a way to make it work for everybody.”
Notice those qualifiers in there?
By the same token?
You don’t have to read far between the lines to realize the reality: Striking a deal with Harden is going to be like walking uphill on an icy sidewalk.
Darn near impossible.
The word “impossible” alone stirs the sort of fear that isn’t a part of this equation right now. There is plenty of time for the Thunder to work out an extension with Harden before the Oct. 31 deadline. If not, Harden becomes a restricted free agent and goes into the mix next summer. You just know if that happens some team will throw a huge offer at him and dare the Thunder to match it, knowing full well the luxury-tax ramifications that could hamper OKC going forward.
If a sacrifice must be made, the sort of hard choice that can alter the fate of a franchise, Presti is one general manager prepared to enter into that realm of the business as well.
As Carlson points out, there’s a blueprint for operating this way, one that Presti learned from his mentors in San Antonio:
In 2003, Stephen Jackson became a darling in San Antonio. He endeared himself to Spurs fans by making big shot after big shot in the playoffs, capped with several 3-pointers down the stretch in the championship-clinching game of the Finals.
With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili already on the roster, the Spurs offered Jackson a three-year, $10 million deal after the season.
What the Spurs did was not popular, but because they are a small-market franchise, they have made a commitment to be frugal about finances. That’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to maintain success over several decades. Short-term sacrifices (and PR hits) for long-term stability.
You’d better believe Presti will do the same with the Thunder.
That reality might be starting to dawn on Thunder fans, but Monday afternoon, it seemed to have already set in with those close to the situation. As soon as the subject of Harden’s contract arose, Ibaka and Thunder coach Scott Brooks went completely and totally stone faced.
Thunder fans everywhere will be stone-faced every time Harden’s name comes up between now and Oct. 31. Until there is a resolution to this issue, what else is there?