The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a unique situation. They have four players that are potentially worthy of max-deals but they are in a small market which will make it very tough to keep all four.
The Thunder locked up the third player when they signed Serge Ibaka to a 4-year, $48 million extension a week ago. Kevin Durant signed a 5-year, $86 million contract extension two years ago and Russell Westbrook signed a 5-year, $80 million extension last January.
That leaves James Harden.
Keeping their core of Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka was never going to be easy for Oklahoma City but it is possible. By all accounts, GM Sam Presti and the Thunder organization plan to reach an agreement with Harden on an extension as soon as possible to keep the reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner.
Would it make more sense for the Thunder to trade Harden though?
This is something that has been brought up a number of times. Right before the 2012 NBA Draft, there were rumors that Presti might have been interested in dealing Harden to Charlotte for the No. 2 overall pick so he could draft Bradley Beal.
Now SI’s Zach Lowe has analyzed why the Thunder should consider trading Harden. He suggests potential deals that could land them the likes of J.J. Redick, Kevin Martin or Anderson Varejao and draft picks by trading Harden this season.
None of those deals sound very appetizing for Thunder fans. Trading Harden next season makes the least amount of sense of anything. The only way to rationalize doing so would be if Harden came out and said he wanted to become a free agent next summer and the Thunder were not prepared to match an offer and thus wanted to get something in return for him.
If the Thunder extend Harden, they could still end up trading him in the future, or Ibaka or Westbrook for that matter. That’s what the Thunder want to do. They want to let the potential of this core play out for the next 2-4 seasons and see how much they can win. After that period, they will have a better idea of who to keep.
Right now we know that the Big 3 of Durant-Westbrook-Harden is already producing at an all-time level. You can’t break that up just yet even if it’s something that might not evolve perfectly into winning titles.
You can’t part ways with Ibaka yet either because of the immense potential he has shown already at just 22 years of age. Ibaka is quite possibly more of a rare talent than Harden too as someone who can already protect the rim at an elite level.
Maybe after two or three years, it will become clear that Westbrook is the one that needs to go and there will be a deal out there for him that will make sense for the Thunder. There has been plenty of chatter about this since team’s don’t often win championships with a point guard playing the style that Westbrook does.
The point is, now is not the time to be trading Harden or any of their core four. They were so close to winning a title last season and need to give it another run or two. By extending Harden and Ibaka and paying some luxury tax in a year or two, they will be buying themselves more time to make the right decision down the road.
And they will have to make a decision down the road. Beyond 2015-16, the Thunder will not be able to keep all four of these guys. That’s when Durant’s contract is up and the Thunder will want to be in perfect position to offer Durant the most money possible without paying too much of the luxury tax. That means a year earlier the Thunder will probably want to get under the tax threshold and to do that, they will have to part ways with Harden, Ibaka or Westbrook.
So let’s say the Thunder reach an agreement with Harden before next season for something like 4-years, $52 million. That will mean that the Thunder will almost definitely be in the luxury tax in 2013-14 even if they amnesty Kendrick Perkins that season, which they will probably have to do at least to limit the luxury tax penalties.
The Thunder would probably be willing to pay the tax in 2013-14 and 2014-15 but will want to get under it after that, since the penalties are harsher for repeat offenders. That gives the Thunder three more years to try and win a title with their core four before deciding which one they want to part ways with after that. Then we can start talking about trades.