Why the OKC Thunder need to sign James Harden to an extension

We all know the situation the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden are in right now. The Thunder have until Oct. 31 to sign Harden to an extension otherwise he will become a restricted free agent after the season allowing the rest of the league to determine his value.

Harden will undoubtedly receive a max offer sheet just like the one Eric Gordon got this past summer of 4-years, $58 million. That’s a little more than the Thunder would like to pay Harden especially under the new CBA, which taxes teams who exceed the salary cap more than ever before.

The Thunder – being in a small market – don’t exactly have the funds that a Los Angeles or New York team would to keep Harden. They don’t have the same TV deal which is often pointed at as an example of how money is tighter in a small market.

But teams from small markets have paid the luxury tax before. Sacramento, Minnesota, Cleveland and San Antonio (the model for OKC) all have in the last decade. So it’s not inconceivable that OKC would also. GM Sam Presti has never come out and said the Thunder would never pay the tax, but he has been realistic with the situations basically saying that it is not going to be easy to keep Harden especially under the new CBA.

So what is the real dilemma here? Is it worth it for OKC to pay Harden a max salary and the harsh taxes on top of that to keep this core together and probably compete for a title for the next 5-6 years? Or should they let him walk to save money and make themselves a little more flexible down the road in constructing their roster?

There are some other options too like trading Harden at the deadline this season or a sign-and-trade in the summer.

Thunder fans remember the day before the 2012 NBA Draft, Harden’s name came up in trade talks. The Charlotte Bobcats were interested in him and dangled their No. 2 overall pick (Bradley Beal if the Thunder made the trade) in front of the Thunder. OKC turned it down and apparently without hesitation.

There was no reason for the Thunder to make that trade then. But a similar deal could make sense for them next year around the time of the draft.

What doesn’t make sense is the Thunder trading Harden at the deadline this year. What also doesn’t make sense is the Thunder not matching an offer sheet Harden signs with Dallas, Phoenix or Houston next summer and letting him walk for nothing.

The Thunder need to see this core’s potential play out a little longer and that’s why we absolutely should not see Harden wearing anything other than a Thunder uniform before 2014-15.

Harden played in just his third season last year and is now just 23 years old. It was a breakout year for him in which he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award and was one of the most efficient players in the league, finishing second in the league in true shooting percentage behind only Tyson Chandler.

Harden is considered by many to already be a top five shooting guard in this league. Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade deserve to be called the best at the shooting guard position but Harden is right there behind them at No. 3 and on the rise while they are declining.

We don’t know how much better Harden will get. He’s still young enough that there is a lot of unknown out there with him. It’s easy to see him as a Manu Ginobili-type for the rest of his career, especially if he stays in OKC coming off the bench. But he has even more star potential. Look at what Wade became at the age of 23 and 24. He became an NBA Finals MVP. That kind of talent jump is still possible for Harden and that is a huge reason why the Thunder can’t let him leave before finding out a little more about what he will become.

It is becoming underappreciated as well just how special the Thunder Big 3 is. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden put together a remarkable season last year. According to Neil Paine of Basketball Reference, that Thunder trio last season was the fifth best of all-time. Better than any season Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had or Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor back in 1969.

No other team in the league has even close to what the Thunder have in that trio being able to create and score off the dribble. No one else has three players that elite. Usually when a team has three or more players playing that style, something doesn’t work out well and they can’t coexist. The Thunder hit the lottery finding this trio with Durant (the best scorer/shooter on the planet), Westbrook (the best athlete in the league) and Harden (the perfect player to compliment both).

It’s something that the league really hasn’t ever seen before. Think about that. How can the Thunder throw away a chance at what this trio could accomplish?

The Thunder need to extend Harden at whatever price is necessary. They need to see what he will become over the next two seasons at least and what this trio will become too. It will come at a price and some luxury tax payments in 2013-14 but if that becomes too tough to deal with, then the Thunder can make a trade to get back under the cap.

Maybe we see Harden hit a wall this season and the next and stop improving. Maybe we find out Harden and Durant for the long-term is a better idea than Westbrook and Durant and OKC trades Westbrook.

When you think about it this way, it’s impossible to think of a reason why the Thunder would not hang on to Harden at least a little longer. You give yourself options by keeping Harden, many more than you’d have by letting him walk or trading him too soon.

Maybe the Thunder are already thinking this. Maybe they know that at the end of the day, they will do whatever it takes to keep Harden. Maybe Harden is planning to take a little less money before Oct. 31 to stay with the Thunder.

The Thunder are just too close to a title to not let this team play out a little longer. These guys are too young and the potential of this team is off the charts. This is why you buy an NBA team. This is worth a year or two of paying the luxury tax.

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